Ignoring Gaza's humanitarian crisis

Haiti isn't the only place that needs help, but in Gaza, Israel is keeping aid away

Published January 21, 2010 4:22PM (EST)

 When a relief plane for Doctors Without Borders isn't allowed to land by U.S. military authorities at the airport in Port-au-Prince, there is an outcry.

But Israeli military authorities will not allow any relief planes at all to land in the Gaza Strip (the Israelis destroyed Gaza's airport in 2001).

We cheer when a Haitian child is rescued from the rubble, but ignore the thousands of Gazan children who are suffering malnutrition and being buried by Israeli policy, a policy that is a war crime. I am of course not the only to be struck by this contrast: see also Phil Weiss and others quoted at his essential site.

On Wednesday, 80 international aid groups called upon Israel to change its policy of blockading civilians in Gaza, because it is having severe negative effects on the health of Gazans.

Admittedly, the situation in Gaza is not as dire as that in Haiti. But it is very, very bad, and it is man-made. The Israeli government imposed a blockade on the Gaza strip in 2007 and has maintained it ever since. It limits the import of fuel and staples, and punishes the whole population. Since half of the 1.5 million Gazans are children, the Israeli siege of the little territory is among the more massive ongoing cases of child abuse in the world. There is a virtual news blackout on this atrocity in the US mass media, and attempts of two sets of activists to get humanitarian aid to Gaza in recent weeks were largely ignored by them.

Nor is the Gaza blockade a mere preoccupation of utopian human rights activists. It has become an element of regional geo-politics. It is part of the reason for significant tensions between Israel and one of its few allies in the Middle East, Turkey. As Turkey has democratized and Muslim sentiments have become more important in its politics, and as it has increasingly emerged as a new Middle Eastern power (some speak of neo-Ottomanism), its concern with issues such as Gaza has become more central. The horrible condition of the Gazans is often the lead story on Arab satellite news channels such as al-Jazeera, and public anger about it (expressed as much toward the US and the Egyptian regime as toward Israel) is at a boiling point. That anger feeds into terrorism against the West. The Gaza blockade is isolating Israel and fuelling a widespread boycott movement in Europe, Canada and South Africa. And, of course, the blockade makes even the virulently anti-Shiite Sunni fundamentalists of Hamas willing to take aid from Iran, bestowing a toehold in the Levant on Tehran. The French statesman Talleyrand once observed of Napoleon I's murder of the Duc d'Enghien, "It is worse than a crime; it is a blunder." The same could be said of the Gaza blockade from the point of view of any realistic Israeli and US foreign policy.

Last year UNICEF found that about one in ten children in Gaza is severely malnourished, to the point of stunting. The Israeli blockade is deeply implicated in this semi-starvation of tens of thousands of children, as is the Gaza War launched by Israel a little over a year ago, which wrecked nearly one-fifth of farms and deeply hurt agriculture in general. Gaza once flourished agriculturally, but it was cut off by Israel from its natural markets in the Levant, and the US and Egypt have been induced to support the blockade.

The World Health Organization fact sheet on Gaza's plight, issued yesterday, reads like a post-apocalyptic Hollywood film. WHO says:

The closure of Gaza since mid-2007 and the last Israeli military strike between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009 have led to on-going deterioration in the social, economic and environmental determinants of health.

Many specialized treatments, for example for complex heart surgery and certain types of cancer, are not available in Gaza and patients are therefore referred for treatment to hospitals outside Gaza. But many patients have had their applications for exit permits denied or delayed by the Israeli Authorities and have missed their appointments. Some have died while waiting for referral. . .

Supplies of drugs and disposables have generally been allowed into Gaza. However, there are often shortages on the ground mainly because of shortfalls in deliveries . . . Delays of up to 2-3 months occur on the importation of certain types of medical equipment, such as x-ray machines and electronic devices. Clinical staff frequently lack the medical equipment they need. Medical devices are often broken, missing spare parts or out of date. . .

Health professionals in Gaza have been cut off from the outside world. Since 2000, very few doctors, nurses or technicians have been able to leave the Strip for training eg to update their clinical skills or to learn about new medical technology. This is severely undermining their ability to provide quality health care. . . .


Rising unemployment (41.5 percent of Gaza's workforce in the first quarter of 2009) and poverty (in May 2008, 70 percent of the families were living on an income of less than one dollar a day per person) is likely to have long term adverse effects on the physical and mental health of the population [the unemployment is a direct result of the Israeli blockade]. . .

OPERATION "CAST LEAD" -- IMPACT ON HEALTH FACILITIES AND STAFF [I.e. the Israeli war on Gaza in winter 2008-2009]

- 16 health workers killed and 25 injured on duty

- Damaged health services infrastructure:
+ 15 of 27 Gaza's hospitals
+ 43 of its 110 Primary Health Care services
+ 29 of its 148 ambulances

The lack of building materials is affecting essential health facilities: the new surgical wing in Gaza?fs main Shifa hospital has remained unfinished since 2006. Hospitals and primary care facilities, damaged during Operation Cast Lead, have not been rebuilt because construction materials are not allowed into Gaza.

The UN complained that while Israel has a fair record of allowing treatment of Gazans in Israeli hospitals, and that record has improved, some 300-400 requests a month are met with substantial delays or turned down. This issue was foregrounded by a lot of the wire services who picked up the story, but it seems to me not the most important problem. The blockade is the problem.

The Israeli blockade is aimed at weakening Hamas, a fundamentalist party-militia that won power in the Palestine Authority in the elections of January 2006. (Ironically, the Israelis had supported Hamas the late 1980s in hopes of splitting the Palestinians) When the Bush administration and Israel successfully induced the Palestine Liberation Organization of Mahmoud Abbas to make a coup in the West Bank and dislodge the elected Hamas government there, Hamas managed to hang on to power in Gaza, in part because of strong public support. Hamas has committed terrorism against Israeli civilians, and launched small rockets at nearby Israeli towns. It had however made a truce with Israel in 2008, which it observed until Israel broke it, and no Israelis had been killed by Hamas rockets in the lead-up to Israel's war on the small territory.

Collectively punishing 1.5 million Gazans in order to weaken Hamas is in any case strictly illegal in international law and is a war crime. According to Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949:

Article 33. No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.

Pillage is prohibited.

Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.

Not only is today's ongoing blockade a war crime, but it follows on and continues destructive policies of the Israeli military during the Gaza War, as the Goldstone Report for the United Nations concluded. The Boston Globe reported Goldstone's defense of his findings at Brandeis University (hat tip to Mondoweiss).

Goldstone said his central criticism of Israel is that its strategy intentionally applied disproportionate force in Gaza to inflict widespread damage on the civilian population. His report found that the Israeli air and ground attacks destroyed 5,000 homes; put 200 factories out of operation, including the only flour factory in the country; systematically destroyed egg-producing chicken farms; and bombed sewage and water systems. "If that isn’t collective punishment, what is?" Goldstone asked.

Very little of this destruction deliberately visited on civilians has been repaired, in large part because the Israelis won't allow the materiel in necessary for rebuilding.

Until President Obama does something to end the Gaza siege and its attendant horrors, his Mideast policy will remain an abject failure.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author of "The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian" and "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires." His latest book (as editor) is "Peace Movements in Islam." His award-winning blog is Informed Comment.


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