Politics Trespass Humanitarian Borders in Gaza


8-12-07, 9:40 am

The major political players who are involved in sealing off 1.5 million Palestinians into an open air prison in the world’s most densely populated 360-square-kilometre area of the Gaza Strip are unmercifully trespassing humanitarian borders there; they perceive in the collapsing economy of the Mediterranean coastal strip, which is rapidly developing into a humanitarian crisis, a political “window of opportunity.” Ironically they are counterproductively citing security and peace making as their casus belli, but they are creating on the ground an explosive humanitarian disaster that could blow off the local as well as the regional security in a way that precludes any credible efforts towards reviving a deadlocked peace process, moribund since 2000. Human rights and morality as well as realpolitics are facing a critical test in the Gaza Strip, where the culprits of the tragic status quo perceive a “window of opportunity.” According to Yoram Meital, Chairperson of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies & Diplomacy at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (ynetnews.com on August 6), the first to point to this “window of opportunity” was the U.S. president, George W. Bush, who last month vaguely proposed an ambiguous public relations “international” conference on Middle East in the fall with the aim of advancing the peace process. In parallel, the Israeli prime minister suggested an “agreement of principles” for a final-status deal with the Palestinians. On August 8, Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni joined Bush’s new “vision” on the opportunity: “Gaza creates a security threat to us while the other part (West Bank) controlled by the new government (of Salam Fayyad) can create an opportunity,” she said. A flurry of diplomatic traffic followed. Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region and met with Palestinian President Mahmoud abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before they held their bimonthly meeting in Jericho, the special envoy of the Quartet of the U.S., U.N., EU and Russia Tony Blair also made a regional visit, which coincided with another historic and first of its kind by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Ahmed Aboul Ghei, and Jordan, Abdul-Ilah Khatib, to Israel to present the Arab Peace Initiative of the League of Arab States. None of these events cared to put the looming disaster in Gaza on the agenda. Ignoring the time bomb that is clicking in Gaza, their message was conveyed by way of default and contrast. Making the life of Palestinians under the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank look easier, economically promising, and diplomatically and politically in interacting contact with the civilized world is meant to be a contrast for comparison by their compatriots in the “liberated” Gaza Strip, locked in by the Israeli military siege, the economic blockade and the political and diplomatic isolation. Only an international nonviolent resistance project, “The Free Gaza Movement,” is “taking action” to alert the world public opinion to the threatening status quo in Gaza to hopefully awake to the danger simmering there and defuse the clicking time bomb. Up to 100 international volunteered Palestinian, Israeli, American, European, African and Asian rabbis, imams, Christian and Buddhist clerics, British MPs, entertainment celebrities, and internationally known journalists as well as Nakba and Holocaust survivors will sail from Cyprus to Gaza in 2 to 6 seagoing vessels of 12 to 60 passengers each, prospectively on August 15. Their declared mission is to: “1.To open Gaza to unrestricted international access, i.e. Palestinian sovereignty, 2. To demonstrate that Israel still occupies Gaza, despite its claims to the contrary, 3. To show international solidarity with the people of Gaza and the rest of Palestine, 4. To demonstrate the potential of nonviolent resistance methods.” More than 35 organizers from 13 countries have consulted Greenpeace among others for logistical support to sail safe through expected highly risky Israeli security impediments and restrictions. The Daily India, on August 4, reported that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi alias Mahatma Gandhi, the world’s spiritual leader of nonviolence and “Father of the Indian Nation,” would have headed for the Gaza Strip to fight for the freedom of Palestinians had he been alive, says his 72-year-old grandson. According to Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, the son of Devdas Gandhi, the Mahatma's youngest son, “If he (Mahatma Gandhi) was around today, my grandfather would have been in the Gaza Strip, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Palestinians.” None of the same or lesser caliber figures is even thinking of heading for Gaza, but several prominent humanitarian spokesmen and women have at least voiced their warnings against the unfolding humanitarian disaster there, including the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, his Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, the acting director of World Bank activities in the Palestinian Authority territories, Faris Hadad-Zervos, who warned of a “severe humanitarian impact,” exacerbation of “the economic crisis,” and “risk of