Published in the November 17 issue of The Indypendent (NY)
GAZA STRIP, PALESTINE — In a small cafe in Gaza City, Amjad Shawa, the coordinator for the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO), sips black coffee and ruminates on the Israeli blockade of Gaza. “This siege isn’t about ‘security’ or even about Hamas,” he says. “Israel’s ultimate aim is to separate Gaza from the West Bank and kill the Palestinian national project.”
The Gaza Strip, a 25-mile-long narrow coastal plain wedged between Israel and Egypt, is home to 1.5 million Palestinians. Despite its small size, Gaza in many ways encapsulates the essence of two of the world’s major conflicts: the rise of political Islam and the use by the West of collective punishment and economic coercion as a brutal counterweight.
Since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006, Israel has subjected Gaza to an increasingly severe blockade. In June 2007, after Hamas defeated militants aligned with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and forcibly asserted control of Gaza, Israel tightened the blockade to include everything except occasional deliveries of humanitarian goods. The local economy has shattered as a result, leading to steep increases in unemployment, poverty and childhood malnutrition rates.
While Abbas and the Fatah party still govern the West Bank with Israel’s full support, Hamas faces an uncertain future. Although Gazans have rallied around the government, there is also increasing public frustration with the moribund economy.
Rawya Shawa, an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Gaza, describes Palestine as being in political limbo. “When you’re in power it’s never the same as when you’re on the outside,” Shawa says. “Seventy percent of Gaza are refugees. Fatah led the Palestinians for 45, 50 years. Fatah failed. They didn’t deliver anything. Hamas, now, they are trying. They didn’t succeed yet, so people are still just waiting.”
THE RISE OF HAMAS
Confronting the decline of pan-Arab nationalism which had peaked during the 1960s and ’70s and the collapse of the 1993 Oslo Accords, Hamas found fertile ground in Palestine by combining social welfare projects, religious traditionalism, anti-elitism (Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh still lives in the house where he grew up in Beach Camp, one of Gaza’s poorest neighborhoods) and a hard-line stance toward Israel. Although Hamas is currently observing a unilateral ceasefire, in the past its military wing has sent small rockets and suicide bombers into Israel, leading to its designation as a terrorist group by Israel and the United States.
(Israel supported the rise of Hamas, believing it would undermine the power of the PA, and provide yet another obstacle to Palestinian unity and, ultimately, spell the demise of the Palestinian national project, leaving Israel free of its legal and moral obligations. - JT)
Few Gazans agree with that description. According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, 955 Palestinian minors have been killed by Israeli security forces, while 123 Israeli minors have been killed in Palestinian attacks since the start of the second intifada in September 2000. With the blockade, 3,500 out of 3,900 factories in Gaza have closed, leading to over 100,000 private sector layoffs. Per capita income in Gaza is less than two dollars a day, and 80 percent of families are completely dependent on international food aid.
The siege has led to massive shortages that have rippled through the economy and society. Shortages in fuel caused gasoline prices to spiral to $50 a gallon in early summer, leading to sustained power cuts. Hospitals, dependent on diesel-powered generators, regularly lost power for up to 12 hours a day. Unable to operate irrigation pumps, farmers experienced significant loss of crops. Most family homes have running water for less than six hours a day, and almost a third of homes have no running water.
Without electricity, sewage treatment facilities are unable to work, and raw sewage is being dumped into the Mediterranean — turning the sea into a toilet. Over 15 billion liters of raw sewage has been released into the Mediterranean in 2008 alone, killing much of the marine life in the immediate vicinity.