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Gazans: A Strangled People

by Sami Abdel-Shafi

It is a strange feeling: after working as a productive professional in Gaza for five years, I have become a black market junkie. I make several phone calls a day hunting for fuel for my car, diesel for the electricity generator waiting on standby to power the house, even cigarettes and vitamins. The only way to get hold of these things, to buy life-saving medicines, to purchase the essentials for a life of basic dignity, is through the black market, if at all. Today all Gaza suffers severe water shortages, with the fuel needed to pump and transport water (as well as sewage) dangerously scarce. The few cars seen on Gaza's mostly empty streets today almost invariably run on used cooking oil due to the lack of diesel.

That feeling of strangeness continued as I read the statement delivered by the Quartet in London yesterday. The four powers mediating in the Middle East - the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia - spoke of "deep concern" and demanded "concrete steps by both sides". There was no sense, however, that they had properly grasped the depth of Gaza's plight or the realities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. World politics seems to have morphed into a diplomacy of denial - a denial of how much more firm the international community must be towards the cause of an occupied and dying people.

This diplomacy of denial only gives succour to Israel's urge to exercise its will over Palestinians, and over besieged Gazans particularly. Israel's cabinet seeks to play God over Gaza by bluntly controlling every facet of civilian life. Tearing up the West Bank presents a threat of similarly terrible consequences. Israel's separation barrier and hundreds of checkpoints threaten to create numerous smaller Gazas in the West Bank. The villages and cities that are becoming increasingly isolated and economically strangled today could become hotspots of desperation and violence tomorrow.

Last week in Gaza, Israel not only continued depriving the people of fuel and cooking gas, it held back supplies to UN agencies such as Unrwa - the agency devoted to the health, education, food supplies and more of Gaza's poor and deprived population. In hindering the operations of the UN, Israel was hindering the Quartet, of which the UN is a part.

Israel's current policies are slowly expelling Palestinians from their land and pushing those who remain into indignity, desperation and extremism. The word "siege" no longer seems adequate to describe what is being done to Gaza. The territory's 1.5 million people have been thrust into a humanitarian catastrophe. It has become a nonsense to speak of peace negotiations while Israel creates more injustices on the ground in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In statements ahead of the Quartet's London meeting, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, acknowledged the "difficult" issues of borders and the fate of Jerusalem as well as Israel's responsibility to improve the lives of Palestinians. Rice insisted that the US does not regard Israel's settlement expansion as a fait accompli when it comes to a final agreement on borders.

If there was a glimmer of hope in the Quartet's statement and Rice's words, however, it is hard to foresee constructive action in its tow. The US administration is nearing the end of its term. The UN is undermined. Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is appeasing hawks in Israel's military establishment, the settlement movement and the Knesset itself - even as he extends what increasingly looks like an illusory hand of peace to Palestinians. Palestinian politicians, too, must recognise that their embarrassing and divisive standoff only diminishes the world's appreciation of the suffering of their people.

In the meantime, the Palestinian people are approaching something close to destitution. It is not enough for the Quartet to push for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. World politicians and delegates, including Israelis of all convictions, must be encouraged, and allowed, to come to Gaza and witness what is happening here today. Only then will observers be able to assess just how Palestinians are made to live, and to assess the world's moral obligation towards a people who surely deserve a chance of a dignified and peaceful life.

Sami Abdel-Shafi is the co-founder and senior partner at Emerge Consulting Group, a management consultancy in Gaza City sami.abdelshafi@emergeconsultants.com

© 2008 The Guardian

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