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Humanitarian Siege on Gaza…

May 13, 2009

In September of 2005, Israel officially ‘disengaged’ from the Gaza Strip.  All of the settlers and the Israeli military presence there were removed.  However, Israel retained control of all of the border crossings, and all movements of people and goods through those crossings.[1]  This was the beginning of Israel’s worst humanitarian siege on Gaza since they first occupied the territory in 1967. 

By February 2006, the already tightly regulated crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel were restricted even further because of Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections.  Because of Hamas’ refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist, it was labeled a ‘terrorist organization’ by Israel, the U.S. and others in the international community.  The international community began to impose sanctions on Hamas, and consequently the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.  Much of the international aid that was being sent to Gaza, including aid from the EU—Palestine’s largest donor, stopped at this time because of Hamas’ ‘terrorist’ status. 

Basic commodities in Gaza were depleted quickly, and were not replaced because of the extremely limited amount of goods allowed in.  The territory’s exports were at 10% of their daily targets due to Israel’s control of the transportation of goods in and out of Gaza.[2]  Because of Israel’s strict control of Gaza’s borders and its restrictions on goods and supplies allowed in, Gaza’s economy began to collapse and the humanitarian situation began to worsen.

A total blockade was imposed on the Gaza Strip by Israel in 2007 after continued rocket attacks by Hamas.[3]  In additions to the blockade and sanctions, on September 19, 2007 Israel declared Gaza a ‘hostile entity’ because of the increasing rocket attacks.  As a hostile entity, Israel argued that it was no longer bound by international humanitarian law regarding the civilian population.  Although Israel’s treatment of the people of Gaza is still considered illegal according to the 4th Geneva Convention, Israel continued to punish the entire population of the Gaza Strip and ignored any who denounced its actions.

By January 2008, the economy of Gaza had collapsed and international aid had decreased immensely.[4]  UNRWA reported that 52% of the population was living below the poverty line and 45% were unemployed.  There was such an extreme shortage of food, fuel, and other basic supplies that on January 23, 2008 the border fence between Gaza and Egypt was overrun by tens of thousands of Gazans attempting to stock up on basic supplies.  Egypt allowed its border with Gaza to remain open until February 3 when Israel and members of the international community began to voice fears that militants were using this as an opportunity to stock up on weapons and smuggle them back into Gaza.

Shortly after the border breach, called a ‘jail break’ by many in the international community as it showed how desperate and trapped the people had become in the Gaza Strip, the UN called on Israel to lift the siege on Gaza by allowing food, fuel and medicine into the territory and to reopen border crossings.[5]  This request was ignored, and according to the Jerusalem Post, this was the 15th time in less than 2 years that the UN had condemned Israel for its human rights record with respect to the Palestinian territories and was ignored by Israel.

In June 2008, a six-month ceasefire was agreed on by Israel and Hamas.[6]  It was supposed to ease Israeli restrictions and border control, however, rockets continued to be fired into southern Israel and so the Israeli blockade continued as well.  Even fewer goods were allowed into Gaza as Hamas rocket attacks increased over the summer and into the fall.  From November 4th to December 8, 2008 Israel “increased” goods allowed into Gaza to 700 trucks that month.  Under normal circumstances, with no blockade, 700 trucks would be entering Gaza daily.  Obviously, even with the increase it was still not a sufficient amount of goods to supply the 1.5 million people living in Gaza.

In March 2008, several international aid groups issued a report stating that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was at its worst since the Israeli occupation in 1967.[7]  In the report, they called Israel’s blockade on Gaza collective punishment, illegal under international law, and insisted it be lifted.  In December 2008, Richard A. Falk, a professor of international law at Princeton and a UN human rights investigator, issued a statement describing Israel’s blockade on Gaza as a “crime against humanity”.[8]

Blockade:

Israel’s blockade on Gaza qualifies as collective punishment which is against international law.  And although Israel claims to that the blockade is for the security of Israelis, it does not make Israel more secure as “hungry, unhealthy, angry communities do not make good partners for peace.”[9]  Since 2008, the blockade has become even tighter because of a surge in Hamas rocket attacks.  Israel has been quick to blame Hamas for the problems the blockade has caused for the people of Gaza. 

