It is not easy to concentrate the mind and write about the humanitarian situation in Gaza at a time when even the Tel Aviv area, where I live, is under the threat of Hizballah rockets fired from Lebanon. But humanitarian issues--not just in Gaza, but in Lebanon and Israel, too--are without doubt an integral part of the current conflict. It is a test of our own humanity that we not ignore them, even when the fog of war is thick. At the time of writing, Israel was avoiding launching attacks on Lebanon that would cut the electricity there and render it more difficult for Hizballah to muster its ordnance and logistics and fire rockets southwards, killing Israelis, because destroying Lebanon's electricity production potential would increase Lebanese civilian suffering.
We cannot ignore the suffering, but we also cannot ignore the circumstances and the behavior of Palestinian authorities who refuse humanitarian aid for the most cynical of reasons.
There are two dimensions at play here. First, some of the humanitarian suffering in Gaza and Lebanon is a deliberate act on Israel's part. It is intended to generate mass public pressure on the respective governments to force the Islamic militants to release the three IDF soldiers snatched from Israeli territory and end rocket attacks. Some Israeli attacks on Palestinian and Lebanese civilian concentrations reflect the fact that terrorists and their ordnance and command centers are also there; Israel, once attacked on its own territory by Hamas and Hizballah, has relaxed its own rules about hitting these mixed targets and is striking back, thereby inevitably causing additional civilian suffering even though, unlike Hamas and Hizballah, that is not its objective. Two prime examples are the death of nine members of the Abu Salmiya family in Jabaliya, north of Gaza city, on the night of July 11-12, because the Hamas military leadership, the real target, was conferring in the basement of their house, and the heavy bombing of the southern Beirut neighborhood where Hizballah maintains its headquarters.
Human suffering as a means of pressuring Hamas and the Lebanese authorities hasn't worked in Gaza and may not in Lebanon, both because the authorities are too weak to act and because Hamas authorities in Gaza and Hizballah in southern Lebanon are part and parcel of the terrorist problem, not the humanitarian solution. Large portions of the respective populations support them regardless of their dismal situation. In some instances of Israeli military activity there may be room to reconsider whether the cumulative humanitarian and political damage doesn't outweigh the military benefit of reducing terrorist freedom of maneuver and strengthening Israel's deterrence.
The Israel Defense Forces and Israel's political leaders are aware of this calculation. Thus far, significant international pressure on Israel has not built up in this regard. This reflects three factors. Most of the developed world and even many Arab regimes recognize the imperative Israel faces to deal a heavy blow to the Islamists--their enemy, too--on two of its borders, whatever the costs. And they recognize Israel's effort in many cases to limit humanitarian suffering. Finally, the deliberate use of rocket fire against civilians by Hizballah and Hamas reflects the asymmetrical nature of Arab-Israel warfare at this juncture in history. By definition, it invites a disproportionate response. Thus far, much of the world appears to have understood this.
That effort brings us to a second dimension--one in which Palestinian Islamist authorities are playing a nefarious role in perpetuating the Gazan humanitarian crisis. After last August's unilateral withdrawal, Israel was prepared to invest over $100 million in improving the passages into and out of Gaza. But militant Islamists preferred to attack the passages, keeping them closed. The international community invested in developing the hothouse agriculture plants the settlers left behind, but the fruits and vegetables ended up rotting on the vine because the passages at Karni and Erez had to remain closed for security reasons. Abandoned Gaza Strip settlements that were going to be turned into new housing complexes were instead taken over by armed gangs.
Israel tried to bypass the security problems dictating the closure of some of the crossings by offering to open other, alternative crossings, at Kerem Shalom and Sufa, for the introduction of humanitarian aid to Gaza. On July 12, the United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory reported that the offer had been rejected by the Hamas-dominated PA.
Most recently, 5,000 Gazans returning from Egypt were stranded on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, which was closed due to the fighting that followed the abduction of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit. Some were ill, returning from medical treatment in Egypt; eight died waiting. Israel agreed at an early stage to repatriate all 5,000 if they entered Gaza, without even an Israeli security check, via the Kerem Shalom Israel-Egypt-Gaza terminal. Again Hamas authorities in Gaza refused, solely for political reasons.
Recently, too, the European Union began to activate a fund for Palestinian humanitarian aid that is channeled directly to the needy, bypassing Hamas officials who are still boycotted because of their refusal to accept minimal conditions for interacting with Israel and the international community. Israel agreed to this program for alleviating Palestinian suffering. But in early July it was reported that PA Health Minister Basim Naeem asked Palestinian hospital directors not to cooperate with the program's intention of paying cash allowances directly to government doctors and nurses.
Turning to humanitarian suffering due to heavy rocket attacks on the Israeli population, something revolutionary has happened. The Olmert government has escalated its response to Hizballah and Hamas even though it recognizes this will cause widespread civilian casualties in Israel. It has determined that public patience and determination in the face of such large scale terrorism are part and parcel of our deterrent image. Hamas leader Hasan Nasrallah, in his provocative public statements, is betting the Israeli public will break. He is wrong.- Published 17/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Throughout the 39 years of occupation, collective punishment, especially economic sanctions, has been the most frequently used method in Israel's attempts to force its will on the Palestinian people. And in all previous attempts that policy has backfired by increasing the Palestinian people's determination to reject the occupation and the will to resist that occupation by any means possible rather than the opposite.
