Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Gaza: A decade of collective punishment

Ahmed Al-Sayed takes stock of the devastating humanitarian and economic consequences of Israel’s 10-year-old siege on Gaza

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Ten years have passed since Israel put the 365-square-kilometre Gaza Strip under siege. Nearly two million Palestinians have suffered in this narrow coastal stretch of land on the Mediterranean Sea from catastrophic and tragic economic and humanitarian conditions, according to local and international reports.

Israel imposed a strict sea, land and air blockade on the Gaza Strip, which it describes as a “hostile entity”, after Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006. It tightened its siege once Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, after it defeated its rival Fatah in a struggle for power. The siege continues despite the formation of a Palestinian unity government on 2 June 2014.

Palestinian politicians and human rights activists, as well as UN organisations, assert that Israel’s siege of Gaza is a “war crime” and that it undermines the fundamentals of life in the Strip, causing the deterioration of all necessary basic services for residents, including electricity, water, health care, education, environment and sewage.

Gamal Al-Khodari, chairman of the Popular Committee Against the Siege, describes the blockade as an illegal and immoral collective punishment that constitutes a war crime. Its continuation is a crime punishable under international law, said Al-Khodari.

“The impact of the siege is catastrophic and horrific on the humanitarian, economic, health, environmental, educational and social levels,” added Al-Khodari, an independent MP in the Palestinian parliament.

During a decade under siege, the population of the Gaza Strip grew by about 500,000, adding to existing needs for education, health care, housing and infrastructure. Matters were made worse by Israel launching three wars against Gaza during this period, destroying already dilapidated infrastructure.

Israeli occupation forces prevent the passage of about 400 commodities — mostly raw material needed for industry in the Gaza Strip — by listing them on the banned list under the pretext that they have “dual use”. “This resulted in the partial or complete shutdown of 80 per cent of factories, halted the economy, and made thousands of workers jobless,” said Al-Khodari.

As an occupying power, Israel is required by international law to facilitate the transport of goods and freedom of movement of individuals from and to the Gaza Strip.

There are six border crossings on the Gaza Strip’s circumference that are under Israeli control: Al-Mantar, east of Gaza City; Beit Hanoun, in the north; Al-Ouda, east of Rafah; Al-Shijia, east of Gaza City; Karem Abu Salem, east of Rafah; and Qarara, east of Khan Younis.

After Israel imposed the siege, it shut down four commercial crossings and kept Beit Hanoun (Erez) open for residents to travel between the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Israel. Karem Abu Salem is the only crossing point through which commodities and fuel reach Gaza. The border crossing, which the occupation closes on Fridays, Saturdays and during Jewish holidays, provides about 40 per cent of Gaza’s needs in terms of consumer goods, especially food and clothes.

Occupation forces have complete control of Beit Hanoun crossing in northern Gaza, which is the only exit point for residents to go to the West Bank, occupied Jerusalem and the 1948 territories. These restrictions have denied around two million people their right to travel.

According to human rights groups, occupation forces prevent Palestinians from normal passage through the crossing, allowing only limited numbers, such as the sick, journalists, merchants and staff in international organisations, to travel under strict measures.

These include long hours of waiting, thorough and sometimes rough interrogation, blackmail and arrests by occupation intelligence agencies of travellers. Israel has also restricted the age of companions of patients who are referred from Gaza hospitals to hospitals in Israel or the West Bank to those over 55 years.

At the end of their meeting on 18 January 2016, EU foreign ministers called on all parties to take immediate steps to make fundamental changes in political, security and economic conditions in the Gaza Strip. “This includes ending closures and opening all crossings, while keeping in mind Israel’s legitimate security concerns,” they said.

The health-care sector was impacted by Israel’s harsh restrictions on the movement of patients and their companions, the entry of medicine, medical supplies and spare parts for hospital equipment in the Gaza Strip, which is a flagrant breach of international law and the Geneva Conventions.

Ashraf Al-Qodra, spokesman for the Health Ministry in Gaza, which is run by Hamas, said that Israel methodically targeted health-care services that are protected by international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention, bombing dozens of hospitals, clinics and ambulances, and killing and injuring dozens of medical staff while in the field.

“Israel denies patients in Gaza hundreds of types of medicine and basic medical supplies that has sometimes resulted in a 50 per cent shortage,” said Al-Qodra. “It also prevents them from continuing their treatment and surgeries in the West Bank and 1948 territories. It has converted crossing points into vaults for interrogation, blackmail, bartering and arrest of patients and their companions.”

