Out Of The Spotlight, Gazans Continue To Suffer


Candles are in short supply in the Gaza Strip, as are most necessities — and with blackouts for up to 16 hours every day, candles are one of the most important.

The situation in the tiny coastal territory was meant to have improved this year when Israel and the Hamas Government in Gaza negotiated a ceasefire which took effect on 19 June. Hostilities had been raging ever since the Islamic political movement’s armed takeover of Gaza in June last year.

It’s true that there have been fewer deaths since the ceasefire took effect: according to the UN, 298 Gazans and nine Israelis were killed in hostilities prior to the ceasefire this year. Only one person has been killed since then, although the statistics do not include those killed due to lack of medical assistance caused by Israel’s blockade and deaths caused by the stresses of the occupation.

However, the humanitarian situation on the ground remains dire. The World Bank estimates that over 60 per cent of the population continues to live on less than $US1 a day, while inflation has been running at 28 per cent this year. Access to vital medical care is close to non-existent for most. The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that, except for the few drug shipments it has made, no pharmaceutical supplies have been delivered to Gaza since 1 September 2008. "Currently, 95 essential drugs and 174 medical supplies are reported to be out of stock", according to WHO.

Supplies have been briefly allowed in on two occasions in recent weeks, most recently on 24 November, although relief agencies say the short opening would have little effect because crossings have been closed for so long. The severe restrictions led United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to take the unusual step of personally calling for an end to the blockade.

Despite the brief opening of supply channels, Gaza’s only power plant broke down after Israel refused to permit spare parts to enter Gaza. The lack of power has meant that raw sewerage is being pumped straight out to sea. In the past, sewerage has flooded the streets of Gaza, also due to the lack of power caused by Israel’s blockade. Access to water has been greatly reduced because water pumps are not operational without electricity.

Israel blocked all supplies into Gaza for all of last week. The ostensible reason was the homemade rockets that were fired from Gaza into southern Israel on 4 November. It was not the first incident of this kind during the ceasefire.

In fact the June ceasefire has been breached on several occasions. The vast majority of those breaches involve Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians in Gaza. On an almost weekly basis, for instance, Israeli naval vessels have shot at or interdicted Palestinian fishermen well within coastal waters Israel acknowledges is administered by the Hamas authorities.

The most recent incident, on 18 November, occurred when the Israeli Navy arrested 14 fisherman and three foreign human rights observers. The men were apprehended seven nautical miles off the coast of Deir al Balah, within the permissible fishing zone under the 1994 Oslo Peace Agreement.

Israel violated the ceasefire seven times in its first week. Most of the incidents involved Israeli forces firing at Palestinian farmers attempting to reach their land near border fences. In the same period there was one Palestinian violation when Islamic Jihad fired three rockets towards the Israeli town of Sderot.

On that occasion, as now, Israel closed all entry points into Gaza in protest at the Sderot attack. Humanitarian agencies have widely condemned the practice which almost certainly constitutes collective punishment, a war crime under international law.

Yet Gaza’s suffering has been almost entirely absent from the world’s media. Even the heavily state-influenced Arab media have remained largely silent. The silence may in part be explained by Israel’s refusal to allow journalists into the territory. Israeli Defence Minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak ordered a ban on all foreign journalists from entering the small coastal territory. A letter protesting the ban and signed by Associated Press, Reuters, the New York Times, the BBC, CNN and other major news organisations was sent last week to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Other foreigners, including medical teams and a group of senior European diplomats have also been refused entry.

There is nothing to suggest a change in the power equation between the Palestinians and Israel. US President-elect Barack Obama’s pro-Israel rhetoric and choice of an ardent Zionist for Chief of Staff appears to confirm this.

Although one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers, Robert Malley, was known to advocate a more rational, balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, he was quickly removed once it was publicly disclosed that he had met with Hamas leaders in the Middle East.

Obama’s stance bears a striking similarity to the Bush White House. Two weeks ago the Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed that the Hamas Government in Gaza had approached the Bush Administration offering a compromise with Israel. The offer was flatly refused, Bush instead opting to covertly arm and train militants from the rival Fatah movement.

For its part, the Australian Government returned to a more balanced position on the conflict when it supported UN General Assembly resolutions calling for the Geneva Conventions — the laws regulating military occupations — to be respected and for Israel to remove its settlements from the occupied West Bank. From 2002 to 2007, the Howard Government voted against or abstained from these resolutions — which are held to a vote annually — along with Israel, the United States and a handful of Pacific island states. While the most recent vote returns Australia to the position of the vast majority of the international community, it is more of a symbolic gesture than a concrete change in Australian policy. It will have no effect on the blockade of Gaza.

In the absence of political leadership it has been left to ordinary people to break Israel’s siege of Gaza.

Recently, three groups of activists have sailed into Gaza from the high seas, including two boats from the Free Gaza movement, an international network of peace activists, that were organised by veteran Palestine activist Michael Shaik. The boats safely arrived on shore to the cheers of onlooking crowds. Another boat loaded with humanitarian aid, leaving from Libya, hopes to make the voyage to Gaza soon.

There are fears Israel’s navy will attempt to stop this latest convoy.

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