Gazans were always active in refusing and resisting the occupation and have had very extensive experience with collective economic punishment. Economic sanctions are directly responsible for the Gaza Strip's current dire economic straits. For example, in order to prevent Gazans from benefiting from the Israeli withdrawal from the illegal Jewish settlements there, Israel imposed different punitive measures, including the near-total restriction on the movement of Gazan products from Gaza.
The World Bank has estimated unemployment at up to 40 percent as a result of these policies, while the UN estimates the percentage of people living under the poverty line--with an income of less than $2 a day--at 67 percent.
The recent escalation, which included the capture of an Israeli soldier, predictably led Israel to tighten the economic sanctions and other collective punishment measures even further.
These measures include further restrictions on allowing supplies of basic necessities into Gaza, necessities such as food, medicine and fuel; on allowing people in or out of the Strip; and on access to the sea for fishermen. Not content with that, Israel has also targeted civilian infrastructure including roads and bridges, the water supply network and the sewage system as well as the Gaza Strip's only electric power plant.
Unsurprisingly, these measures have severely affected, both directly and indirectly, the basic humanitarian needs of the population in Gaza as well as the ability to provide for these needs. In addition, of course, the increase in military attacks has led to an increase in casualties.
All this has been happening with minimal reaction from the relevant international actors, especially the United States. It is ironic to register that the US, which originally financed the building of the power plant, also financed its destruction at the hands of the US-subsidized Israeli military. Now Washington has expressed a willingness to finance the rebuilding of the power plant. The American taxpayer is paying three times over for this plant: its establishment, destruction and re-establishment. Who says the US is not getting involved?
In spite of all these Israeli sanctions--likely because of them-- public support for the continuation of the resistance to the occupation is growing. The latest poll from the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center show that even though a majority believe that the capture of the Israeli soldier will lead to greater losses on the Palestinian side, a vast majority, over 77 percent, support the capture of Israeli soldiers and other such measures of rejecting and resisting the occupation.
The lesson that Israel hasn't been willing to learn from its long experience as a belligerent occupying power is that the more pressure it puts on the Palestinians, the more the Palestinians will push back. The years that showed the lowest ever level of violent activity against the occupation were the years 1997-99, when Palestinians were still carrying the hope that the then active political process could be more successful in bringing an end to the occupation. It is the collapse of the peace process--a result of then Israeli PM Ehud Barak's decision to present the Palestinians with an inadequate take-it-or-leave-it offer at Camp David--that brought back Palestinian support, even encouragement, for political and religious organizations to respond to the occupation by all possible means, including violence.
It is clear, regardless of how harshly Israel attempts to punish the Palestinian people, that the only way support for the violent resistance will end is if Palestinians come to believe again that political negotiations truly hold out the promise of an end to the occupation of the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.- Published 17/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
A form of collective punishment
by Jessica Montell
As the conflict on Israel's northern border escalates, events in the south have fallen from the headlines. However, the suffering of the 1.4 million residents of the Gaza Strip continues and even worsens. There is no question that Israel has the right to defend its sovereign territory from attacks. The Palestinian Authority has been patently delinquent in its obligation to stop the firing of Qassam rockets and other targeting of Israeli civilians--acts that are defined as war crimes. Israel has no choice but to take measures to protect its civilians. However, legitimate ends must only be pursued with legitimate means.
International Humanitarian Law (the laws of war) provides the main legal framework for Israel's current operation in Gaza. Two central pillars of this body of law are the principle of distinction (the obligation to only attack military targets, never civilian targets) and the principle of proportionality (the prohibition on attacking legitimate military targets if it will cause excessive harm to civilians). Several Israeli actions over the past month indicate a blatant disregard for both of these principles.
Since the beginning of June, 126 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip, 65 of them civilians who took no part in the fighting. Hundreds more have been seriously, even permanently, injured. Israeli air strikes against Palestinian militants are responsible for many of these casualties. Even if we accept Israel's explanation that those targeted constitute legitimate military targets, the harm to civilians in many cases appears blatantly excessive. Just last week, for example, Israel killed nine members of a single family, including seven children, in the bombing of a hideout of senior Hamas activists.
However, the suffering of the civilian population is not merely a byproduct of Israel's attacks against militants. It is an intentional part of Israeli policy. Consider, for example, the low-altitude sorties of the Israel Air Force over the Gaza Strip, three to four times each night, in order to cause powerful sonic booms. There is no military benefit to these flights; their sole purpose was explained by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: "Thousands of residents in southern Israel live in fear and discomfort, so I gave instructions that nobody will sleep at night in Gaza." The clear intention of the practice is to pressure the Palestinian Authority and the armed Palestinian organizations by harming the entire civilian population. It is a form of collective punishment, which is blatantly illegal. While it is true that the sonic booms do not kill anyone, they cannot be dismissed as merely an annoyance. Gaza children, in particular, suffer from the panic and anxiety these booms cause; their trauma manifests in loss of concentration, loss of appetite, bedwetting, and other disorders.
