No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind – John Donne
Independent agencies and researchers have sounded the alarm many times over more than 30 years: If the decades long strangulation of Gaza is not halted, the encircled enclave is headed to a humanitarian catastrophe. By the mid-1980s – well before Hamas appeared on the ground as an armed group and became Israel’s preferred punching bag – a dedicated researcher at Harvard University (Sara Roy) was already warning that the economic siege of Gaza would doom it in the long run. Since 1948 Gaza has been subjected to a policy of de-development, slowly at first then, since 1967, more systematically, with a steadily reduced margin of independence from Israel’s political whims.
By 2009, an Amnesty International report pointed out that the coastal aquifer that was Gaza’s sole source of fresh water had severely deteriorated. It had been overused and contaminated with dangerous levels of nitrates and chlorides, with up to 95 percent of the extracted water unsuitable for human consumption. The report ominously warned that Gaza would run out of fresh water within a decade if no action were taken to find alternative sources.
A 2012 UN report predicted that by 2020 Gaza would no longer be a “liveable place”. In 2017, another UN report confirmed the former report’s conclusions and pointed out that living conditions in Gaza had in fact declined even faster than anticipated. The Gaza Strip is home to some 2 million people. About half are under the age of 18; more than 70 per cent are refugees or descendants of refugees from parts of Palestine further north. Gaza is hemmed in from all sides. Always citing security concerns, the Israeli navy prevents all transport of people and goods from the sea. The land border with Israel is tightly sealed. Rafah at the southern edge of the enclave is one of only two operating entry/exit points, the other is Erez at the northern edge. Rafah is the only and hard way in and out, via Egypt, for the vast majority of Gazans. Israel controls the Erez crossing, strictly monitoring entry of international aid workers, journalists, and a trickle of Palestinians.
All of Gaza’s socioeconomic indicators are dismal and in steady decline: 70 per cent of all schools run double or triple shifts due to a lack of facilities; the unemployment rate is 42 per cent among all adults and 62 per cent among those between 18 and 29 years old. Twelve hours of electricity has been the maximum in a single day in the last ten years, with 2–4 hours the maximum on most days. thirty-five per cent of the land suitable for farming inside Gaza is unavailable because of Israel’s security dictates; the maritime area where the Israeli navy allows Palestinians to fish has been reduced several times over the years, and is now limited to 3–6 nautical miles offshore. There are other indicators testifying to the ongoing evisceration of Gaza, a policy which is as evil and cruel as it is irrational.
The late Hebrew University professor Baruch Kimmerling once wrote that Gaza had become “the largest concentration camp ever to exist”. A Haaretz editorial called Gaza a “Palestinian ghetto”. The Norwegian Refugee Council’s most recent fact sheet on Gaza (April 2018) calls the narrow coastal strip “the world’s largest open-air prison”. The prison guard is Israel and its willing trusty is Egypt; the two countries can act with impunity because their American enabler will always protect them from accountability at the UN and other international forums. (Israel and Egypt have been the first and second recipients of American foreign military aid for several decades, and together they now receive roughly 75 per cent of the total for the entire world.)
Gaza wasn’t destined to be like this. Documents from a hundred years ago describe it as a thriving corner of southern Palestine, with an economy based on citrus agriculture and a vigorous fishing industry. Shrimp and sardines from Gaza were highly prized – the envy of other fisheries in the eastern Mediterranean.
Even at this eleventh hour, Gaza’s conditions, desperate as they are, could still be alleviated. If only the once-thriving fishing industry and the open sea sustaining it, always part of Gaza’s economy and identity, were restored to its people. If only Gaza’s one million children were not slowly being poisoned by the contaminated water they drink. If only Gaza’s farmers and citrus growers were allowed to walk on, and cultivate, all of their arable lands. And if only Gaza could profit from its share of the gas fields discovered off its shores in the last two decades.
