One of the most urgent tasks for the international community in 2013 must surely be to lift Israel’s cruel siege of Gaza, now entering its sixth year, and end the misguided boycott of its Hamas government.
There is hardly a more flagrant example of injustice in the world today than the situation of the 1.6 million inhabitants of this hugely overcrowded Strip — many of them refugees driven out of Palestine by the new Israeli state in 1947-48. They must be allowed to live a normal life — to travel, to manufacture, to trade, to educate their children — free from the constant danger of Israeli air strikes.
A French scholar, Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at the prestigious Institute of Political Science in Paris, has published an important 400-page history of Gaza, from ancient times to the disturbed present. His Histoire de Gaza is the most comprehensive book ever written on the subject and should be read by all those concerned with the long agony of the Palestinians in their struggle for statehood.
It is impossible in a short article to do justice to Filiu’s sweeping narrative, meticulous research and detailed findings, but it is perhaps worth pointing out that he lays blame for the as yet unresolved and indeed worsening crisis on three main actors — first and foremost on Israel, concerned only with its own security and brutally indifferent to Palestinian life; secondly, on Fatah and Hamas, those old rivals, still locked in a fratricidal struggle as if unaware that their national cause is slipping away before their eyes; and thirdly, on the humanitarian aid provided by the international community which has kept Gaza’s population alive but has also, paradoxically, prevented Gaza’s economic development and its efforts at self-sufficiency.
Statistics about Gaza make grim reading. In the five years, June 2007 to June 2012, nearly 2,300 Palestinians were killed and 7,700 injured by Israeli forces, two thirds of them during the murderous ‘Cast Lead’ offensive of winter 2008-9. Over a quarter of Palestinian fatalities were women and children.
In the same period, 37 Israelis were killed and 380 injured in attacks from Gaza, 60 per cent of them military personnel. Some 35 per cent of Gaza’s farmland and 85 per cent of its fishing waters are totally or partially inaccessible due to Israel’s siege.
Projections are equally gloomy. The UN has warned that living conditions in the Strip could become unbearable by 2020 – a mere seven years away. The Gaza population is expected to reach 2.1 million by then — a density of more than 5,800 people per square kilometre — putting an intolerable strain on supplies of drinking water and electricity.
Over 90 per cent of the water from the Gaza aquifer is unsafe for human consumption without treatment. Damage to the aquifer, the major water source, is in imminent danger of becoming irreversible. Some 90 million litres of untreated and partially treated sewage are dumped in the sea each day. The UN says there will be a demand by 2020 for 440 additional schools — 85 per cent of schools already run on double shifts — as well as 800 hospital beds and more than 1,000 doctors.
When Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, Israel closed the Erez terminal to Gazan labourers, who had made up some 70 per cent of the Strip’s work force. When the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian fighters, Israel shut down the Karni terminal, the main crossing for goods, and prevented the use of the Rafah terminal for passenger traffic.
And when Hamas seized control of the Strip from Fatah in June 2007, Egypt, in turn, shut the Rafah terminal. In January 2008, having already cut food supplies in half, Israel announced a total blockade on fuel to Gaza by both land and sea. Gazans abandoned cars for donkeys. As the siege intensified, employment in Gaza manufacturing fell from 35,000 in 2006 to 860 by mid-2008.
With no electricity, no food and no water coming from outside, the Gazans built clandestine tunnels to Egypt. From a few dozen in 2005, the number of tunnels grew to at least 500 by 2008, and to some 1,500 today, becoming Gaza’s primary source of imports. But the cost in lives has been heavy.
Since 2007, at least 172 Palestinian civilians, most of them child workers, have been killed in the tunnels, and 318 injured. For the latest information on Gaza’s predicament, I would recommend two remarkable articles in the summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies: Nicolas Pelham’s Gaza’s Tunnel Phenomenon: the Unintended Dynamics of Israel’s Siege and The Politics of International Aid to the Gaza Strip by Tamer Qarmout and Daniel Béland.
What is to be done about this scandalous situation? This coming year will either see Barack Obama back in the White House or his place taken by his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. One or the other will need to address the simmering Arab-Israeli conflict, which erupts periodically into violence, poisoning relations between the West and the Arab and Muslim world.
As Jean-Pierre Filiu says in his final words, Gaza, “the womb of the fidayin and the cradle of the intifada,” lies at the heart of Palestinian nation-building. “Only in Gaza will peace between Israel and Palestine take on sense and substance...”
Some hope for a breakthrough lies in the coming to power of Egypt’s new President Mohammad Mursi, a leader who has already given proof of his independence and resolve. Speaking in Turkey on October 15, Mursi pledged to keep open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. “Egyptians,” he declared, “can never stand by helplessly when they see the people of Gaza under siege.” There is talk of opening the Rafah crossing to two-way trade and establishing a free-trade zone straddling the border. But, for the moment, this remains little more than a project as Mursi has to balance his pledge to the Palestinians with his concern about security in Sinai, as well as with his need to avoid putting Egypt’s delicate relationship with Israel under too great strain.
Mohammad Al Baradei, an unsuccessful Egyptian presidential candidate and former director–general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, used to say that Mubarak’s collusion with Israel in enforcing the siege was a stain on the forehead of every Egyptian, indeed of every Arab. In truth it is a stain on the conscience of the international community which has allowed Israel’s blockade to continue unchallenged and unpunished.
Israel is due to hold elections next January, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely expected to win. A fresh parliamentary mandate would give him freedom to break the stalemate of the past. It would provide a unique opportunity to free Israel from the burden of hate and guarantee its long-term future by making peace with the Palestinians — and with the entire Arab world.
By demonstrating real statesmanship, Netanyahu has the chance to win a place in history next to that of the founders of the Jewish state.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.