Israel has also intentionally destroyed civilian infrastructure, such as the bridges linking the southern and northern portions of the Gaza Strip, and even more devastating, the central electricity relay station bombed on June 28. It is estimated that it will take months to repair the damage, and in the meantime Gazans have electricity for only some six hours each day. This increases the need for fuel and spare parts to power generators (particularly for hospitals and water pumping stations), as well as dependence on the daily import of perishables like milk that can no longer be refrigerated. All of these goods must come through Israel, primarily through the Karni crossing, which Israel closed for most of the recent period.
Reports from Gaza are dire. Stores have stopped selling meat and dairy products. Trucks of food and medicine have been stuck at Karni. Several water wells are no longer functioning. Hospitals have reduced their activities to life-saving procedures. The water utility has been dumping raw sewage into the sea for lack of power and equipment to run the sewage treatment plants. There is concern that untreated sewage will pollute the aquifer or spill into the streets causing a public health disaster.
From the perspective of the Israeli government and Israeli society as a whole, punishing the entire Palestinian population in order to exert pressure on the PA and the armed groups has become part of "legitimate" policy. This is clearly indicated by Olmert's unapologetic justification for the sonic booms. Such an approach--using the civilian population to advance political or military goals--is not unique to Israel, of course. The firing of Qassam rockets at towns in southern Israel, and the firing of Katyushas in the north explicitly target Israeli civilians as a way to achieve such goals. I would hope, however, that Israel would not stoop to the level of a terrorist organization. In any case, a basic principle of the laws of war is that one side's violation of the law does not give the other party license to do the same.- Published 17/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Jessica Montell is executive director of B'Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
an interview with Jumaa al-Saqqa
bitterlemons: Please describe the situation at Shifa Hospital at the moment?
Al-Saqqa: The situation at Shifa is very bad. We suffer from a lack of medical supplies and medicines, though yesterday [July 15] we received some supplies from Qatar.
We still function mainly on our emergency generators, and we have a shortage of diesel fuel that runs the generators. From the municipality we only receive six hours electricity a day; for 18 hours we work on the generators.
bitterlemons: How much fuel is needed for the generators?
Al-Saqqa: Every day we need 5,000 liters for our three generators. We have enough for another ten days.
bitterlemons: These three generators, are they the only generators you have?
Al-Saqqa: These are the only generators we have. If one of them breaks down it will be a disaster. The electricity will be cut from vital departments, especially the intensive care unit and the neonatal intensive care unit.
bitterlemons: How many patients are currently in the neonatal intensive care unit?
Al-Saqqa: We have 30 babies in incubators.
bitterlemons: You have previously said that if there were a lot of casualties the hospital would not be able to cope. There have since been a lot of casualties. How is the hospital coping?
Al-Saqqa: We are operating at full patient capacity. We are referring patients to private clinics and hospitals in order to keep some room for emergencies. We are only performing emergency operations.
bitterlemons: So no patients are being kept post-op?
Al-Saqqa: No, but we try to send them to other places. All we do are urgent surgeries. We cannot do any elective surgery.
bitterlemons: How many people do you estimate need surgery but cannot get it done?
Al-Saqqa: Every day, 50 elective surgeries are not being performed at Shifa, ranging from general, orthopedic and neural to plastic surgery.
bitterlemons: What is the feeling among the staff?
Al-Saqqa: People are completely depressed and frustrated. We are working in an extremely difficult situation. The staff has not been paid for months. People suffer from a lack of food and a lack of electricity. It's too hot and there is no way of cooling down.
Still, people are coming to work. They are humanitarian workers and this work cannot stop. We are calling on the international community to help us. We must also help ourselves.
bitterlemons: How do you deal with refrigeration?
Al-Saqqa: I now keep my clothes in my fridge at home. I eat food straight from the shop. We don't keep anything.
bitterlemons: And at the hospital?
Al-Saqqa: We still have refrigeration at Shifa, but we notice an increase in patients admitted with food poisoning and gastro-intestinal complications. People cannot preserve their food, and it is hot. Food spoils rapidly.
bitterlemons: There are also reports of problems with sewage?
Al-Saqqa: The machines that are supposed to carry the sewage are breaking down. In the last few days we see more and more dirty sewage water in the streets. This is very dangerous. If it continues, we could see cholera, typhoid, even malaria epidemics. These are all due to dirty water and environment.
bitterlemons: The General Secretary of the UN recently warned that a humanitarian disaster was near in Gaza. Is it already unfolding?
Al-Saqqa: Yes, it has started. There is sewage and garbage in the streets. The municipality is unable to take it away. It's filthy.
bitterlemons: What needs to be done?
Al-Saqqa: We need fuel and food. We need electricity. The municipality must be enabled to collect garbage and fix the sewage system. We need to be paid. The international community must ensure, at the very least, that we get humanitarian supplies.- Published 17/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Jumaa al-Saqqa is a general practitioner and plastic surgeon and director of public relations at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip.
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