Turning the screws
Israeli justice condones collective punishment, reports Marian Houk
Immediately after the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected a petition on 3 January from a group of 10 Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations asking for an injunction to stop the state-ordered second round of deep fuel cuts to Gaza, the petitioners submitted an urgent request for a new injunction.
Their new request for court intervention concerns the continuing shortfall in delivery of industrial diesel fuel that is used to operate the main Gaza Power Plant, according to Sari Bashi, the executive director of GISHA, which has taken a leading role in the case.
The Gaza Power Plant currently supplies about one-third of Gaza's electricity. Before the June 2006 Israeli air strike, which destroyed all six of the plant's transformers, the power plant was able to provide nearly two-thirds of Gaza's electrical supply.
It took months of reconstruction work -- and negotiation with various Israeli government officials -- to get the materials needed. Despite all these efforts, only half of the plant's pre- strike capacity was restored.
The human rights organisations who went to the Israeli High Court had been informed that a second round of fuel cuts -- Phase II -- was scheduled to start on 30 December, with a military-ordered reduction of some 35-43 per cent (depending on what numbers are used as the baseline) in the amount of gasoline that would now be supplied to the Gaza Strip.
It became clear, Bashi said, that the Phase II measures had actually been in effect during the previous week, though they have not been applied exactly, as the state informed the court.
The Jerusalem Post reported after the court ruling that only 230,000 litres of gasoline, used mainly by automobiles, will now be delivered per week to Gaza.
But monitoring of actual amounts delivered last week shows that the cuts in gasoline have been deeper than predicted -- instead of 230,000 litres, more like 190,000 to 200,000 litres were actually supplied.
The Phase II fuel cuts ordered by the Israeli Defence Ministry were also supposed to include a temporary restoration to pre-cut levels in the amounts of diesel fuel that will be allowed into Gaza.
Diesel supplies are used to run Gaza's main power plant and all back-up and emergency generators, which are a vitally-needed back-up source of power for essential services during the frequent random power outages in Gaza. Many public institutions and certain hospital services are also dependent on diesel fuel, including the laundry and sanitation services at Gaza City's Ash- Shifa Hospital. Some automobiles and other vehicles also use diesel fuel.
The state told the Israeli High Court that "everything's fine" in Gaza, Bashi said. The court said that it was dismissing the petitioners' request after recording the state's commitment to avoid a humanitarian crisis there, as well as the state's assurance that it is possible to distribute selectively the reduced quantities of vital supplies that will now be allowed into the sealed-off and virtually isolated coastal strip.
The Jerusalem Post reported after the court decision that "the state announced that in accordance with a humanitarian survey it had conducted, it would renew the supply of diesel fuel to the level that preceded the cutbacks." But GISHA and the other petitioners maintain that the Israeli government has no means to actually monitor or verify the humanitarian situation inside Gaza.
GISHA's Bashi said earlier that after the Phase I fuel cuts were ordered, diesel supplies were reduced from 1.4 million litres per week to 1.2 million litres. Industrial diesel supplies were reduced from 2.2 million litres per week to 1.75 million litres.
But monitoring information shows that while regular diesel supplies are reportedly back up to pre-cut levels, industrial diesel supplies delivered last week were still only at Phase I level (1.75 million litres), which means Gaza's main power plant is now in trouble.
As a result of the Phase I fuel cuts, the Gaza Power Plant has now used up all its fuel reserves. Rafiq Maliha, deputy director of the Gaza Power and Generating Company, confirmed by phone in Gaza that as of Saturday the fuel reserves had reached "a red line" and were virtually zero, and that a drastic new cutback has already been in effect for the past 24 hours: "Yesterday, starting at 2pm, we reduced our production by 30-35 per cent due to lack of fuel."
This means that there will be eight hours of no electricity services per day for everyone in Gaza "if you have an ideal situation." If there are further breakdowns, the situation will only worsen.
Maliha said, "we have been asked to manage without stopping either one of the two turbines now in operation." If both turbines are shut down, the Gaza Power Plant's production would then be reduced by 50 per cent.
