A Humanitarian Implosion


Life is grim in Gaza. According to a report (.pdf) published today by eight human rights NGOs based in the UK, including Amnesty International, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Save The Children UK, "[t]he situation for 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is worse now than it has ever been since the start of the Israeli military occupation in 1967." It concludes that,

"[i]n terms of poverty, food aid dependency, humanitarian access, unemployment, access to basic services and medical supplies, we are witnessing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Though the situation was already dire, it has become "exponentially" worse as a result of the "extreme" sanctions imposed by Israel and the international community. As UNRWA chief Karen Koning Abu Zayd put it,

“Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and – some would say – encouragement of the international community.”

The report describes nothing less than the "impoverishment of an entire population." 80% of Gazan families are reliant upon international food aid, compared to 63% in 2006. This figure is set to "sharply rise" if the current situation continues. The Gazan economy "is no longer on the brink of collapse – it has collapsed." With the private sector (.pdf) devastated (3,500 out of 3,900 factories have closed in the last six months), unemployment is close to 40% and set to reach 50%. A typical household now spends 62% of its income on food, compared to 37% in 2004. In the four months after Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, the mean household spending dropped by 22% and the number of households living below the "deep poverty line" of $2.30 a day jumped from 55% to 70%. The report continues:

"Movement in and out of Gaza is all but impossible and supplies of food and water, sewage treatment, and basic healthcare can no longer be taken for granted. As a result of the blockade and collapse of the economy, there is little money to buy food and limited food to buy. Food prices are rising and wheat flour, baby milk, and rice, among other essential goods, are increasingly scarce. During the period of May-June 2007 alone, these commodity prices rose 34%, 30% and 20.5% respectively."

In short, Gazans are living in a "prison", and their jailers are systematically reducing their lives to utter misery. The international blockade is "destroying public service infrastructure", with Israel’s restrictions on fuel and electricity greatly exacerbating the crisis. Hospitals are barely functioning, while Israel’s "attack on basic services" is "systematically destroying the water and sewage infrastructure of the Gaza Strip":

"Hospitals cannot generate electricity to keep lifesaving equipment working or to generate oxygen, while 40-50 million litres of sewage continues to pour into the sea daily."

Healthcare in Gaza has "dramatically deteriorated" over the past six months. As a result of Israel’s restrictions on fuel and electricity, hospitals are "experiencing power cuts lasting for 8-12 hours a day", and there is a "60-70 percent shortage reported in the diesel required for hospital power generators." Access to healthcare abroad is critical for the Gazan population, as treatments such as chemotherapy are not available in the Strip. The proportion of applicants given permits to exit Gaza for treatment decreased significantly after Hamas took control of Gaza. This, together with several reports that Israel has conditioned permits on patients giving information on suspects, suggests that Israel is in many cases refusing to allow critically ill Palestinians access to treatment in Egypt or Israel on purely political grounds. Between October-December 2007, the World Health Organisation confirmed the deaths of 20 patients, including 5 children, after Israel refused to issue them permits to receive medical treatment abroad. Other sources have put the figure much higher, and the true figure will likely never be known. We know from previous experience that sanctions as extreme as these hit image the young, the old and the frail particularly hard – in Iraq, for example, the sanctions regime killed up to a million people, half of them children. Here too the impact of the blockade on Gazan children, who comprise 56% of the population, has been "enormous". One indicator of their suffering is the "nearly 80% failure rate" among pupils in grades four to nine, with a 90% failure rate for Mathematics. This in a society well known for placing high value on education. The NGOs conclude that Israel’s blockade has "effectively dismantled the economy and impoverished the population of Gaza." It constitutes "collective punishment" and is "illegal under international law." The report emphasises that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is "man-made, completely avoidable and, with the necessary political will, can also be reversed." Noting that the current strategy "is failing at all levels" (in fact I’d say it has largely succeeded, the above being the intended result of U.S./Israeli policy), it calls for an end to the blockade, a resumption of normal deliveries of fuel and electricity and a peace process involving "political dialogue with all Palestinian parties." As Henry Siegman writes,

"It’s time to take advantage of Hamas’s offer of a mutual cease-fire that would not only end the killing in Gaza and the West Bank and the rocket fire on Sderot and Ashkelon, but also prevent a potentially calamitous escalation threatened by Barak. Such a cease-fire would also offer an opportunity to refashion – with the collaboration of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab countries – a Palestinian unity government that could resume peace talks on a more realistic foundation. To be sure, Olmert and Barak will rail against such a course, but a majority of Israel’s public favors reaching out to Hamas. What hope there is for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement before the two-state option evaporates depends on the United States finally screwing up the political and moral courage to use its considerable leverage with Israel and the Palestinians to return them to a path of sanity."

Unfortunately for everyone, particularly the terrorised population of Gaza, it looks as though Israel and the U.S. remain determined to destroy Hamas as a political organisation, no matter the cost.

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