Efforts to end the Gaza blockade must go hand in hand with the wider Palestinian right to self-determination.
July 8 marks the anniversary of last year’s Israeli onslaught against Gaza. Commonly and mistakenly described as a war against Hamas, the targets and victims were overwhelmingly civilian (a consistent and deliberate Israeli military strategy). According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the 2,251 Palestinian fatalities were civilian, including 551 children and 299 women.
More than 1,500 children were orphaned. Children and women comprised almost two-thirds of the 11,231 Palestinians injured, 10 percent of whom are permanently disabled. A report by Save The Children on July 6 documented continued “severe emotional distress” among children, including regular bedwetting and nightmares.
Some 19,000 homes were totally or partially destroyed, and 500,000 Palestinians (28 percent of Gaza’s population) were displaced, in what the UN described as “the largest displacement recorded in Gaza since 1967”.
The anniversary of the war will attract predictions about the likelihood or inevitability of the next one. Certainly, for the people of Gaza that prospect is always on the horizon.
Israel’s recently elected government – aptly described as the most extremist in the country’s history (and that is saying something) – consists of figures who believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has actually been too soft on Hamas, and want a full-scale invasion and reoccupation of Gaza to wipe out the Palestinian faction.
The terms of last summer’s ceasefire agreement repeat the basic flaws that doomed previous truces: vague wording, and the postponement of talks on the fundamental issues. That means ample time and opportunity for the ceasefire to unravel (Israel has repeatedly violated it).
There is no mention of Egypt or Israel ending their blockades of Gaza, nor of the wider issue of Palestinian statehood. Israel even balks at smaller-scale issues such as constructing a Gaza seaport and rebuilding the airport that was bombed in 2000.
Furthermore, Netanyahu may feel that whenever his popularity is flagging, the remedy is another assault on Gaza. His public approval ratings were sky high during last year’s onslaught, peaking at 82 percent when the ground invasion began.
So yet another war may be a matter of when, not if, but the next one might not necessarily be with Israel. Last week, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threatened to “uproot” and “overrun” the “tyrants of Hamas” in Gaza, and to implement sharia law there.
The threat should be taken seriously, given that it follows a string of recent attacks carried out by its sympathisers against Hamas in Gaza – a jihadist challenge to the latter’s authority that would have been unthinkable not long ago. There have reportedly been at least a dozen such attacks so far this year alone, including four in May.
The humanitarian catastrophe that the years-long blockade has caused in Gaza is providing ISIL with fertile ground for recruitment among sections of the impoverished territory’s increasingly desperate population.
“The blockade – now in place for eight years – has devastated Gaza’s economy, left most people unable to leave Gaza, restricted people from essential services such as healthcare and education, and cut Palestinians in Gaza off from those in the West Bank,” said Oxfam on July 3.
According to its report, more than 40 percent of people in Gaza are unemployed, including 67 percent of youth, “the highest rate in the world”. A whopping 80 percent of people are in need of aid, and exports are at less than 3 percent of their pre-blockade levels due to “heavy restrictions” on the transfer of goods
“Many key industries … have been decimated as essential materials are not allowed” into Gaza, “most of the water supply is unsafe to drink and there are power cuts of 12 hours a day”.
Debate about whether or when conflict will erupt again takes place under the fundamentally flawed premise that war entails simply the resumption of military hostilities. The blockade itself is an act of war, with no end in sight. Focusing only on violence gives the false impression that in its absence there is peace in Gaza, which is occasionally and inexplicably broken by Palestinian militants.
Last summer’s Israeli onslaught did not create a humanitarian disaster – it exacerbated a long-festering one.
“One year on… life for many people in Gaza is getting worse,” said Oxfam, adding that “an already vulnerable civilian population has been left even more vulnerable.”
Not a single home that was totally or partially destroyed has been rebuilt, due to the blockade’s restrictions on building materials.
A complete lifting of the blockade is a moral imperative, as Gaza’s civilian population has for too long languished in what is aptly described as the world’s largest open-air prison. However, that should be seen as a stepping-stone to realising Palestinian rights and aspirations, not an end-all solution.
The blockade and its duration – even efforts to end it – have created a discourse that views Gaza increasingly as a distinct entity separate from the rest of Palestine and its people. This serves Israel’s divide-and-conquer strategy, which must be resisted.
Efforts to end the blockade must go hand in hand with the wider Palestinian right to self-determination. Palestinians may be geographically and politically divided, but they are one people and one nation.
Even if the blockade were lifted, Gazans would not accept to leave their compatriots to their own fate. Sadly, however, the end of their misery remains a more distant prospect than the resumption of armed conflict, for which there will be more grim anniversaries.