Ignoring Gaza's Humanitarian Crisis

Haiti isn't the only place that needs help, but in Gaza, Israel is keeping aid away

When a relief plane for Doctors Without Borders isn't allowed to
land by U.S. military authorities at the airport in Port-au-Prince,
there is an outcry.

But Israeli military authorities will not allow any relief planes at all to land in the Gaza Strip (the Israelis destroyed Gaza's airport in 2001).

We cheer when a Haitian child is rescued from the rubble, but ignore
the thousands of Gazan children who are suffering malnutrition and
being buried by Israeli policy, a policy that is a war crime. I am of
course not the only to be struck by this contrast: see also Phil Weiss and others quoted at his essential site.

On Wednesday, 80 international aid groups called upon Israel to change
its policy of blockading civilians in Gaza, because it is having severe
negative effects on the health of Gazans.

Admittedly, the situation in Gaza is not as dire as that in Haiti. But
it is very, very bad, and it is man-made. The Israeli government
imposed a blockade on the Gaza strip in 2007 and has maintained it ever
since. It limits the import of fuel and staples, and punishes the whole
population. Since half of the 1.5 million Gazans are children, the
Israeli siege of the little territory is among the more massive ongoing
cases of child abuse in the world. There is a virtual news blackout on
this atrocity in the US mass media, and attempts of two sets of
activists to get humanitarian aid to Gaza in recent weeks were largely
ignored by them.

Nor is the Gaza blockade a mere preoccupation of utopian human rights
activists. It has become an element of regional geo-politics. It is
part of the reason for significant tensions between Israel and one of its few allies in the Middle East, Turkey.
As Turkey has democratized and Muslim sentiments have become more
important in its politics, and as it has increasingly emerged as a new
Middle Eastern power (some speak of neo-Ottomanism), its concern with
issues such as Gaza has become more central. The horrible condition of
the Gazans is often the lead story on Arab satellite news channels such
as al-Jazeera, and public anger about it (expressed as much toward the
US and the Egyptian regime as toward Israel) is at a boiling point.
That anger feeds into terrorism against the West. The Gaza blockade is
isolating Israel and fuelling a widespread boycott movement in Europe,
Canada and South Africa. And, of course, the blockade makes even the
virulently anti-Shiite Sunni fundamentalists of Hamas willing to take
aid from Iran, bestowing a toehold in the Levant on Tehran. The French
statesman Talleyrand once observed of Napoleon I's murder of the Duc
d'Enghien, "It is worse than a crime; it is a blunder." The same could
be said of the Gaza blockade from the point of view of any realistic
Israeli and US foreign policy.

Last year UNICEF found that about one in ten children in Gaza is severely malnourished, to the point of stunting.
The Israeli blockade is deeply implicated in this semi-starvation of
tens of thousands of children, as is the Gaza War launched by Israel a
little over a year ago, which wrecked nearly one-fifth of farms and
deeply hurt agriculture in general. Gaza once flourished
agriculturally, but it was cut off by Israel from its natural markets
in the Levant, and the US and Egypt have been induced to support the
blockade.

The World Health Organization fact sheet on Gaza's plight, issued yesterday, reads like a post-apocalyptic Hollywood film. WHO says:

The
closure of Gaza since mid-2007 and the last Israeli military strike
between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009 have led to on-going
deterioration in the social, economic and environmental determinants of
health.

Many specialized treatments, for example for complex heart surgery and
certain types of cancer, are not available in Gaza and patients are
therefore referred for treatment to hospitals outside Gaza. But many
patients have had their applications for exit permits denied or delayed
by the Israeli Authorities and have missed their appointments. Some
have died while waiting for referral. . .

Supplies of drugs and disposables have generally been allowed into
Gaza. However, there are often shortages on the ground mainly because
of shortfalls in deliveries . . . Delays of up to 2-3 months occur on
the importation of certain types of medical equipment, such as x-ray
machines and electronic devices. Clinical staff frequently lack the
medical equipment they need. Medical devices are often broken, missing
spare parts or out of date. . .

Health professionals in Gaza have been cut off from the outside world.
Since 2000, very few doctors, nurses or technicians have been able to
leave the Strip for training eg to update their clinical skills or to
learn about new medical technology. This is severely undermining their
ability to provide quality health care. . . .

GAZA'S ECONOMY IN COLLAPSE

Rising unemployment (41.5 percent of Gaza's workforce in the first quarter of 2009) and poverty (in May 2008, 70 percent of the families were living on an income of less than one dollar a day per person) is likely to have long term adverse effects on the physical and mental health of the population [the unemployment is a direct result of the Israeli blockade]. . .

OPERATION "CAST LEAD" -- IMPACT ON HEALTH FACILITIES AND STAFF [I.e. the Israeli war on Gaza in winter 2008-2009]

- 16 health workers killed and 25 injured on duty

- Damaged health services infrastructure:
+ 15 of 27 Gaza's hospitals
+ 43 of its 110 Primary Health Care services
+ 29 of its 148 ambulances

The lack of building materials is affecting essential health
facilities: the new surgical wing in Gaza?fs main Shifa hospital has
remained unfinished since 2006. Hospitals and primary care facilities,
damaged during Operation Cast Lead, have not been rebuilt because
construction materials are not allowed into Gaza.

The
UN complained that while Israel has a fair record of allowing treatment
of Gazans in Israeli hospitals, and that record has improved, some
300-400 requests a month are met with substantial delays or turned down
.
This issue was foregrounded by a lot of the wire services who picked up
the story, but it seems to me not the most important problem. The
blockade is the problem.

The Israeli blockade is aimed at weakening Hamas, a fundamentalist
party-militia that won power in the Palestine Authority in the
elections of January 2006. (Ironically, the Israelis had supported
Hamas the late 1980s in hopes of splitting the Palestinians) When the
Bush administration and Israel successfully induced the Palestine
Liberation Organization of Mahmoud Abbas to make a coup in the West
Bank and dislodge the elected Hamas government there, Hamas managed to
hang on to power in Gaza, in part because of strong public support.
Hamas has committed terrorism against Israeli civilians, and launched
small rockets at nearby Israeli towns. It had however made a truce with
Israel in 2008, which it observed until Israel broke it, and no
Israelis had been killed by Hamas rockets in the lead-up to Israel's
war on the small territory.

Collectively punishing 1.5 million Gazans in order to weaken Hamas is
in any case strictly illegal in international law and is a war crime.
According to Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949:

Article
33. No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has
not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all
measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.

Pillage is prohibited.

Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.

Not
only is today's ongoing blockade a war crime, but it follows on and
continues destructive policies of the Israeli military during the Gaza
War, as the Goldstone Report for the United Nations concluded. The Boston Globe reported Goldstone's defense of his findings at Brandeis University (hat tip to Mondoweiss).

Goldstone
said his central criticism of Israel is that its strategy intentionally
applied disproportionate force in Gaza to inflict widespread damage on
the civilian population. His report found that the Israeli air and
ground attacks destroyed 5,000 homes; put 200 factories out of
operation, including the only flour factory in the country;
systematically destroyed egg-producing chicken farms; and bombed sewage
and water systems. "If that isn't collective punishment, what is?"
Goldstone asked.

Very little of this
destruction deliberately visited on civilians has been repaired, in
large part because the Israelis won't allow the materiel in necessary
for rebuilding.

Until President Obama does something to end the Gaza siege and its
attendant horrors, his Mideast policy will remain an abject failure.