On March 30th of this year, a six-week campaign was launched near the fence separating Gaza from Israel proper. Called the Great March of Return by its Palestinian organizers, it was scheduled to end on May 15th, and then extended indefinitely on April 25th. Israeli troops posted outside the Gaza fence have so far shot more than 4,000 Palestinian protesters with live ammunition, killing at least 125.
In an article he wrote in the Forward this past April, the American Jewish journalist Peter Beinart asked, “Why are thousands of Palestinians risking their lives by running toward the Israeli snipers who guard the fence that encloses Gaza?” He provided the only honest answer, “Because Gaza is becoming uninhabitable.”
Early in June, when Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed concern about the mounting number of casualties among Palestinian protesters at the Gaza fence, Prime Minister Netanyahu conceded, “ they’re suffocating economically, and therefore, they decided to crash into the fence” – straight from the horse’s mouth! Then, true to form, Netanyahu reverted to the hackneyed excuse of blaming it all on Hamas. As if the protesters at the Gaza fence are Hamas operatives or need to be incited by Hamas to demand an end to their suffocation. Behind the drumbeat of stories in the English-language media purporting that the protesters are mostly fanatics seeking martyrdom, on-the-ground accounts present an opposing reality; people hungering for life.
As for the argument that Hamas commands the blind allegiance of most Gazans, any easing of the crushing blockade might well serve to undercut any such allegiance. The truth is that Hamas is not the threat that Israeli politicians claim it is.
In his recent carefully researched book, Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom, Norman Finkelstein debunks this claim thoroughly. To the Israeli army, the most powerful in the eastern Mediterranean, Hamas is at most an irritant – though a persistent one. But even if one is to believe Hamas’ bombast about the power of its missiles (Finkelstein writes that most are “firecrackers” and “enhanced fireworks”), Hamas has repeatedly indicated its interest in a long-term truce (hudna) in exchange for an end to the siege. As often in similar situations elsewhere, the Israeli military has taken these cease-fire offers seriously – but not the politicians.
At the end of May, a senior Israeli officer told Haaretz that the reason for the protests “is the situation and the distress in Gaza rather than Hamas’ military ambitions.” He went on to urge that “now is definitely a good time to try to reach agreements that will enable [Gazans] to have a better life and bring a long period of quiet.”
Which brings us to the culpability of Israeli officials, current and past, who have been incapable of coming to grips with what has caused Palestinians to remain unbowed in their opposition to Israel. Israeli officials have never been shy about their disdain for Palestinians, and for Gazans in particular. Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Prime Minister in the 1990’s, once said of Gaza, “If only it would just sink into the Sea.” A decade later Dov Weisglass, senior advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, explained that the Gaza blockade was intended to put the Palestinians “on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger”. That would not look good to the rest of the world. This strangulation strategy has been followed with clinical precision, despite periodic concerns that it may be too tight and provoke a global response. To Yitzhak Shamir, another former prime minister, Gaza represented the eternal untrustworthiness of Palestinians:
“The sea is the same sea, and the Arabs are the same Arabs,” he once declared. None of these pronouncements were provoked by any Palestinian declaration of evil intent or by one of Hamas’ noxious statements about Jews. Instead they were just blanket responses to a problem that Israel hasn’t been able make disappear. This constant venom from the highest Israeli officials is not lost on its Palestinian recipients, who naturally react with a defiant determination to resist.
As if Israeli politicians, incapable of exorcising the demons of Israel’s creation and the ensuing Palestinian nakba (catastrophe), can only absolve themselves by demeaning the Palestinians and treating them as aravim meluchlachim (dirty Arabs), an inferior people deserving of their lot.
In the name of our shared humanity, we should all condemn the Gaza blockade and demand that it be lifted completely. If good Israelis want to extend a helping hand, they should support or join organizations that undermine the siege (outfits such as Gisha that work on reversing all restrictions of movement in and out of Gaza; soldiers who refuse to use live ammunition at peaceful protesters at the Gaza fence; international flotillas that bring medical supplies and food). Only then will Gaza start its long recovery from devastation – and allow its people a decent and dignified life.