On Top of Humanitarian Disaster, A News Blackout

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Inter Press Service

On Top of Humanitarian Disaster, A News Blackout

by
Cherrie Heywood

A baby in Shifa hospital in Gaza struggles against illness and lack of medicines and electricity. (Credit:Cherrie Heywood)

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Israel has
imposed a virtual news blackout on the Gaza Strip. For the last ten
days no foreign journalists have been able to enter the besieged
territory to report on the escalating humanitarian crisis caused by
Israel's complete closure of Gaza's borders for the last two weeks.

Steve
Gutkin, the AP bureau chief in Jerusalem and head of Israel's Foreign
Press Association, said that he personally "knows of no foreign
journalist that has been allowed into Gaza in the last week."

Gutkin said that "while Israel has barred foreign press from
entering Gaza in the past, the length of the current ban makes it
unprecedented." He added that he has received no "plausible or
acceptable" explanation for the ban from the Israeli government.

AP has relied on reports from two of its journalists who were
able to enter Gaza days before the closure began and are currently
stuck there.

A delegation of European Union parliamentarians was also prevented from
entering Gaza to assess the situation on the ground and to hold talks
with Hamas leaders. They subsequently broke the naval siege of Gaza by
entering the coast's territorial waters from Cyprus by boat, defying
the Israeli navy.

During talks held with Hamas, the EU parliamentarians were able to get
a historic commitment from the Islamic organisation to recognise
Israel's right to exist within the internationally recognised 1967
borders. Hamas further offered a long-term ceasefire in return for
Israel legitimising Palestinian rights.

Israel also prevented 20 European Union consul-generals from entering
Gaza on Thursday. On Sunday Israeli border police prevented 15 trucks
loaded with medication from entering the Gaza Strip.

EU commissioner for external relations and European neighbourhood
policy, Bentita Ferrero-Waldner, has expressed strong reservations. "I
am profoundly concerned about the consequences for the Gazan population
of the complete closure of all Gaza crossings for deliveries of fuel
and basic humanitarian assistance," Ferrero-Waldner said in a statement
Friday.

Karen AbuZayd, head of the UN Relief and Welfare Agency
(UNRWA) which cares for Palestinian refugees, added that it was unusual
for Israel not to let basic food and medicines in. "This has alarmed us
more than usual because it's never been quite so long and so bad, and
there has never been so much negative response on what we need," she
said.

Israel closed the borders following a barrage of rockets fired by
Palestinian resistance fighters at Israeli towns bordering the Gaza
Strip.

The tit-for-tat violence began on Nov. 4 when the Israeli
Defence Forces (IDF) launched a cross-border raid into Gaza, breaking a
shaky five-month ceasefire with Hamas. The purpose was ostensibly to
destroy a tunnel built by Palestinians allegedly to smuggle captured
Israeli soldiers.

More than 20 Palestinians were killed in Israeli raids. Two Israelis were lightly injured in the subsequent rocket attacks.

The timing of Israel's breach of the ceasefire is curious in that
hundreds of these smuggling tunnels have existed ever since Hamas took
over the strip in June last year. They have been used to smuggle
everyday necessities as well as arms because the territory is
hermetically sealed by Israel.

John Ging, director of UNRWA in Gaza, who has lived there for the past
three years, questioned the alleged security reasoning behind the
closure. Since the ceasefire went into place this summer, Ging said,
fewer supplies have passed through the crossing than in the beginning
of 2006, when the western Negev in Israel suffered incessant rocket
fire from Gaza.

At that time the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is supported by
Israel and the international community, was ruling Gaza in a unity
government with Hamas.

"Last week we were unable to feed 60,000 of Gaza's neediest
refugees due to our warehouses running out of food. UNRWA supplies half
of Gaza's population of 1.5 million people with emergency rations, and
20,000 people are fed per day when there are adequate supplies," Ging
told IPS.

Seventy percent of Gaza experienced electricity blackouts
after Israel prevented deliveries of diesel fuel, forcing Gaza's main
power plant to close down.

"The Israelis were only allowing 2.2 to 2.5 million litres of
fuel in per week prior to the closure, which was the minimum required
to operate the power plant. The plant has a capacity for 20 million
litres and this would last two months under normal circumstances and
tide over emergency periods. But this has all run out," Ging said.

Kan'an Ubeid, deputy chief of the Palestinian Energy
Authority, said at a press conference in Gaza that in addition to the
shutdown of the diesel-fuelled power plant, the electric network
bringing in power from Israel collapsed due to increased pressure on
the system.

Gazans also ran out of cooking gas while Gaza's Coastal Municipalities
Water Utility (CMWU) was forced to pump tonnes of untreated sewage into
the ocean due to fuel shortages and the lack of spare parts for
equipment in need of repairs and new parts.

Much of this will flow back into Gaza's underground water table, and
the threat of contaminated drinking water spreading diseases has
increased.

Meanwhile, the emergency and ambulance services
director-general, Mu'awiyya Hassanein, says Gaza's health ministry is
short of more than 300 types of necessary medication.

Sammy Hassan, a spokesman from Gaza city's main Shifa hospital
said only urgent surgery was being carried out. "We have delayed all
non-urgent surgery as our small generator has stopped working, as we
can't import a vital spare part.

"We are down to 30,000 litres of fuel left to run the larger generator
which is used when electricity is cut. Under the current circumstances
with no electricity we require 10,000 litres per day," Hassan told IPS.

Philip Luther, deputy director of Amnesty International's
Middle East programme, said that Israel's latest tightening of the
blockade had "made an already dire humanitarian situation markedly
worse. This is nothing short of collective punishment on Gaza's
civilian population, and it must stop immediately."

Following international pressure and protests from the EU,
Israel allowed 30 trucks of humanitarian aid to enter the strip Monday.
"It will last a matter of days," said UNRWA spokesman Christopher
Gunness. "But then what?"

Oxfam's spokesman in Jerusalem Michael Bailey, who coordinates
a number of humanitarian projects in Gaza, said this response was
entirely inadequate.

"Thirty trucks of aid after a closure of 10 days is
insufficient. What we need is a complete revision of the embargo on
Gaza. Dialogue with the relevant political leaders is the only way
forward," Bailey told IPS.

"Both Israel and Gaza's other neighbours need to put the human
rights and essential needs of Gazans above all considerations if there
is to be a way out of this quagmire."

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