So, they are trying to preserve the two turbines now in operation, Maliha explained, by "asking the distribution company to reduce the loads." But this "must be done manually, and the process is not easy," Maliha said. "And we don't have the capacity to monitor the situation to know if this is working."
Maliha is now affiliated with the GISHA-led effort to block the Israeli military's cuts through the Israeli High Court. In an affidavit supplied to the court, Maliha said that only about 45 MW of electricity are now being generated, instead of approximately 65 MW.
This will only increase the difficulties in Gaza, where technicians and engineers have been rolling black- outs and brown-outs to handle an overall 20 per cent deficit in electrical supplies since the partial restoration of the destroyed Gaza Power Plant. Fears are that the electricity deficit could become unmanageable.
A decision on additional military- ordered electricity cuts to Gaza is still pending, and the court has now set a 3 February hearing date.
GISHA says that Gaza is not an enemy state, despite its designation as such by the Israeli government on 19 September, in response to continuing rocket attacks on Israeli territory in the western Negev; rather, it is an occupied territory. And, Bashi says, all these cuts "are completely illegal."
Though the state and the court seem to believe that cutting gasoline that is used mainly to run automobiles seems non-life-threatening, Bashi begs to disagree: "Health care workers can't use their cars now, for example, because there's not enough gas. This doesn't enhance Israeli security. It only further endangers 1.5 million people who are being pushed to the brink."
Israeli lawyers and human rights organisations are increasingly lamenting the lack of support for Palestinian rights in the Israeli court system. Miri Weingarten, the coordinator of projects in the Occupied Palestinian Territory for the Israeli-based Physicians for Human Rights, said in an interview with Ramallah-based RAMFM radio (South African owned, also operating in Israel), that her organisation's rate of success in court has been going down rapidly: "Unfortunately, the Israeli High Court of Justice takes the side of state policy," Weingarten said.
Weingarten added, "Israel intends and wishes to punish the general population in Gaza, and they're not hiding it -- in fact, they've stated it clearly." Physicians for Human Rights has been trying to help very ill patients in Gaza who need to leave for medical treatment outside, whether in the West Bank, Jordan, Israel or elsewhere in the world. But, since Hamas ousted Fatah security forces in the middle of June last year, she said, the difficulties have been immense.
Earlier on the same radio programme, Dr Ahmed Abu Tawahineh, deputy director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, said that since last June, only a hundred patients have been allowed out of Gaza to seek treatment -- less than 10 per cent of the more than 1,000 applicants.
What happens, Weingarten explained, is that "patients who meet difficulties call us. We send their papers to our volunteer doctors, who then try to intervene with the security at Erez crossing. If the requests are denied and security reasons are given then we go to the High Court of Justice. Unfortunately, the situation of the patients deteriorates in the meantime, and there have been deaths."
"We had 133 patients applying to us after mid-June," Weingarten said, "but the most have had no response at all and so we could not even make an appeal to the court." Of this number, she said, only five got permits directly, and another seven got permits after court intervention.
But, she said, "sometimes the claim of security concerns looks ridiculous. We've had patients who were unconscious, blind, deaf, or dying of cancer, who were called security risks."
There have been new policies in place since September, when Gaza was designated an enemy territory or hostile entity, Weingarten noted. One is that even life-threatening cases are not allowed to pass, and the second is that the Israeli General Security Services, or Shabak, have called patients to underground rooms at Erez crossing and asked to provide information on other people, or be refused permits. "This form of medical blackmail is to be condemned. In fact, we believe it is torture to deliberately withhold medical care for non-medical reasons," Weingarten said.
"Only pressure can now change this policy of the total isolation of Gaza," Weingarten said.
Physicians for Human Rights was in court last week with a list of some 17 cases, and "all of these cases were extremely urgent and life-threatening." But the state said that there were too many to discuss all together, and asked us to choose the most urgent. We replied we could not make this selection." One can only compare this to Nazi practices in concentration camps during World War II.