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Israel’s Ten Year Economic Siege of Gaza has Created a Humanitarian Crisis

The tenth anniversary of Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip has been marked by a glut of new reports from human rights organisations alerting the world to a deepening humanitarian crisis in the territory.  Perhaps the starkest warning has come from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in suggesting that ‘a systemic collapse of an already battered infrastructure and economy is impending’.  What distinguishes this crisis from the disasters and emergencies that normally push civilian populations to the edge of catastrophe is that it is not the result of a hurricane, flood, tsunami, drought or famine but the calculated policy of the Israeli government.  As Harvard scholar Sara Roy, who has meticulously researched the impact of Israel’s policy-making on Gaza for thirty years suggests, ‘What is happening to Gaza is catastrophic; it is also deliberate, considered and purposeful’.  What we are witnessing in Gaza today, Roy suggests, is the ‘logical endpoint’ of this policy; ‘a Gaza that is functionally unviable’.

The Gaza Strip is a small coastal enclave with nearly two million people and a population density akin to that of Manhattan.  Around 70 percent of Gazans are refugees reduced to penury and dependent on international assistance as a result of a choked off economy starved of trade and investment. The blockade was introduced in 2007 following free and fair elections that returned a Hamas government in 2006.  The United States and European Union followed Israel’s lead in refusing to accept the legitimacy of the election result and this international pressure contributed to an internal Palestinian power struggle that resulted in Hamas assuming control of Gaza. 

In its public pronouncements on Gaza, Israel insists that the blockade is a security matter designed to keep Hamas at arm’s length.  In its more off-guard moments, however, Israel has revealed its true hand. US government cables leaked to Wikileaks showed that the Israeli government kept the US embassy in Tel Aviv briefed on the blockade and on ‘multiple occasions’ said their policy aimed ‘to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge’.  And, in 2012, an Israeli court forced the release of a government ‘red lines’ document which detailed ‘the number of calories Palestinians in Gaza need to consume to avoid malnutrition’.  The chilling calculation behind the red lines document suggests that the collective impact of the blockade has been central to its formulation and, for this reason, human rights bodies across the board have called for it to be lifted without delay.

The Israeli human rights organisation, B’tselem, argues that under the Fourth Geneva Convention Israel is responsible ‘for the safety and welfare of civilians’ living in Gaza.  Although Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza in 2005, it continues to control the territory’s borders, coastline and airspace and is internationally recognised as the occupying power.  The imposition of the blockade therefore contravenes international law and its effects have been devastating. Gaza’s manufacturing sector has declined by 60 percent and unemployment soared to 43 percent. The amount of construction material, aid, food, fuel and other vital resources entering the territory has been reduced to a trickle.  The ICRC says that severe power and fuel shortages have ‘reached a critical point in Gaza, endangering essential services including health care, wastewater treatment and water provision’.

The social pressures of poverty, isolation and economic stasis have been exacerbated by three Israeli military operations in Gaza since 2008 which have collectively claimed the lives of 3,745 Palestinians and wounded 17,441.  The civilian targets of the most recent operation, ‘Protective Edge’, included 18,000 housing units damaged or destroyed and several schools, hospitals and clinics also in the firing line.  Moreover, Unicef found that 370,000 young people in Gaza needed ‘psycho-social first aid’ in the immediate aftermath of ‘Protective Edge’ with their field officer, Pernilla Ironside, saying at the time: ‘There isn’t a single family in Gaza who hasn’t experienced personally death, injury, the loss of their home, extensive damage, displacement’.

Gaza’s creaking infrastructure and impoverished population cannot countenance another decade of siege and war, and Israel has shown itself unwilling to respect its human rights obligations as the territory’s occupying power.  Only external pressure will change Israel’s policy toward Gaza which is why Palestinian civil society has reluctantly called for international support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. This is a non-violent, vibrant and truly global movement for freedom, justice and equality in Palestine inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement.  BDS urges action to pressure Israel to respect international law and is supported by trade unions, churches, academics and grassroots movements across the world.  Supporting BDS will hasten an end to the siege and help lance a running sore in the Middle-East and international relations.