The severity of the humanitarian situation in Gaza has increased exponentially because of the blockade, and has been called a disproportionate response to Hamas rocket attacks by CARE and other international humanitarian rights groups.[10]  The blockade has destroyed the economy and impoverished the people.

Most of the problems the people of Gaza are facing are caused by the blockade and its secondary effects.  According to Geoffrey Dennis of Care International, “unless the blockade ends, it will be impossible to pull Gaza back from the brink of disaster and any hopes for peace in the region will be dashed.” [11]

Poverty:

Every year, Gaza is getting poorer and poorer despite increases in international aid.  According to Karen Koning Abu Zayd of UNRWA, “Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge [and] acquiescence…of the international community.”[12] 

The current levels of poverty in Gaza have many causes, but most stem from the blockade, in the broader context of Israeli closures since the 1990’s and the 18 month international aid embargo on the Palestinian government imposed in June 2007.[13]  Less than one third of the population in Gaza has an income.[14]  In 2008, unemployment in Gaza was between 40 and 50%.  One of the causes of the high unemployment rate is the fact that Israel decided to stop allowing cheap labor in from Gaza. 

In 2000, 24,000 Palestinians crossed in and out of Gaza every day to work in Israel[15].  In 2008, that number was reduced to zero.  In the private sector, of the 110,000 workers who were employed, 75,000 had lost their jobs by 2008.  In the same year, 95% of Gaza’s industrial operations were suspended because they could not access inputs for production or export what they had produced[16].  In 2005, there were 3,900 factories employing 35,000 people; in 2007, there were 195 factories employing 1,700. 

The agriculture sector of the economy has also collapsed—and the 40,000 workers who depended on cash crops now have no income[17].  Also, because of restricted waters and pollution, the fishing industry has been in a steep decline.  In addition to simply restricting the areas of the Gaza coastline where Gazans were allowed to fish, many fisherman report being fired on by Israelis while fishing in waters Israel had allowed them to.  In 2006, Israel completely closed the Gaza coastline to fisherman.  There is no fish in the markets, and 35,000 people lost their income.

International Aid:

            Since the blockade and collapse of the agricultural and fishing industries, Gaza has become completely reliant on an external food supply.  And because of the collapse of the economy and the high unemployment rate, the vast majority of Gaza is dependent on assistance from the UN to cover their other basic needs[18].  In 2007, families were spending about 62% of their income of food because of major inflation on prices of essentials like wheat flour, baby milk, and rice. In 2008, three-quarters of Gaza’s population were dependent on food aid.  Since 1998, the number of families reliant upon UNRWA food aid has increased ten-fold[19].         

Since the blockade, it has been even more difficult for international aid organizations to get supplies into Gaza.  In 2007, an average of 500 trucks a day entered Gaza with food and other supplies, according to Mercy Corps[20].  Before the Dec. 27th Israeli invasion of Gaza, only about 36 humanitarian trucks were allowed into Gaza per day.  With a population of 1.5 million people almost entirely dependent on foreign aid, it is easy to see that amount of aid reaching the people is completely inadequate. 

Fuel and Electricity:

Israel has imposed severe restrictions on the amount of fuel and electricity that is allowed into Gaza.  And in June 2006, Israel bombed the only electrical power plant in Gaza, which caused electricity to only be available for about 8 hours per day—and even then it is erratic[21].  In October, 2007, Israel began increasing sanctions of fuel and electricity to Gaza in response to rocket attacks on southern Israel.  On January 22, 2008, the Gaza Strip’s only power plant shut down because of lack of fuel.

