An Israeli infantry unit entered the Gaza Strip early this month, violating a five-month-old truce between Israel and Hamas, the party now ruling Gaza. The Israelis set up camp in a family’s home, and as clashes with Palestinian militants followed, they called for air support. So it was that, on Nov. 4 and 5, while the world’s attention was focused on the U.S. election, Israeli aircraft fired missiles that killed six Palestinian militants.
The Israeli Defense Ministry claimed this was a “preemptive” operation aimed at destroying a tunnel built by Palestinians to abduct Israeli soldiers, a claim impossible to counter, since, on Nov. 5, Israeli authorities closed the Gaza Strip to all foreign press—an unprecedented measure.
Inevitably, Palestinian militants responded to the Israeli killings by firing rockets into Israel (which caused no casualties). Israel closed the crossings between Israel and Gaza. No food, medicine, or fuel, were allowed in. The humanitarian aid that feeds 80 percent of the population was stopped, and without fuel, Gaza’s power plant had to be shut down.
These measures against Gaza’s civilian population, which includes 700,000 children age 14 or less, is collective punishment, and therefore a war crime under international law.
Israel contends that sanctions are “working” because Hamas’ popularity with Gaza’s people has declined. This can hardly make a war crime acceptable, but in any case, as John Ging, a senior UN official, stated “[N]ot only are these sanctions not working, but because of their profound inhumanity, they are counterproductive to their stated purpose, and while Gaza is not yet an entity populated by people hostile to their neighbor, it inevitably will be if the current approach of collective punitive sanctions continues.”
On Nov. 13, a convoy of senior European diplomats was refused entry into Gaza. Hearing of this, Philip Luther, an Amnesty International deputy to the Middle East, commented: “Gaza is cut off from the outside world. Israel is seemingly not keen for the world to see the suffering that its blockade is causing to the one and a half million Palestinians who are virtually trapped there.”
This letter from the father of a Palestinian friend, a UN doctor working in a Gaza refugee camp, gives a view of life in the Strip:
Anyone who monitors the quality of life in the Gaza Strip, which has been living under a tight state of siege for eighteen months, will be shocked by the situation. Unemployment has risen to 80 percent and more than half the people live on one or two dollars a day, far below the poverty line.
As a medical professional, I am particularly concerned with certain harsh aspects of life for civilians in Gaza:
First: There are tremendous health problems, which threaten people with death or life-long disability. There is a severe shortage in medicine and medical equipment. Hospital maintenance is poor, and X-Ray rooms, labs, pharmacies and operating rooms are desperately in need of attention. People with chronic and serious illnesses such as cancer or diabetes, unable to receive the appropriate treatment, have no chance of recovery. Since the siege began in June of 2007, a total of 257 people have died because they did not have access to adequate equipment. Many seniors and children with chronic illnesses—such as two-year old Said Al-Ayidy, three-month old Hala Zannoun, 15-year old Rawan Nassar, and numerous others—had to be left to die because they were denied travel permits for treatment.
Hospitals in Gaza are anything but what hospitals should be. Daily power cuts, which last long hours, have caused immense suffering, especially to patients whose lives depend on medical machinery. Hospitals used gas-powered generators, but lack of gas and diesel have now made this impossible. Sadly, the only chance for patients with serious diseases is to be transferred either to Egypt or Israel. Often, this is an extremely complicated process and it is nearly impossible to obtain permission to transfer a patient to either country. None but for a few urgent cases can even consider leaving Gaza for treatment. Many patients have died while waiting for the official documents to be issued; others have died on their way to Israel or Egypt.
In effect, hospitals have become places where patients sleep for several days without any healing or proper treatment because Israel has closed the commercial border points and drugs and medical equipment are not allowed to cross into Gaza.
A second serious problem we face is sewage and pollution. This is a densely populated area. The people of Gaza live in shantytowns, refugee camps, and crowded neighborhoods, which share fragile and inadequate infrastructure. Lack of fuel supply stops the pumps needed to treat sewage water. The only solution open to the city is to drain the sewer water into the Mediterranean. As a result, the beaches have been polluted and the fishing season has been significantly curtailed.
On rainy winter days, the streets and homes are flooded with water and the already bumpy and unpaved roads become even worse. Sewer pipes often burst and get damaged due to poor materials and lack of maintenance. Dirty and toxic water floods out from broken pipes into streets and homes. In some refugee camps, flooding was so severe that people had to assemble primitive boats and float over the water. In Jabalia refugee camp where I work, increasing numbers of people have reported illnesses and sickness due to exposure to toxic air and chemical wastes.
Water has been flooding our backyard for days. The city public works department cannot fix the problem because it has no construction materials to replace the damaged utilities. Heavy machinery cannot operate because there is no fuel. We cannot open any windows and we breathe toxic waste for days until sunny days come to dry out everything. Streets are covered with mud, pebbles and hazardous sharp stones. City departments simply do not have any resources.
I have not mentioned many other problems that face our impoverished, war-torn and isolated society: shortages in food, goods and services, cash and other basic needs—because I wanted to point out the health issues, which I am most familiar with... There is a need for urgent help from the international community. Former United States President Jimmy Carter described the siege that Gaza is enduring as a “crime against human rights.”
Can you imagine living like this?”
One can only hope that the Obama sdministration will be willing and able to steer Israel away from its blind, self-destructive policies.
Annette Herskovits is a freelance writer living in Berkeley.