Palestine: Gaza under siege

As the six-month ceasefire in Gaza entered its final month before a planned renegotiation on 19 December, living conditions for the inhabitants of Gaza reached a terrible new low. On the night of 4 November Israeli forces entered the Gaza Strip and killed six fighters from Hamas’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades. In retaliation the Qassam Brigades and other resistance groups fired up to 50 rockets into Israel. Israel immediately shut all Gaza border crossings, turning what was already a desperate situation for the people there into an impending ‘humanitarian disaster’, according to John Ging, the director of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) operations in Gaza.

On 13 November Ging said ‘We cannot describe the situation in the Gaza Strip except as a terrible and terrifying one. There are 750,000 refugees who depend on what we offer them in food supplies. Israel is preventing us from distributing these supplies.’ On 17 November Israel allowed a limited number of trucks carrying supplies for UNRWA to cross into Gaza and then immediately resealed the borders. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, declared on 18 November ‘By function of this blockade 1.5 million Palestinian men, women and children have been forcibly deprived of their most basic human rights for months... only a full lifting of the blockade followed by a strong humanitarian response will be adequate to relieve the massive humanitarian suffering evident in Gaza today’.

Following a further week of complete closures, Israel briefly opened three crossings on 24 November to allow a few lorries carrying food and fuel to cross. This is a deliberate policy: by occasionally letting a trickle of desperately-needed supplies into Gaza, Israel is trying to disguise its genocidal activities. As Jamal Al Khundari, the head of the Popular Anti-Siege Committee in Gaza put it, ‘how would 30 trucks of food allocated to UNRWA be enough when the agency distributes food to one million people?’ Before the blockade around 1,000 trucks were entering Gaza every day.

The continuing closure of the border crossings is affecting all aspects of Gazan life, from the increasing shortages of basic foodstuff to the denial of medical care. On 19 November the Palestinian Flour Mill Company which supplies 50% of the flour needed in the Gaza Strip ceased production. It was the first time since Israel imposed its blockade of Gaza in June 2007 that the company had been forced to completely stop production. There is now no flour for ordinary people to make bread.

Power shortages and blackouts are now the norm. Due to the blockade:
• Gaza’s main power plant, which supplies around 25% of its electricity, is unable to operate most of the time because of fuel shortages.
• The electricity network that brings in power from Israel has collapsed; Palestinian technicians are unable to repair it as they cannot get the spare parts.
• The largest hospital in Gaza, Shifa, is facing continued power cuts and its own emergency generator is faulty with technicians unable to fully repair it, again because of a lack of spare parts. On 22 November doctors had to abandon electronic equipment in the neonatal unit when there was a power failure. Hospital Director Hassan Khalaf said ‘When there was the power cut the generator kicked in but it had a problem... as a result all the machines shut down and staff had to manually pump oxygen to all the infants here’.
• Supplies of about 160 essential medicines at the hospital have run out and a further 120 are running low.
• On 24 November Gaza Health Minister Dr Bassem Naim said that 50% of ambulances were out of action because of the lack of parts, as were 220 machines used in treating cancer and other serious conditions, including dialysis equipment.
• The Health Ministry says that there are over 400 patients, mainly suffering from cancer and heart problems, in need of medical treatment in Israeli or Arab hospitals but ‘Israel doesn’t let them leave Gaza’. Since June 2007 over 250 people have died in Gaza after being refused permission to leave for further medical treatment.

The Israeli military action in Gaza and the subsequent sealing of the borders came just days before a much-heralded national reconciliation meeting between Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian groups in Cairo, scheduled for 9 November. The talks did not begin because Hamas, supported by Islamic Jihad, refused to attend while the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank refused to release over 600 political prisoners it is holding. PA security forces in the West Bank had arrested at least 60 Hamas supporters in the days leading up to the proposed meeting. Explaining Hamas’ withdrawal, one of its leaders, Mahmoud Zahhar, said ‘The reason is that Fatah has no real intentions to make dialogue succeed as they arrested hundreds of Hamas loyalists along with affiliates of the Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Brigades activists’.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah government in the West Bank have had no interest in the national reconciliation talks as they have supported the imperialist and Zionist attempts to crush the Hamas government in Gaza. As part of that effort, Abbas is pursuing the peace process he agreed in December 2007 at Annapolis, a process that was, according to the US, going to lead to a settlement before the end of Bush’s presidency. On 7 November Condoleezza Rice conceded that this deadline would not be met, but praised Abbas’s commitment to Annapolis and ‘the work that has been done to reform security services and to really improve their capability...the willingness to fight extremists’. This is a ‘pat on the head’ for Abbas from his political masters, and shows why PA security forces have arrested the 600 resistance activists in the West Bank.

Abbas’s tenure as President of the PA officially comes to an end on 9 January 2009. If he attempts to extend his term of office without an election, Hamas, which still constitutionally controls the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), will appoint the PLC Speaker, a Hamas member currently held in an Israeli jail, as interim President.

Bob Shepherd

FRFI 206 December 2008 / January 2009


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