An entire generation of Palestinians in Gaza is growing up stunted: physically and nutritionally stunted because they are not getting enough to eat; emotionally stunted because of the pressures of living in a virtual prison and facing the constant threat of destruction and displacement; intellectually and academically stunted because they cannot concentrate -- or, even if they can, because they are trying to study and learn in circumstances that no child should have to endure.
Even before Israel this week declared Gaza "hostile territory" -- apparently in preparation for cutting off the last remaining supplies of fuel and electricity to 1.5 million men, women and children -- the situation was dire.
As a result of Israel's blockade on most imports and exports and other policies designed to punish the populace, about 70% of Gaza's workforce is now unemployed or without pay, according to the United Nations, and about 80% of its residents live in grinding poverty. About 1.2 million of them are now dependent for their day-to-day survival on food handouts from U.N. or international agencies, without which, as the World Food Program's Kirstie Campbell put it, "they are liable to starve."
An increasing number of Palestinian families in Gaza are unable to offer their children more than one meager meal a day, often little more than rice and boiled lentils. Fresh fruit and vegetables are beyond the reach of many families. Meat and chicken are impossibly expensive. Gaza faces the rich waters of the Mediterranean, but fish is unavailable in its markets because the Israeli navy has curtailed the movements of Gaza's fishermen.
Los Angeles parents who have spent the last few weeks running from one back-to-school sale to another could do worse than to spare a few minutes to think about their counterparts in the Gaza Strip. As a result of the siege, Gaza is not only short of raw textiles and other key goods but also paper, ink and vital school supplies. One-third of Gaza's children started the school year missing necessary textbooks. John Ging, the Gaza director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, whose schools take care of 200,000 children in Gaza, has warned that children come to school "hungry and unable to concentrate."
Israel says that its policies in Gaza are designed to put pressure on the Palestinian population to in turn put pressure on those who fire crude home-made rockets from Gaza into the Israeli town of Sderot. Those rocket attacks are wrong. But it is also wrong to punish an entire population for the actions of a few -- actions that the schoolchildren of Gaza and their beleagueredparents are in any case powerless to stop.
It is a violation of international law to collectively punish more than a million people for something they did not do. According to the Geneva Convention, to which it is a signatory, Israel actually has the obligation to ensure the well-being of the people on whom it has chosen to impose a military occupation for more than four decades.
Instead, it has shrugged off the law. It has ignored the repeated demands of the U.N. Security Council. It has dismissed the International Court of Justice in the Hague. What John Dugard, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, refers to as the "carefully managed" strangulation of Gaza -- in full view of an uncaring world -- is explicitly part of its strategy. "The idea," said Dov Weisglass, an Israeli government advisor, "is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not make them die of hunger."
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English literature at UCLA and the author of "Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation," forthcoming from Norton.
© 2007 The Los Angeles Times