virtually irreversible collapse” of the “pillars of Gaza’s economy.” Commissioner General of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Karen AbuZayd, warned that, “the Gaza economy will collapse” unless the crossings are “opened for exports and not just for imports.” Director of the UNRWA in Gaza, John Ging, noted that 1.1 million of Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on international aid and the impending humanitarian crisis could overwhelm U.N. resources. The United Nations has suspended vital construction projects such as homes, schools and sewage treatment in Gaza. “Some $93 million [£46 million] of projects are on hold because cement and other building supplies have run out,” said Ging. UNRWA’s construction projects employ 121,000 people in a territory where about 80 per cent of people live on $2 a day. Michael Williams, a coordinator for the UN's regional efforts, told the Security Council early this month that 75 percent of factories have closed since June. He quoted World Bank data that since June, 68,000 jobs have been lost in the teeming strip. Oxfam warned against the “increasing desperation of Gazans as shortages of fuel, water and food are reported” and that “thousands of refugees across Gaza will face imminent cuts in water and sewage services if more fuel is not provided in the coming days and weeks.” The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, in an “Urgent Appeal from Israeli Human Rights Groups to Israeli Defense Minister,” raised its alarm” “Open Gaza's Borders to Prevent a Humanitarian Crisis.” Liz Sime from CARE International said that aid programs may remain a pipe dream if the borders stay shut. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on August 3 that the vast majority of import-dependent industries have temporarily closed down and only 10 per cent of Gaza’s industries remain partially functional. “We need to see all crossings at least as operational as they were before 9 June, or risk facing serious social, economic and humanitarian concerns,” the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, warned in a press release. Israel completely controls the Gaza air space and territorial waters. The Gazan foreign trade is conducted almost solely with Israel or via Israeli ports through five border-crossing points under Israeli control (Erez, Karni, Nahal Oz, Sufa, and Kerem Shalom), closed since June 10. Gazan industry is based on enterprises ninety-five percent of which rely on the importation of raw materials. On July 26 The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) meeting in Geneva demanded that Israel comply with the Protocol on Economic Relations between the Government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Rafah crossing point with Egypt, the only outlet of Gaza to the outside world, was closed in June, stranding more than 6.000 returning Palestinians on the Egyptian side for more than two months, which resulted in the death of 31 of them; more than 90 people, many of them seriously ill, who went to Egypt for treatment, were trapped at the airport, according to a joint statement by 12 human rights organizations active in PA territories. Food shortage is another great cause for concern. UNRWA officials are anxious about running down their reserves. The World Food Programme has also been noticing growing food insecurity in Gaza. The cancellation of the Gaza customs code by Israeli authorities also meant that more than 1,300 containers of commercial materials destined for Gaza remained stranded at Israeli ports, and essential items such as milk powder, baby formula, vegetable oil and medical supplies were now in short supply. U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross on August 1st warned in the New Republic: “We cannot ignore that providing assistance to Gaza now requires someone to deal with Hamas. It need not be us, but total isolation and a cut-off could produce a humanitarian disaster. If we don't want others in the international community to feel compelled to establish normal contacts with Hamas, we need to forge an international consensus on how to deal with the realities in Gaza,” Ross wrote, adding: “There is a need to avoid a humanitarian crisis. There may be a need to permit at least some limited commerce to prevent a complete economic collapse.” However all these and other warnings are falling on deaf Israeli, American, European, Arab and even Palestinian ears. For example no word has so far been heard from the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, the Swiss Jean Ziegler, to draw attention to the hunger in Gaza. May be he is waiting for hunger to bite more or waiting for an “official” word from the Palestinian Authority (PA), or others, to act on the looming disaster, a word that politics would expectedly play a game of brinkmanship with hunger to make Gaza “scream” before the outcry is voiced out as a state of emergency, despite the “state of emergency” declared by the PA on June 14 for political reasons. The PA’s passive ambivalence seems to keep similar human rights organizations with enough excuse to stay disconnected. --Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist in Kuwait, Jordan, UAE and Palestine; he is based in Birzeit, West Bank of the Israeli – occupied territories.

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