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Uninhabitable: Gaza Faces the Moment of Truth

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Environmental experts from two Israeli universities issued a report in June warning that the imminent collapse of Gaza's water sewage and electricity infrastructure would soon rebound on Israel
Environmental experts from two Israeli universities issued a report in June warning that the imminent collapse of Gaza's water sewage and electricity infrastructure would soon rebound on Israel
(Image by The Conflict and Environment Observatory)
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The only way Israelis can be made to sit up and take note of the disaster unfolding next door in Gaza, it seems, is when they fear the fallout may spill out of the tiny coastal enclave and engulf them too. Environmental experts from two Israeli universities issued a report in June warning that the imminent collapse of Gaza's water, sewage and electricity infrastructure would soon rebound on Israel.

Gideon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, which commissioned the report, told journalists: "Without urgent, vigorous action, plagues and infections will break out that could cost a great many lives, both in Israel and in Gaza, and no fence or Iron Dome [Israel's missile interception system] can thwart them." Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper paraphrased another of Bromberg's comments: "If something isn't done, the upshot could be political horror in the form of hundreds of thousands of Gazans fleeing for their lives toward Israel for fear of catching disease."

Bromberg and others on Israel's left are well aware that Gaza's 2 million Palestinians were long ago dehumanized in the eyes of most Israeli Jews, who think of them as nothing more than terrorists or terrorist sympathizers who deserve their sorry fate. Stories of Gaza's endless suffering a short distance from Israelis' homes are unlikely to shame them into action. They can be roused only out of self-interest a fear for their own safety and the wellbeing of their loved ones.

Gaza's problems, however the fact that it is one of the most densely populated, poorest and polluted places on the planet are not an accident, or the consequences of some natural cataclysm. The crisis there is entirely man-made and one that has been engineered over decades by Israel.

Israel effectively treated the Strip as a dumping ground a holding pen for the mass of refugees it created by dispossessing the Palestinians of their homeland in 1948. Nearly three-quarters of Gaza's inhabitants are descended from the refugees of that war, Palestinians who were forced off their lands in what is now Israel and denied the right ever to return to their homes.

Having exiled them, Israel was nonetheless prepared to use the Palestinians of Gaza as a cheap labor force for a time. It was possible until the 1990s for Palestinians to exit Gaza relatively easily to work in Israel's dirtiest and lowest-paying jobs. But as the occupation entrenched, Israel was forced into a rethink by two developments.

First, Palestinians under occupation, including in Gaza, launched a lengthy campaign of mass civil disobedience against their occupiers in the late 1980s, known as the first intifada, that included general strikes, a refusal to pay taxes, boycotts of Israeli goods and stone-throwing. And second, Gaza's population has grown exponentially, at a pace that outstripped the capacity of this tiny territory measuring just 25 miles in length and some 5 miles across to accommodate them.

In response, Israeli leaders pushed for a more clear-cut physical separation from Gaza. The rallying cry of politicians of the time was: "Us here, them over there."

Israel's out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach was soon given diplomatic sanction in the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s. Israel surrounded Gaza with high-security fences and armed watchtowers, established an exclusion zone along its sea coast, and revoked the general exit policy.

Ariel Sharon's disengagement of 2005, when the last remaining Jewish settlers were pulled out of the enclave, marked the completion of Israel's separation policy. The occupation did not end, however. Israel still controlled Gaza's airspace, its land perimeters and coastal waters. Israel soon imposed a blockade, preventing goods as well as people from entering or leaving, a blockade it tightened dramatically when the Palestinian faction Hamas won elections in the occupied territories in 2006.

Since then, Israel has transformed the holding center into a super-max prison. This year it finished a submarine barrier with sophisticated sensor systems along the coast. Israel is currently enlarging the perimeter fence to make it 20 feet high and fortifying it with remotely controlled gun towers, while all-seeing drones patrol the skies above Gaza.

The first dire warning about conditions in Gaza was issued in 2015, a year after Israel's massive attack on the enclave known as Protective Edge, in which more than 2,200 Palestinians were killed, including over 550 children, and 17,000 families left homeless. A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) argued that Gaza would be "uninhabitable" by 2020 if the trends then current continued. None of those trends has been halted or reversed. Which means Gaza is about to slide into a fully fledged humanitarian catastrophe entirely created by Israel, and implicitly supported by the silence and inaction of western states.

But while Israel has managed to keep the Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza cooped up like underfed and abused battery chickens, it is starting to find it is much harder to contain the various crises social, economic, political and humanitarian unfolding in the enclave. Slowly Israel is waking up to the fact that Palestinians don't behave like chickens.

Rockets, kites and marches

Inevitably Gaza's inhabitants have reacted to the slow tightening by Israel of its chokehold on their enclave. But by the time of the Palestinians' second uprising, which began in late 2000, the kind of mass civil disobedience that charaterised the first intifada was no longer possible. Gaza's population was by that stage imprisoned behind a fence. The factions, especially Hamas, instead tried to break free of their confinement by launching primitive Qassam rockets into Israel.

Largely ineffective as a weapon of death or destruction, the rockets have nonetheless spread fear in Israeli communities close to the enclave. But their use has had mostly negative repercussions for Gaza. Israel responded with extra-judicial executions of Palestinian leaders in Gaza that typically killed many more bystanders, and used the rockets to justify ever-more severe forms of collective punishment that culminated in the blockade. What little western sympathy there had been for Gaza drained away as Israel, assisted by the western media, edited out the context for the rockets Gaza's imprisonment by its occupier and presented a simplistic, ahistorical narrative of terror attacks on innocent Israelis driven, it was implied, only by the Jew hatred of Islamic extremists.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)
 

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