The latest tightening of Israel's chokehold on
Gaza – ending all supplies into the Strip for more than a week – has produced
immediate and shocking consequences for Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants.
The refusal to allow in fuel has forced the shutting down of Gaza's only power
station, creating a blackout that pushed Palestinians bearing candles on to
the streets in protest last week. A water and sanitation crisis are expected
And on Thursday, the United Nations announced it had run out of the food essentials
it supplies to 750,000 desperately needy Gazans. "This has become a blockade
against the United Nations itself," a spokesman said.
In a further blow, Israel's large Bank Hapoalim said it would refuse all transactions
with Gaza by the end of the month, effectively imposing a financial blockade
on an economy dependent on the Israeli shekel. Other banks are planning to
follow suit, forced into a corner by Israel's declaration in September 2007
of Gaza as an "enemy entity."
There are likely to be few witnesses to Gaza's descent into a dark and hungry
winter. In the past week, all journalists were refused access to Gaza, as were
a group of senior European diplomats. Days earlier, dozens of academics and
doctors due to attend a conference to assess the damage done to Gazans' mental
health were also turned back.
Israel has blamed the latest restrictions of aid and fuel to Gaza on Hamas'
violation of a five-month ceasefire by launching rockets out of the Strip.
But Israel had a hand in shattering the agreement: as the world was distracted
by the U.S. presidential elections, the army invaded Gaza, killing six Palestinians
and provoking the rocket fire.
The humanitarian catastrophe gripping Gaza is largely unrelated to the latest
tit-for-tat strikes between Hamas and Israel. Nearly a year ago, Karen Koning
AbuZayd, commissioner-general of the UN's refugee agency, warned: "Gaza
is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced
to a state of abject destitution."
She blamed Gaza's strangulation directly on Israel, but also cited the international
community as accomplice. Together they began blocking aid in early 2006, following
the election of Hamas to head the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The U.S. and Europe agreed to the measure on the principle that it would force
the people of Gaza to rethink their support for Hamas. The logic was supposedly
similar to the one that drove the sanctions applied to Iraq under Saddam Hussein
through the 1990s: if Gaza's civilians suffered enough, they would rise up
against Hamas and install new leaders acceptable to Israel and the West.
As AbuZayd said, that moment marked the beginning of the international community's
complicity in a policy of collective punishment of Gaza, despite the fact that
the Fourth Geneva Convention classifies such treatment of civilians as a war
The blockade has been pursued relentlessly since, even if the desired outcome
has been no more achieved in Gaza than it was in Iraq. Instead, Hamas entrenched
its control and cemented the Strip's physical separation from the Fatah-dominated
Far from reconsidering its policy, Israel's leadership has responded by turning
the screw ever tighter – to the point where Gazan society is now on the verge
In truth, however, the growing catastrophe being unleashed on Gaza is only
indirectly related to Hamas' rise to power and the rocket attacks.
Of more concern to Israel is what each of these developments represents: a
refusal on the part of Gazans to abandon their resistance to Israel's continuing
occupation. Both provide Israel with a pretext for casting aside the protections
offered to Gaza's civilians under international law to make them submit.
With embarrassing timing, the Israeli media revealed over the weekend that
one of the first acts of Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister elected in
2006, was to send a message to the Bush White House offering a long-term truce
in return for an end to Israeli occupation. His offer was not even acknowledged.
Instead, according to the daily Jerusalem Post, Israeli policymakers
have sought to reinforce the impression that "it would be pointless for
Israel to topple Hamas because the population [of Gaza] is Hamas." On
this thinking, collective punishment is warranted because there are no true
civilians in Gaza. Israel is at war with every single man, woman, and child.
In an indication of how widely this view is shared, the cabinet discussed
last week a new strategy to obliterate Gazan villages in an attempt to stop
the rocket launches, in an echo of discredited Israeli tactics used in south
Lebanon in its war of 2006. The inhabitants would be given warning before indiscriminate
In fact, Israel's desire to seal off Gaza and terrorize its civilian population
predates even Hamas' election victory. It can be dated to Ariel Sharon's disengagement
of summer 2005, when Fatah's rule of the PA was unchallenged.
An indication of the kind of isolation Sharon preferred for Gaza was revealed
shortly after the pullout, in December 2005, when his officials first proposed
cutting off electricity to the Strip.
The policy was not implemented, the local media pointed out at the time, both
because officials suspected the violation of international law would be rejected
by other nations and because it was feared that such a move would damage Fatah's
chances of winning the elections the following month.
With the vote over, however, Israel had the excuse it needed to begin severing
its responsibility for the civilian population. It recast its relationship
with Gaza from one of occupation to one of hostile parties at war. A policy
of collective punishment that was considered transparently illegal in late
2005 has today become Israel's standard operating procedure.
Increasingly strident talk from officials, culminating in February in the
deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai's infamous remark about creating a "shoah,"
or Holocaust, in Gaza, has been matched by Israeli measures. The military bombed
Gaza's electricity plant in June 2006 and has been incrementally cutting fuel
supplies ever since. In January, Vilnai argued that Israel should cut off "all
responsibility" for Gaza, and two months later Israel signed a deal with
Egypt for it to build a power station for Gaza in Sinai.
All of these moves are designed with the same purpose in mind: persuading
the world that Israel's occupation of Gaza is over and that Israel can therefore
ignore the laws of occupation and use unremitting force against Gaza.
Cabinet ministers have been queuing up to express such sentiments. Ehud Olmert,
for example, has declared that Gazans should not be allowed to "live normal
lives"; Avi Dichter believes punishment should be inflicted "irrespective
of the cost to the Palestinians"; Meir Sheetrit has urged that Israel
should "decide on a neighborhood in Gaza and level it" – the policy
discussed by ministers last week.
In concert, Israel has turned a relative blind eye to the growing smuggling
trade through Gaza's tunnels to Egypt. Gazans' material welfare is falling
more heavily on Egyptian shoulders by the day.
The question remains: what does Israel expect the response of Gazans to be
to their immiseration and ever greater insecurity in the face of Israeli military
Eyal Sarraj, the head of Gaza's Community Mental Health Program, said this
year that Israel's long-term goal was to force Egypt to end the controls along
its short border with the Strip. Once the border was open, he warned, "Wait
for the exodus."
This article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.