During the decade-long siege, Israel went to war against the Gaza Strip three times. First in Operation Cast Lead (27 December 2008-17 January 2009), which killed 1,400 Palestinians and injured 5,000 others. Second was Operation Pillar of Defence, which lasted for eight days (14-21 November 2012), killing 160 Palestinians and injuring hundreds.

Lastly, and the most violent, was Operation Protective Edge, which lasted for 51 days and killed 2,200 Palestinians and injured another 11,000. It also destroyed thousands of homes and civilian infrastructure that was already fragile because of the siege.

Ramy Abdu, director of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, said that Israel’s wars on Gaza destroyed basic infrastructure and compounded humanitarian conditions, as well as left thousands dead, injured or mentally unstable.

“Gaza not only suffers from food and medical shortages, but also a crisis of human dignity. The people’s ability to adapt to the siege is eroding as time passes,” said Abdu, who lives in Gaza City. “There is a general sense of despair and frustration that conditions will not improve anytime soon.” He added that more than 50 per cent of Palestinian children need psychological care, while 55 per cent of Gazans suffer from depression.

The Palestinian human rights activist urged the international community to shoulder its responsibility, heed the danger signs that warn of the collapse of all sectors in the Gaza Strip, and end its silence about the Israeli occupation.

A survey issued by Euro-Med Monitor last week revealed that 40 per cent of the 1.95 million Gazans live below the poverty line, and 80 per cent receive food aid. The survey also revealed that 922,000 refugees in Gaza need assistance, and there is an urgent need for health care, housing, education, basic protection and security. The survey found that six out of 10 families lack food security, with 27 per cent suffering a severe lack and 16 per cent a medium lack.

Regarding basic services, the survey stated that humanitarian conditions are worsening because of a serious fuel crisis that has resulted in almost permanent power outages, which impacts daily lives and obstructs basic services. Power outages stretch from 12 to 16 hours every day.

The survey also revealed that Gazans suffer from water shortages, with expectations that subterranean water problems will be compounded. Some 40 per cent of residents have four to eight hours of water supply every three days because of continuous power outages. Meanwhile, 90-95 per cent of the water is undrinkable, and 90,000 cubic metres of untreated sewage water pours into the Mediterranean every day.

Hospitals operate at less than 40 per cent of capacity, and some surgeries at Al-Shifa Hospital — one of the largest and oldest working hospitals in Gaza — are postponed up to 18 months. Also, most patients do not receive proper health care because of depleted resources.

The siege has greatly impacted the economy over the past decade. GDP was slashed by half, and imports dropped to less than four per cent compared to before the siege. The Gaza Strip has a shortage of 100,000 housing units and the industrial sector has shrunk by 60 per cent. Individual income has dropped by 32 per cent compared to 1994.

Meanwhile, unemployment has skyrocketed after occupation forces targeted the private sector — the top employer in the Gaza Strip. Preventing Gazan labour from entering Israel has further compounded the tragedy. Many reports indicate that unemployment rates in Gaza are the highest worldwide, at 43 per cent (including 63 per cent among females and 37 per cent among males), and at 62 per cent among youth.

Meanwhile, occupation forces continue to impose a strangling siege by sea. All maritime activities for Palestinians have stopped, especially for fishermen who are only allowed to sail within six nautical miles of the shore. If they go further, they are either shot at or arrested.

According to Mezan Human Rights Centre, the occupation prevents fishermen from fishing in 85 per cent of the areas allowed in the 1993 Oslo Accords. Fishermen are also often fired upon, killed, injured, arrested and humiliated by being forced to take off their clothes and swim in the sea, verbally abused, and their fishing equipment and property destroyed, as well as their boats confiscated.

The Gaza-based centre highlighted the suffering of Palestinian fishermen under siege and the limitations on the areas they are allowed to fish since 9 October 2000. They were first prevented from sailing beyond 20 nautical miles, as stipulated in the Oslo Accords, which shrank to 12 nautical miles, then six, and often drops to only three nautical miles.

The annual report by the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD), issued in early September 2015, revealed that Israel’s siege “has damaged the already fragile infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, destroyed its production base, and did not allow real reconstruction or economic recovery. It has also impoverished Palestinian residents in Gaza.”

The UNCTAD report reviewed life in the Gaza Strip and said that the blockade and Israel’s military operations there in recent years have led many social and economic indicators in Gaza to drop to their lowest levels since Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories began nearly half a century ago.

The report warned that within five years, the Gaza Strip could become uninhabitable if current conditions continue. It also underlined the fact that many Gazans suffer from food insecurity, shortages in housing, potable water and electricity.

“The social, health and security impact of high population density and overcrowding are factors that may make Gaza uninhabitable by 2020,” the report stated. It also described economic output and unemployment rates in Gaza as “deplorable”, which worsens living conditions.

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