Home / In the Media / Guardian: Life behind the wire

Guardian: Life behind the wire

By: Chris Doyle

September 24, 2007

Imagine if, after an IRA bombing, a British prime minister declared Catholic areas in Northern Ireland to be hostile territory, and threatened to reduce or cut off goods, water, fuel and electricity supplies.

It sounds implausible but the one and a half million residents of the Gaza Strip, an area the size of the Isle of Wight, may soon face this scenario. The Palestinians of Gaza, already imprisoned, their land, air and sea borders totally closed, are now considered by Israel eligible to have their water, electricity and power cut off. Israeli officials insist that humanitarian considerations will be taken into account, though the Israeli record is not one to reassure Palestinians. These were not a concern when Israel bombed Gaza’s only power plant last summer.

This Israeli decision comes after more Qassam rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel at local communities such as Sderot and a military barracks, where 69 Israeli soldiers were wounded. Israel has a duty to protect its citizens, but are its responses legitimate, commensurate to the threat or even effective?

This is an expansion of an existing sanctions regime. One of the Israeli Prime Minister’s advisers, Dov Weissglass, chillingly described the Israeli policy a year ago: “It’s like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won’t die.”

It was no joke. Since Weissglass’s comments after the Hamas election victory in 2006, Gazans have indeed learned how to diet. The World Food Program lists it as a global hunger hotspot. Out of its 1.5 million residents, 1.1 million have to survive on food handouts. The Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, describes Gazans as being imprisoned in “an enclosed space like battery hens”.

The “moderate” Israeli vice-premier, Haim Ramon has pushed for this, describing it as cutting off the “infrastructural oxygen”. Imagine a Palestinian mother having to tell her children that there is no electricity because you are not allowed any infrastructural oxygen.

Oxygen is about the only thing that this Israeli government has not considered denying to Gazans. Israel has also stolen hundreds of millions of Palestinian tax dollars. The Israeli group, Physicians for Human Rights, reports that, since the decision was taken, 87 Palestinians in need of medical care have been denied exit from Gaza. Paper was, at one point, a commodity Israel had to ban. “Some 200,000 children will go into our classrooms on 1 September, and won’t have the books they need,” reported John Ging, the Director of Operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza in August. Perhaps the Israeli army sees paper planes as a threat?

Apologists for Israel argue that, since the removal of Israeli forces from inside Gaza in 2005, it is no longer occupied. This is far from the case, as acknowledged by the UN. Gazans are denied any sovereign control over their territory as Israel controls all entry and exit to Gaza by air, land and sea. Israel’s ability to turn on and off vital supplies at will proves the extent of its vice-like control. The prison wardens have merely redeployed from inside the prison to the perimeter. Israeli forces can enter Gaza at will.

Gazans are not sentenced criminals. They are not all supporters of Hamas or Islamic jihad. Over 50% of the population are children under the age of 16, usually running barefoot among the narrow, unpaved streets of Gaza’s horrific refugee camps.

Israel has declared “hostile” a piece of territory, even though it is responsible for its population under international law. Israel wants control without responsibility. Gazans are meant to be protected under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Last year, the then UN special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, John Dugard castigated the international community for this, saying: “In effect, the Palestinian people have been subjected to economic sanctions – the first time an occupied people has been so treated.”

Israel has sub-contracted out its humanitarian responsibilities to international donors. Israel renders Gaza aid-dependent, but expects others to pick up the tab, principally EU taxpayers.

This targets a people who have already endured 60 years of conflict. As a result of war in 1948, Gaza was swamped by 200,000 Palestinian refugees, two and half times the size of the existing population. Israel invaded in 1956 and in 1967, the start of 40-year Israeli occupation. Until 2005, Gaza was segregated to cater for the Israeli settlers who took up to 30% of Gaza’s scarce territory. The closure of Gaza started as long ago as 1991 and since then, has only been tightened. Gaza is enclosed by an electrified fence. The result is that Gaza was deliberately rendered completely dependent on Israel for everything including water, fuel and electricity. Sara Roy, the Harvard academic and a leading expert on Gaza, describes the Israeli policy towards Gaza as “de-development” that precludes “the possibility of any kind of developmental process, even a disarticulated one, by destroying the economy’s capacity to produce”.

Even before Hamas came to power, Gaza had been further brutalised. Since the start of the Intifada in 2000, the Israeli army has destroyed infrastructure including homes, schools, factories, greenhouses, and mosques. There is no Gazan economy left to smash. Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael, who recently visited the strip, likened Gaza to a “flattened moonscape”.

By treating Gaza as separate from the West Bank, the Israeli government is yet again in breach of its international commitments in Oslo and the “road map” to consider the two areas as one territorial unit, something the US is now actively encouraging. Such division makes peace a more distant prospect, mutilating the corpse of a Palestinian state.

Collective starvation is being used as a political tool of pressure. One Israeli official admitted: “It is meant to be used as leverage on the civilian population, to pressure the Hamas regime over the Qassam fire.” This is a war crime and for clear moral reasons, a cast-iron case of state terrorism, threatening an entire civilian population for political ends.

Palestinians fear that it is Gaza first, West Bank next. The latter’s 2.5m Palestinian inhabitants will be almost hermetically sealed by the Israeli barrier, due to be completed next year. Will it too be declared hostile territory and threatened with losing its remaining water, fuel and electricity?

In nearly every other context, such crimes would be slammed from every governmental and parliamentary pulpit. But the silence is as deafening as the Israeli sonic booms over Gaza. British government ministers condemn boycotts of Israel, but cannot even muster a word of condemnation of Israeli practices that actually endanger hundreds of thousands of lives. The hypocrisy is not lost on millions of Arabs and Muslims.

Gaza has become a human laboratory experiment. But will this starvation camp work? Will an entire society, brought to its knees, reject the program of one political group and kowtow to the demands of the occupier? It will fail as every Israeli attempt to subjugate the Palestinians has. Even if Gazans capitulate, if only to survive, it will be only a short-term gain. Rocket attacks will resume. Just as Israel’s bombing of Lebanon last summer failed to compel Lebanese to turn against Hizbullah, this crushing of Gaza will continue to bolster Hamas’s support as well as those who will make Hamas seem like the good guys.

There will be no security for Israel until it takes its boot off the Palestinian throat for good. A two-state solution requires a single viable sovereign Palestinian state next to Israel based on the pre-1967 lines, with Gaza and the West Bank linked, not split apart. No Israeli government, including those of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, has yet signed up to this. Increasingly, most Palestinians believe they never will.