Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 November 2007
Issue No. 869
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

As the world forgets Gaza

Hyper-inflation and 80 per cent unemployment are the real target outcomes of Israel's siege on Gaza, writes Saleh Al-Naami

Click to view caption
Palestinian workers demonstrate in Gaza against the increased cost of living

It was an emotional scene. Relief was apparent on the faces of Mohamed Al-Masri and his wife Rania as they followed the nurse transferring their firstborn, 12-year-old Ahmed, from the operating room in Dar Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza. The medical team had finally been able to perform surgery in Ahmed's ear to recover his hearing after Israel had temporarily barred the import of nitrous oxide, which is used as anaesthesia and is necessary for surgery to be performed. Israel had given permission to import this vital gas to Gaza Strip hospitals only the day prior to Ahmed's operation last week.

The suspension on imports of nitrous oxide to Gaza Strip hospitals had forced their administrations to close down surgery departments and halt operations, except for those absolutely vital. Following resumption of the importation of this gas, medical crews worked additional hours to perform surgeries that had been delayed due to its shortage. Yet Bassem Naim, health minister in Ismail Haniyeh's dismissed government, says that the danger of Israel barring imports of nitrous oxide again remains. "There is a possibility of a health disaster occurring here anew, with patients dying because our hospitals are unable to conduct surgeries," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "There is a need for international intervention to prevent this catastrophe from happening."

Naim adds that the crisis the health sector is undergoing in the Gaza Strip is not limited to the possibility of nitrous oxide running out. It extends, rather, to the depletion of a number of medicines used in the treatment of patients with chronic illnesses. According to Naim, around 30-50 types of medicines have almost entirely run out. Perhaps the most important of these are medicines used by cardiac patients. Mariam Aliyan, 45, works in a civil institution in Rafah, the most southern point of Gaza, and was forced to take a month's vacation in fear that her health condition might worsen. Mariam has heart disease, and although her health condition is currently stable, her family members did not want her to risk deteriorating due to exhaustion and work while her heart medicine is depleted. This meant that she had to stay in hospital.

Cardiology departments in Gaza Strip hospitals have begun to only accept cardiac patients who suffer badly from the medicine shortage and the lack of appropriate equipment. Mazen Al-Tatar, head of the cardiology department in Dar Al-Shifa Hospital -- the Strip's largest, located in Gaza City -- says that the Israeli siege has had an incredibly negative effect on cardiac patients because it has caused a severe shortage in many vital medicines that are difficult to obtain. He suggests that the siege has also affected medical equipment that has become unusable. The cardiology department that he heads, for example, has five monitoring devices, all of which are dysfunctional since they have been in use for over 17 years. Under normal conditions, he explains, they would be put out of use following a much shorter length of time.

One of the glaring signs that health conditions in the Gaza Strip have severely deteriorated is the fact that Al-Wafa Medical Hospital, which specialises in the rehabilitation of patients with movement impairments, has halted most of its rehabilitation programmes. According to a statement issued by the hospital, the siege, including closure of commercial crossings, has "contributed significantly to obstructing and precluding a number of health programmes that serve the injured and disabled. It has also prevented necessary medicines and medical supplies from reaching hospitals, and barred patients from travelling abroad for treatment." As well as focussing on mobility, Al-Wafa Medical Hospital is the only hospital in Gaza that is specialised in cognition impairment resulting from accidents, neural conditions, and injuries incurred as a result of occupation army operations conducted in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The siege and the shrinkage of commercial transactions between Gaza and the outside world have also led to a sharp rise in the prices of foodstuffs. By way of example, the price of a bag of flour has risen 80 per cent; because of the 680,000 tonnes the Gaza Strip needs daily only 90 tonnes are permitted to enter. Similarly, the price of sugar has risen 60 per cent, in addition to various increases in the prices of other staple foodstuffs. Palestinians in Gaza cannot even dream of some other products, such as soft drinks, which are no longer imported. And the cost of tobacco has risen drastically, its price increasing by 150 per cent.

As for building materials, their prices have risen astronomically after Israel has barred their import. A bag of cement, for example, has increased in price 10-fold. In practical terms, this lack of building materials due to the siege has exacerbated the unemployment problem to an unprecedented level. Unemployment has risen to over 80 per cent of the labour force, and it is no longer possible to practise many of the professions that depend on the existence of building materials. As for industry, it has also halted due to the lack of raw materials.

Yet the worst for Palestinians in Gaza is yet to come. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has approved a series of collective punishments, ostensibly to force Palestinian resistance movements to stop firing homemade missiles on Israeli settlements surrounding the Strip. Israeli Deputy Minister of Defence Matan Vilnai, who headed the security committee that recommended the imposition of collective punishment, told Israeli television Channel One last Friday that this internationally outlawed form of state behaviour is a "legitimate means of placing pressure on Palestinian civilians to move against the factions that are targeting Israel." The Israeli government has approved the Vilnai recommendations, meaning that the humanitarian situation in Gaza will again and imminently be purposely worsened by Israel.

Among the collective punishments the Israeli government has approved is a clause related to reducing the electricity supply into Gaza. This means that swathes of Gaza will be plunged into darkness with the onset of winter. The Israeli government has also decided to reduce the quantity of fuel that the Palestinian electricity generation station in central Gaza is allowed to import. According to statistics issued by the Popular Committee for Resisting the Siege (PCRS), cutting electricity will have a negative impact on water pumping stations, which means that water to homes will also be cut off for numerous hours every day. The quantity of fuel used for transportation and gas allocations for home use will also be limited. Wide sectors of the Palestinian population in Gaza are in a state of alarm, and gas distribution centres are extremely crowded with people filling gas canisters in expectation of supplies being cut off.

Also among the collective sanctions approved by the Israeli government is the imposition of major restrictions on the movement of Palestinian citizens to and from the Gaza Strip.

Representative Jamal Al-Khadri, who heads the PCRS, considers the Israeli sanctions as "violating the most basic of human rights and international conventions that allow humans to live in freedom and dignity." He told the Weekly that, "these measures will increase the suffering of the Palestinian people, and especially the ill and children. It will have negative ramifications on all fronts." Al-Khadri stressed that punishment of the Gaza Strip "would not contribute to the stability of the region or life in peace and security, and will increase suffering and aggravate the situation."

Israeli journalists Avi Yesiskrof and Amos Heril have referenced top Israeli army leaders as saying that they recommended the imposition of collective punishment even while realising that this will not contribute to moving Palestinians to place pressure on the resistance to stop firing on Israeli settlements. The two journalists have pointed out that the collective punishment plan is aimed to prepare public opinion for a large-scale and lengthy military operation that Israel intends to conduct in Gaza. They also seek to convince the residents of Siderot settlement, which has been the target of most Palestinian resistance fire, that the Israeli army is doing everything that it can to protect them.

Israeli writer and political analyst Uzi Benziman published an article in Haaretz newspaper stating that in addition to the fact that such punishments are unethical, they will certainly reap the opposite results, widening the circle of hatred for Israel among Palestinians and increasing the recruitment of young Palestinians to resistance activities. Benziman asserts that experience has shown that collective punishments imposed by Israel upon Palestinians have failed. "On the contrary, this approach has increased the motivation of Palestinian organisations to strike at Israel and increase the number of suicide bombers who want to take revenge," he wrote in Haaretz last Sunday.

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