Pakistan August 06, 2006, Rajab 10, 1427 A.H.
The Grief of Gaza By Rizwana Naqvi
Heart-rending pictures of a 10-year-old girl running wildly along a Gaza beach, crying “father, father, father”, touched many a heart and drew world attention to Israel’s act of firing thousands of shells into Gaza in the last few weeks.
More than a month later the situation in Gaza Strip has not changed. Israeli troops have continued the offensive leaving more than 150 dead, half of them civilians, including children as young as one-year-olds.
The most unfortunate aspect of the unprovoked attacks in early June was the end of the months-old truce which Hamas had unilaterally abided by, for it retaliated by firing rockets into Israel and threatened to resort to its campaign of suicide bombings that it had stopped well before the elections. Since its electoral victory in January, Hamas had been remarkably restrained.
On June 25, a Palestinian militant group attacked Israeli soldiers killing two and taking one prisoner. Two days later Israeli troops attacked Gaza destroying a power station. Much of the Gaza Strip was plunged into darkness after warplanes waged night-time strikes on the electricity plant and three bridges as flames leapt into the sky and the rattle of gunfire from combat helicopters resounded. According to reports, electricity supply to 750,000 people has been cut off and 20,000 have forced to run from their homes their towns turned into ghost towns.
It was the first major ground incursion into Gaza since Israel pulled settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip last year ending the 38-year occupation. The excuse for the attack was the kidnapping (arrest) of an Israeli soldier by a militant group which was demanding the release of about 500 Palestinian women and children languishing in Israeli jails. Israel exploited the case of the kidnapped soldier to destroy the already poor infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.
The power shortage caused by Israel’s air strike has brought life in Gaza to a standstill. With less than half the required power available, electricity in Gaza is now being allocated in rotation to different neighbourhoods, for a few hours at a time.
Frequent power cuts are affecting water supplies since water pumps run on electricity. To be drinkable, the well water has to be purified or the brackish water must be at least boiled before it can be consumed; but all these require electricity or gas. And people will soon have neither. Drinking unpurified water can give way to diseases, even cholera, and if cholera breaks out it is feared it will spread like wildfire in a population so densely packed and lacking fuel or water for sanitation. The WHO has reported a 160 per cent increase in diarrhoea cases in Gaza after the recent offensive began compared with the same period last year, apparently because of shortages of clean water. The sewage system has also been damaged, threatening to cause environmental and health problems. The UN is supplying municipal companies with fuel for backup generators to operate 130 tube wells and 33 sewage pumping plants and for use in garbage trucks.
Hospitals are concerned that their generators will break down, which will have life-threatening consequences for some of their patients. Major hospitals treating scores of Palestinians who have been wounded in the offensive are restricting non-emergency care to make sure their medical supplies don’t run out.
People can’t even buy enough food, not even basic items like milk and meat to last the family for a few days. Even if they can afford it, they won’t be able to refrigerate it, since the power is off more often than it is on. Food supplies are low. West Bank farmers are reported to have thrown away truckloads of rotten fruit after waiting for days and then being denied Israeli permission to enter into Gaza. More than 30,000 children suffer from malnutrition, and this number will increase if diarrhoea spreads because of the limited supply of clean water and food contamination.
The signs of a humanitarian crisis are appearing in villages such as Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, where Israeli tanks and bulldozers have damaged homes, levelled crops, toppled electricity poles and torn up underground water pipes while searching for tunnels and explosives used by the militants to attack southern Israel.
Palestinians have been under a long economic siege which was tightened even further after Hamas came to power in January. Israel has been trying to undermine the Hamas government and punish the very people who elected it. Total isolation, daily bombardment, cutting off aid and stamping the new Palestinian government with terrorism are the common thing to do for Israel.
Israel’s military offensive and repeated closure of the Karni border crossing through which food and fuel are imported has worsened the plight of the Palestinians in the already devastated Gaza Strip. The Karni border crossing has come under attack several times in the past.
The humanitarian crisis in the occupied Palestinian lands has reached unimaginable proportions with the economy strangled by closure, salaries unpaid and a medical emergency situation killing both the chronically ill and those requiring immediate treatment. There is today no Palestinian economy to speak of. Businesses are cutting down opening hours or closing down altogether. The closure of borders has devastating consequences: no imports or exports means that produce rots at checkpoints and factories have closed. The already weak economy has shrunk another 27 per cent; unemployment has doubled; poverty has increased by 50 per cent; and personal income has decreased by 30 per cent.
During the third quarter of 2005, 35 per cent of the residents of Palestinian territories between the ages of 20 and 24 were unemployed; about 43 per cent lived below the World Bank’s poverty line; and 15 per cent live in deep poverty which means that they are unable to meet subsistence needs. Today, almost 80 per cent of Palestinians live below the poverty line on $2 or less a day, and unemployment has reached 40 per cent, aid agencies say.
Just before the offensive began, the UN Relief and Works Agency had extended its daily food rations for the 1.4 million Gazans from 635,000 to 735,000. The agency which was set up in 1948 to cater to the needs of Palestinian refugees is responsible for 962,000 registered refugees in Gaza. “This already alarming situation is likely to deteriorate rapidly unless immediate urgent action is taken,” the UN agencies said in a joint statement.
Unicef has expressed concern that Palestinian children are living in an environment of extraordinary violence, insecurity and fear, and that this aggression will leave psychological scars on them for years to come.
Poverty has long been there in the Gaza Strip with each year of Israeli-Palestinian fighting compounding the hardships of the citizens. The Gaza Strip, a narrow stretch of land about 40 kilometres in length and a few kilometres in width, has always been the home to the poorest of Palestinians, with living conditions that can only be compared to the poorest countries in the world despite Gaza’s highly educated population. But the situation has worsened since Hamas took power in March. Soon after the elections, Israel and international donors cut off their funding because Hamas refused to renounce the use of violence and recognise Israel’s right to exist.
