- Published on Monday, 25 June 2012 17:25
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni famously declared, at the height of Israel’s barbarous siege on Gaza in 2009 that there was ‘no humanitarian crisis in Gaza’. This line, which is by now transparently absurd, has become disturbingly common amongst advocates of the blockade of Gaza. The 5 year anniversary of the blockade has triggered a flurry of reports from human rights groups and aid organizations though that shed light on what is one of the world’s most disgraceful humanitarian crises and the role that Israeli policies have played in causing it.
One particular report from Save the Children, released last week, entitled ‘Falling Behind’ gives a detailed account of the situation on the ground. Gaza strip, with a population of nearly 1.6 million people is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and has been subject to a land, sea and air blockade by the Israeli Defense Force for 5 year now. This was enforced after Hamas won Gaza’s democratic election and barely survived a coup attempt led by Fatah and backed by the US and Mossad. By restricting crucial medical supplies, building supplies such as cement and lumber and blacklisting large amounts of food items the blockade has left the population “ever more vulnerable to poverty, hunger and disease.” All of this is a sever violation of international law, as the International Committee of the Red Cross have pointed out, stating that ‘the whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law”.
In the foreword Professor Terence Stephenson also states, “poor housing conditions, overcrowded schools and a heavily polluted environment…are also exacting a high price on children’s mental and physical health.” The exclusion of blacklisted items such as fruit juice, yogurt and jam as well as the severe restriction on the amount of other crucial items – such as that of pasta, bread, eggs and milk - able to be brought into the besieged city means that malnourishment is rife with one in ten children suffering severe malnutrition and an iron deficiency has caused anemia in most (68%) of children in Gaza. The report goes on to contend that there ‘is evidence to suggest that conditions in Gaza are causing the avoidable deaths of children’. This echoes an earlier from a comprehensive study conducted in 2009 and published in the worlds foremost medical journal The Lancet that found that child mortality rates had not improved in decades despite almost every other country in the world improving theirs.
What little water supply there is in Gaza is rapidly depleting and “in five to ten years, Gaza’s depleted aquifer, the sole water source, will stop producing water suitable for human consumption” and at the time of writing, “more than 90% of the water supplied through Gaza’s aquifer does not meet World Health Organization’s safety standards and is unfit for drinking” because of contact with pollutants and debris which, according to the report, “threaten the health of people living in Gaza for generations.”
Oxfam have released their own report on the crisis, which reiterated that the blockade amounted to collective punishment of a civilian population and thus contravenes international law. Oxfam’s own assessment concluded that 80 percent of Palestinians in Gaza now receive humanitarian aid (much of which is food aid) as they are deprived of the opportunity to work since the blockade forced 30% of businesses in Gaza to close down and many more to lay off the majority of their employees.
It is worth noting that details of the full extent of the blockade were kept secret by the Israeli government and only made public after a Gisha, an Israeli freedom of information group, took the government to court in order to force them to reveal the true extent of the blockade.
All of this is in line with the long standing Israeli policy which carries that stated aim of punishing Palestinians, in particular the population of Gaza, by destroying their way of life by keeping their economy on the ‘brink of collapse’ but ‘without quite pushing it over the edge’ as was revealed in diplomatic cabled leaked by Wikileaks and published in Haaretz. This is not a recent revelation and has in fact been the policy strategy from the very outset of the occupation as enunciated clearly in 1967 by then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who told his staffers to advise the Palestinians that under occupation ‘they will live like dogs’. Ehud Olmert’s administration continued this policy commencing the siege and blockade in 2007. Olmert’s advisor Dov Weisglass stated clearly in documents again attained by Gisha, “the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger”. The documents also contain equations used by the Israeli government to calculate the exact amounts of food, fuel and other necessities needed to do exactly that. ‘Diet’ being a disturbing euphemism.
This policy naturally extends to the healthcare system, which is not adequately equipped to deal with the crisis.
The SAC report reveals how the blockade has hampered the healthcare system as “medical supplies have been prevented from entering Gaza, including X-ray machines, electronic imaging scanners, laboratory equipment, batteries and spare parts without which equipment cannot be used.” The lack of supplies entering the Gaza Strip is also deeply worrying to local doctors and the World Health Organisation has found that out of the 480 medications and 700 medical disposables, including syringes, filters for dialysis and bandages that are essential for providing health care in Gaza the existing inventory lacks more than a third of the essential drugs and a third of the disposable items necessary with the inventory either being emptied of those items or dangerously near to depletion. These items are prerequisites for essential healthcare and must be available at all times but their exclusion is an essential part of Israel’s collective punishment policy. It should be said that the policy has further reaching consequences than just blocking the movement of equipment. The policy extends towards the movement of people too as has been tragically exposed over the last few years with children dying in Gaza hospitals because Israeli border control refused to allow them entry to Israel or Egypt for treatment.