The repair and maintenance of the electricity and water service infrastructure in Gaza is made impossible because Israel prevents the import of spare parts[22].  Because of this, the water supply is crippled.  By May 2008, 25-30% of people in Gaza did not have running water in their homes; compared to before the blockade when 100% were able to have it.  Another serious issue due to the lack of fuel and electricity is sanitation.  There is no electricity to pump sewage and no functioning sanitation plants to treat it[23].  With no where else to go, the sewage is pouring into the sea at a rate of 40-50 million liters per day. 

Healthcare:

            Because of the problems with electricity and fuel restrictions, hospitals in Gaza experience power cuts for 8-12 hours per day.  In an attempt to keep the hospitals functioning, they run on generators so that health facilities and critical surgical operations and procedures can continue[24].  However, there is a 60-70% shortage in diesel required to run those generators, and there is no way to repair the generators when they break.  Because they cannot generate enough electricity, lifesaving equipment and oxygen are often not available for use. 

According to the World Health Organization, by November 2008, hospitals in Gaza reported that nearly a quarter of crucial drugs were out of stock[25].  They also reported that levels of stunted growth among children are increasing, and with children making up half of the population in Gaza, this crisis is threatening an entire generation[26].  Also since, stunting of growth is a cumulative effect reflecting years of malnutrition; it is most likely a direct result of the Israeli restrictions on food entering the Gaza Strip. 

Since hospitals in Gaza are not equipped to deal with many of the health problems people there face, many try to leave Gaza for medical care.  The number of patients given permits by Israel to leave for medical care has decreased from 89% in January 2007 to 64% by December 2007[27].  And even those who are given permits to leave are often stopped at the crossing and told to go back.  In October 2007 alone, 27 of these cases were reported. 

In 2008, Fatma ‘Ali Daud a-Lidawi, a resident of Gaza City, was ill with spleen and liver problems; although she had a permit to leave the territory for medical care, the Israeli soldiers delayed her exit for 5 days after her scheduled appointment.[28]  On the day she was supposed to be allowed through the checkpoint, they delayed her passage through the Erez crossing for hours.  When she finally made it to the Ichilov Hospital she was in serious condition and consequently died a week later.  Unfortunately, there are many cases of people being denied treatment like Fatma.  Some have cancer and need chemotherapy, failed kidney’s and need dialysis, or are pregnant and have to give birth at the checkpoints because of the delays—sometimes the babies are stillborn because of complications or the stressful and unclean conditions women are forced to give birth in.

Education:

            In 2007, an UNRWA survey announced that students in Gaza had an 80% failure rate in grades 4-9, and 90% failure rates in mathematics[29].  UNICEF reported that many schools had to cancel classes that were high on energy consumption like IT, science labs, and extra curricular activities[30]

According to Asma, a 10th grade student in Gaza, “I cannot do my homework when I use the chargeable light.  The lighting is weak and it affects my eyes.  I also cannot concentrate because all of my family members sit around the light…electricity cuts affect our studies so much.”[31]  With limited class time and no electricity to make it possible to study or do homework at night, it is not hard to understand the high failure rates in Gaza.

Security:

“On September 21, Israeli soldiers shot and killed 3 teenage sheepherders in northern Gaza…Israel claims the three were handling a rocket launcher that had recently been used to fire rockets into southern Israeli territory, but the authorities admit that they did not know whether the teenagers they killed are the ones who allegedly fired the rockets.  The same day, in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, Israeli troops raided a house and killed a man they claimed was a ‘militant’ and a 35-year old woman.”[32]

            These killings were part of a continuing Israeli military operation in Gaza in which people in Gaza are attacked daily by air and ground forces—including extra-judiciary ‘assassinations’.  This offensive began in 2006 as a response to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit.  Since then, hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombs and bullets.[33] 

            In addition to retaliatory attacks on Hamas for kidnapping an Israeli soldier, Israel also retaliates when there are rocket attacks from Hamas.  These attacks, meant to target Hamas leaders or compounds, often hit civilian infrastructure and kill more civilians than Hamas militants. 