The US, which handed over $363 million last year, threatened to cut its subsidies, while the EU which gave $1.5 billion during the last five years, also warned that it will continue its support of the Palestinian economy on the condition that the incoming government is in favour of peace with Israel. EU leaders later endorsed an estimated 100million euro ($126m) aid package for the Palestinians to be paid via a funding mechanism.
Israel halted monthly tax payments to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority one week after the election victory of Hamas, saying that it would screen custom revenues that are owed to the Palestinians to ensure that they do not go into the hands of the terrorists. Israel pays back approximately $50million every month to the Palestinian Authority as reimbursement for customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports. This customs revenue is the main source of funding for their budget and is used to pay an estimated 140,000 government workers. The Palestinian Authority faces a financial crunch if Israel continues to withhold the tax money. To ease the situation, the Arab League and other countries have announced support and contributed millions to the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The situation in Gaza did not emerge suddenly after the capture of Captain Shalit on June 25 or Hamas’ victory in the January 2006 elections. Gaza’s is a humanitarian crisis that began almost 60 years ago. To be precise it is now 58 years since the state of Israel was established and 38 years since the six-day war which established Zionist control over Palestinian territory to include the West Bank and Gaza. These six decades have been an unending chain of violence war, repression terrorism, assassination and the expulsion of populations. Every outrage against the Palestinians from Deir Yasin on April 10, 1948, up till now can be taken as an attempt to demoralise the victims and persuade them that they have no option but to leave the land that has been theirs for more than a millennium.
In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine to resolve the Arab-Jewish conflict by partitioning the state into two one for Arabs (who were to get 44 per cent of the territory) and one for Jews (who were given 54.5 per cent), with Jerusalem and Bethlehem under international stewardship. For Arabs who were the majority population this was not acceptable. They resisted the partition; war broke out and several Arab countries became engaged. Approximately a million Palestinians fled their homes and properties under increasing Israeli military pressure and terror. These refugees settled in camps in parts of Palestine that were not controlled by Israel or in UN refugee camps set up in neighbouring Arab countries.
The UN General Assembly passed resolution 194 on December 11, 1948 asking Israel to allow those refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours; do so at the earliest practicable date and pay compensation for the property of those choosing not to return. But Israel stubbornly refused to implement the resolution. Since 1948, the General Assembly has annually reaffirmed its resolution, calling on Israel to allow the return of the Palestinians, but to no avail. Israel’s opposition to repatriation of the refugees has not changed or diminished.
In fact, it has adopted a policy of extension and aggression. In 1967, Israel attacked Egypt, Syria and Jordan in a “pre-emptive strike” against Arab troops along its borders and captured more territory such as the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. It more than doubled its size during this six-day war and added dozens of Israeli settlements to these areas, despite the fact that the fourth Geneva Convention (adopted on August 12, 1949) prohibits occupying states from settling its citizens on occupied lands.
Over 410,000 Palestinians were displaced in 1967, some of them for the second time. The Palestinian refugee tragedy is unique in the history of modern civilisation. It cannot be equated with other refugee problems, neither its underlying cause nor its relative dimensions.
Since then, negotiations have been around returning land to the pre-1967 states as per international law and UN resolutions. In 1978, the Camp David Accord was signed between Israel, Egypt and the US, and Israel returned Sinai back to Egypt in return for peace between them.
Since 1967, Israel has dealt with the Palestinian population in occupied territories with utmost severity. Demolition of Arab homes, imprisonment without trial, collective punishment imposed on neighbourhoods, mass arrests, torture, deportations and political assassinations have all been commonplace. Gaza was a place of misery where two-thirds of the population lived below the poverty level. There were acute shortages of food, fuel and water; malnutrition and disease were rampant among the young and for the most part only basic medical services were available. Israel ruthlessly suppressed Gaza’s people while denying them economic growth opportunities.
Palestinian access to water was progressively reduced by prohibition of its use and by its diversion to Jewish settlements and to Israel. Palestinians were confined to certain areas without rights and when they protested they were labelled terrorists and punished in retaliation. During this time no infrastructure was built and the population was reduced to demeaning day-labour employment in Israel.
This was again in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention that prohibits violent acts against residents of an occupied territory as well as collective punishment, deportations, retaliatory acts and safeguards for prisoners and detainees.
In 1993, under the Oslo Peace Accord Israel recognised the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and gave them limited autonomy in return for peace and an end to Palestinian claims on Israeli territory. This accord benefited only Israel, not the Palestinian people and resulted in Israeli control of land, water, roads and other resources.
Repression of Palestinians became severer during the Intifada (the uprising) that started in the late 1980s. Young Palestinians confronted Israeli troops with nothing more than sling shots and stones. Thousands were killed by the Israeli military. Many suicide activists killed Israeli soldiers and caused other damage. Many innocent civilians were killed on both sides.
All this time, the Palestinians have been without any nation, and have had limited rights, while suffering from poverty at the same time. The basic means of a decent human existence, which acknowledges their distinctive culture, history and suffering, is denied to them. Israel continued to increase and expand their settlements giving up less and less land compared to what was promised. For over three decades, the Palestinian people have been living under a military occupation.
Despite peace on paper, Israel retained an iron grip on Gaza. Settlements remained, as did the physical division of Gaza, north from south and from the rest of Palestinian lands and the rest of the world. Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in August 2005 after 38 years of occupation. There were hopes that peace would return to this troubled land and Palestinians’ dream of freedom and statehood would materialise. But there seems to be no let up in violence; the situation has rather deteriorated since June 25. When will Palestinians get their rights and an opportunity to live in peace is a question that seems to have no answer.