As President-elect Barack Obama focuses on the meltdown of the U.S. economy, another fire is burning: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
You may not have heard much lately about the disaster in the Gaza Strip. That silence is intentional: The Israeli government has barred international journalists from entering the occupied territory. Last week, executives from the Associated Press, New York Times, Reuters, CNN, BBC and other news organizations sent a letter of protest to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert criticizing his government's decision to bar journalists from entering Gaza.
Israel has virtually sealed off the Gaza Strip and cut off aid and fuel shipments. A spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry said Israel was displeased with international media coverage, which he said inflated Palestinian suffering and did not make clear that Israel's measures were in response to Palestinian violence.
A cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the group that won Palestinian elections nearly three years ago and controls Gaza, broke down after an Israeli raid killed six Hamas militants two weeks ago. More Israeli raids have followed, killing approximately 17 Hamas members, and Palestinian militants have fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel, injuring several people.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has criticized Israel over its blockade of the overcrowded Gaza, home to close to 1.5 million Palestinians. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency is warning that Gaza faces a humanitarian "catastrophe" if Israel continues to blockade aid from reaching the territory.
The sharply divided landscape of Israel and the occupied territories is familiar ground for South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to apartheid in South Africa. Tutu was in New York last week to receive the Global Citizens Circle award. I sat down with him at the residence of the South African vice consul.
Tutu reflected on the Israeli occupation: "Coming from South Africa ... and looking at the checkpoints ... when you humiliate a people to the extent that they are being -- and, yes, one remembers the kind of experience we had when we were being humiliated -- when you do that, you're not contributing to your own security."
Tutu said the embargo must be lifted. "The suffering is unacceptable. It doesn't promote the security of Israel or any other part of that very volatile region," he said. "There are very, very many in Israel who are opposed to what is happening."
Tutu points to the outgoing Israeli prime minister. In September, Olmert made a stunning declaration to Yedioth Ahronoth, the largest Israeli newspaper. He said that Israel should withdraw from nearly all territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war in return for peace with the Palestinians and Syria: "I am saying what no previous Israeli leader has ever said: We should withdraw from almost all of the territories, including in East Jerusalem and in the Golan Heights." Olmert said that traditional Israeli defense strategists had learned nothing from past experiences and that they seemed stuck in the considerations of the 1948 War of Independence. He said: "With them, it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop. All these things are worthless."
Olmert appears to have come closer to his daughter's point of view. In 2006, Dana Olmert was among 200 people who gathered outside the home of the Israeli army chief of staff and chanted "murderer" as they protested Israeli killings of Palestinians (Archbishop Tutu was blocked from entering Gaza in his U.N.- backed attempts to investigate those killings). Ehud Olmert recently resigned over corruption allegations, but remains prime minister until a new government is approved by parliament.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al- Maliki criticized Olmert for waiting until now to call for an end to the settlements: "We wish we heard this personal opinion when Olmert was prime minister, not after he resigned. I think it is a very important commitment, but it came too late. We hope this commitment will be fulfilled by the new Israeli government."
Israel is a top recipient of U.S. military aid. Archbishop Tutu says of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, "When that is resolved, what we will find (is) that the tensions between the West and ... a large part of the Muslim world ... evaporates." He said of Obama, "I pray that this new president will have the capacity to see we've got to do something here ... for the sake of our children."