As bad as the crisis was at the beginning of the blockade it worsened drastically with the onset of the Israeli offensive Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9. Over 22 days Operation Cast Lead killed over 1400 Palestinians, 353 of which were children. The most recent SAC report echoes other reports released shortly after the operation ground to a halt in documenting the 66 documented cases where children died as a result of their medical treatment being blocked by IDF soldiers. Dozens of health clinics were either destroyed or heavily damaged as well as hospitals, which were shelled heavily. The massive damage done to housing caused overcrowding with an estimated 71,000 housing units needing to still be built to adequately house the population.
The healthcare system, already fragile due to the blockade, was unable to keep up with the sheer volume of patients during Operation Cast Lead. Hospital waiting rooms overflowed and civilians resorted to volunteering the use of the cars as ambulances because of the shortage of hospital vehicles. Norwegian anaesthesiologist Mads Gilbert volunteered in a hospital during the carnage and relayed his distress signals to the Norwegian media in a text message. He wrote that ‘we’re wading in death, blood and amputees’ and that the emergency ward couldn’t keep up with the flow of people coming in and that he had ‘never experienced anything so horrible’.
The sheer horror of the operation, which Amnesty International dubbed the ‘twenty two days of death and destruction’, wrought a hideous psychological toll on the victims. More than three thousand families were surveyed as part of a study of the profound scarring left behind by Operation Cast Lead. More than 1000 – 36.5% of families surveyed – families reported that at least one family member had reported increased thoughts of death and nightmares as well as a lack of interest in themselves and life. While over 60 per cent of families one or more member of the family enduring frequent sleep disturbances and feared ‘permanent darkness’. All are clear-cut symptoms of sever depressive disorders, disorders, which would require medical and psychiatric treatment in any other country.
Such developments cannot be expected to produce a generation of children who think and interact with the world in a healthy manner. Dr. Adnan Al Wahaidi, Medical Director of Ard El Ensan, a Gaza organization that treats children suffering from malnutrition, is an internationally recognized expert on the nutritional health of children in Gaza and has raised his concerns for the future. He says his “personal concern is that a child who is growing up in these devastating conditions, is no longer able to be mentally, physically and educationally sound” and that he fears for “more sickness and an entire disabled generation.”
The fears of Dr. Wahaidi are well founded and raise the questions that nobody as yet has answers to. How will a generation of children who have been savaged relentlessly by Israeli drone strikes, house demolitions and chronic hunger act when they come of age and begin to influence political policy? Will they ever forgive the people who are responsible for the siege? As Gaza becomes more and more isolated will they continue to struggle or lose to will to continue and succumb to Israel policy dictates? Those answers are currently unavailable to us but will shape the Palestinian national movement in profound ways.
There is of course a question that is answerable and it is one that arises most urgently. The question of relief follows any description of a humanitarian crisis. There are relief organizations that work within the Gaza strip to deliver much needed food products, medical services and construction supplies. Oxfam and the UN have joined forces recently to introduce a new innovative food card that allows citizens to shop like any other citizen instead of lining up in a queue to receive rations from the aid charities. Gaza-based journalist Rami Almeghari reports that the use of the card has restored much dignity to daily life, according to families who have for years relied on food aid to get by. This is no doubt just a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed but it is a good start and an innovative program that is worthy of support. There are many organisations that continue to do good work in the Gaza Strip – too many to name here – and many of those have recently issued a call to the Israeli government to lift the blockade and allow free and open movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, which is the most important consideration when talking about relief to the ongoing crisis. Can development take place under military occupation? The answer, as leading political economist Sara Roy states, is clearly no. And whilst relief through effective donor programs is possible the crisis can only be ultimately resolved by the abnegation of the Israeli policies that have led to it. The report from Save the Children concludes with a series of recommendations, the most important of which is that Israel heed the UN’s call and lift immediately the blockade and allow free movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza.
At the time of writing a ceasefire has just been agreed upon by Hamas and Israel ending a week of cross-border fighting which saw Israeli F-16 and Drone strikes kill 16 Palestinians and injure dozens more as well as rockets launched from inside Gaza which landed in an Israeli town recording no casualities. The destruction left behind in Gaza will only heighten the already disgraceful crisis in Gaza and it is important to heed Mad Gilbert’s now infamous message to the Norwegian media, sent during the peak of conflict in January 2009. He texted frantically “Tell it, pass it on, shout it. DO SOMETHING! DO MORE! We’re living in the history books now, all of us!”
Whilst Operation Cast Lead has cast a dark shadow over Gaza’s history the fighting is not over yet and with tensions once again boiling over into cross-border hostilities it is likely the crisis in Gaza will continue for some time longer. Gilbert’s cry that we are all living in the history books is as salient as ever and ought to he passed on just as he implored.
Save the Children’s report can be read in full here: http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/resources/online-library/gazas-children-falling-behind
Oxfam’s report is here: http://www.oxfam.org/en/emergencies/gaza
The Middle East Children’s Alliance does important work building water filtration systems in Gaza. More details of their work can be found here: http://www.mecaforpeace.org/projects/maia-project
The UN World Food Program has more details of its program here: http://www.wfp.org/countries/occupied-palestinian-territory