            Speaking on a panel to Harvard students on an academic tour, Elsarraj, a resident of Gaza, answered her phone in the middle of her presentation[34].  Afterwards, she tried to explain to the American students that “Palestinians need cell phones more than Americans because we need to always make sure if our relatives are alive, [to ask] are you past the border, are you past the checkpoint, are you still alive?”

  


[1] “Timeline: Gaza Blockade Crisis”. 4 February 2008. BBC News. 26 January 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7209840.stm

 [2] “Timeline: Gaza Blockade Crisis”. 4 February 2008. BBC News. 26 January 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7209840.stm

 [3] “Timeline: Gaza Blockade Crisis”. 4 February 2008. BBC News. 26 January 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7209840.stm

 [4] “Timeline: Gaza Blockade Crisis”. 4 February 2008. BBC News. 26 January 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7209840.stm

 [5] “Timeline: Gaza Blockade Crisis”. 4 February 2008. BBC News. 26 January 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7209840.stm

 [6] “Timeline: Gaza Blockade Crisis”. 4 February 2008. BBC News. 26 January 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7209840.stm

 [7] “Timeline: Gaza Blockade Crisis”. 4 February 2008. BBC News. 26 January 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7209840.stm

 [8] “UN Rights Investigator Expelled by Israel”. 15 December 2008. NY Times. 27 January 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/16/world/middleeast/16mideast.html

 [9] “Rights groups: Humanitarian ‘implosion’ grips Gaza.” 6 March 2008. CNN News. 20 January 2009. http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/meast/03/06/gaza.crisis/index.html

 [10] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [11] “Gaza: Humanitarian situation worst since 1967.” 6 March 2008. CARE International. 20 January 2009. http://www.careinternational.org.uk/?lid=10886

 [12] “This brutal siege of Gaza can only breed violence.” 23 January 2008. The Guardian. 20 January 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jan/23/israelandthepalestinians.world

 [13] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [14] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [15] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [16] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [17] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [18] “WFP warns of deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza.” 28 August 2006. World Food Program. 20 January 2009. http://www.wfp.org/ENGLISH/?ModuleID=137&Key=2225

 [19] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [20] “Aid worker: Gaza blockade lacks all humanity.” 12 January 2009. CNN News. 20 January 2009. http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/01/12/gaza.aid.diary/

 [21] “Act of Vengeance: Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Power Plant and its Effects.” 1 September 2006. B’Tselem. 20 January 2009. http://www.btselem.org/english/Publications/Summaries/200609_Act_of_Vengeance.asp

 [22] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [23] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [24] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [25] “Palestinian power struggle swallows millions in aid cash.” 4 November 2008. The Independent. 20 January 2009. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/palestinian-power-struggle-swallows-millions-in-aid-cash-991670.html

 [26] “Poll:  10% of Palestinian children have lasting malnutrition effects”. 4 November 2007. Haaretz. 20 January 2009. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/847548.html

 [27] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [28] “Palestinians who died following infringement…” 29 January 2009. B’Tselem. 29 January 2009. http://www.btselem.org/english/statistics/casualties_data.asp?Category=21&region=TER

 [29] “Gaza’s humanitarian crisis.” 6 March 2008. BBC News. 20 January 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7191359.stm

 [30] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [31] “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.” 5 March 2008. CARE: Middle East. 20 January 2009. http://www.caremiddleeast.org/Linked%20pdf%20documents/Gaza%205308.pdf

 [32] “Life in Gaza: Daily Hell for the Palestinian People.” 1 October 2006. Revolution. 20 January 2009. http://revcom.us/a/063/gaza-en.html

 [33] “Gilad Shalit” 20 January 2009. Wikipedia. 20 January 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilad_Shalit

 [34] “Gaza Residents Discuss Daily Life.”  4 June 2006. The Harvard Crimson. 20 January 2009. http://www.thecrimson.com/printerfriendly.aspx?ref=506854

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