Gaza has exploded. After months of crushing siege, thousands marched to the Rafah border and, defying police bullets, batons, dogs, and water canons, tore the fences behind which they have been caged for months, crossing into Egypt out of the Gazan abyss.
Gaza is a big prison. A wall, electric fences and watchtowers manned by hundreds of armed soldiers make escape almost impossible. Israel’s much vaunted disengagement is a fallacy. Gaza is still very much occupied. Even before Hamas was elected into power, the Israeli government not only severely restricted entry from the strip into Israel, but also controlled passage through the border crossing into Egypt and refused to allow the Palestinians to open their airport or seaport.
Two months ago, the Annapolis summit was convened in the US to “kick start the peace process” and “lay the foundation for the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state.” A week ago, Bush toured the region from Jerusalem to Riyadh and Sharm el Sheikh loaded with smiles, promises of peace and prosperity, and pledges of “staying engaged”.
But for Palestinians, life has grown more unbearable since Bush decided to get “engaged”. Since Annapolis, the death toll of Palestinians killed by Israelis has soared 100%. The ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed last year was the most unbalanced ever, at 40:1, up from 30:1 in 2006 and 4:1 from 2000-2005. The total death toll for 2007 stands at 322 Palestinians and eight Israelis. Of the eight, five were soldiers who died while carrying out military operations inside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The pretext for these endless killings is the Qassam rockets. But the truth is that the daily incursions, assassinations, and embargo, have proceeded without fail before and after the rockets. The excuses change all the time, but the reality of occupation remains the same.
Since the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Israel has sealed off all its crossings with Gaza with Washington’s full backing. It has also exerted enormous pressure on the Egyptians to close the Rafah border, blocking the only point of passage from the beleaguered strip to the outside world.
Gaza is at Israel’s mercy. It depends almost totally on it for electricity and fuel, a result of the 38 years of Israel’s direct control over of the Strip. This dependence has grown since June 2006, when Israel bombed Gaza’s only power station. This was forced to close on Sunday when Israel blocked fuel shipment to the Strip. And, of course, no electricity does not mean dark candlelit nights only; it means no heating in the cold Gazan winter, and, more crucially, no water, with no fuel to pump, treat, or deliver the vital liquid to homes, schools, medical clinics or hospitals.
It is difficult to imagine the depth of Gazans’ misery. For months a terrible cloud of stench has been hanging over the tiny coastal strip. The sanitation system is in a state of paralysis. Raw sewage is spilling out on to the streets, homes and fields, and in order to save fuel, the city has stopped collecting garbage – 400 metric tons a day.
The siege has reduced 85% of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants to total dependency on food aid, the highest rate anywhere in the world. More than 95% of businesses and factories have been forced to close their doors (3,500), leading to the loss of more than 65,000 jobs. For Gazans, border closures mean starvation.
The health system is crippled, with rapidly declining medical supplies, generated by the blockage of international aid. Hospitals are out of funds. 107 types of basic medicines are depleted, 136 supplies, including syringes and tape are stopped at the border, and the number of patients permitted to leave for medical treatment has grounded almost to a halt, leading to tens of deaths.
In this unfolding tragedy, borders and crossings have turned into instruments of collective punishment, Israel’s way of crushing the Palestinians and bringing them to their knees.
Yesterday, the US representative to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad intervened to block a draft resolution condemning Israel’s immoral and inhumane siege of Gaza. This is hardly surprising. Nearly half of the vetoes cast since the UN came into being were by the US on behalf of Israel. This means granting Israel impunity to do as it pleases whatever the international community may think.
Since 9/11, many in the US have been grappling with the question “why do they hate us?” Enormous amounts of money were and continue to be, pumped into a public diplomacy strategy aimed at improving America’s image in the world. But the truth is that a mere glimpse of what goes on in Gaza today, or what went on in Jenin, Rafah, or Beit Hanoun before, is enough to undo the work of years of exchange programmes, speaking tours, and PR campaigns. No amount of money, propaganda, or diplomacy can erase the scenes of blood, destruction, and starvation. That is the truth the administration and its hired band of apologists in the US and across the Atlantic are bending backward to conceal from our sights. But try as they may, the people of the region will see America not as it wishes to be seen, but as they experience it first hand: an occupier or an occupier’s accomplice.
First Published in The Guardian, Wednesday 23 January 2008