12 January 2008

The lights go out in Gaza as the world ignores it

By Juliette Harkin

Following Bush's visit to the Middle East we will hear a lot about an Israeli - Palestinian peace settlement and how terrorist infrastructures are operating from Hamas-controlled Gaza and elsewhere to undermine this peace. You will hear little about the plight of 1.5 million civilians in Gaza, as politicians ignore them and the media focuses on the myth of peace. There can be no peace without justice and equality under the law and there can be no real peace by ignoring Gaza.

As President Bush prepared for his visit to Israel and Ramallah, civilian patients in Gaza were refused permission, on an appeal by the Physicians for Human Rights -Israel to the Israeli Supreme Court, to leave Gaza for life saving treatment. This ruling upheld the Israeli government's "security concerns".

Umm Rami told the UN news service how she watched her 21 year old son die of cancer and was "very sad and worried when he was dying here in our home in front of my eyes". Her son, Na'el al Kurdi, had his permit application to go to Egypt for treatment lethally delayed for security reasons. Those that have got further in the permit process have been subject to coercion and interrogation by the feared Israeli Shabak (security) as reported by the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights on their excellent website.

Decades of a destructive military occupation and administration of Gaza is well documented by academics like Sara Roy. Brave journalists like Amira Hass, an Israeli who lived and reported from Gaza and wrote a book Drinking the Sea of Gaza, have detailed the real situation of the Palestinian people in Gaza. The Israelis ensured the under development of Gaza through restricting planning in the area to avoid any permanent status for the Arab inhabitants – a mix of established Palestinian land owners and Palestinian refugees who fled in 1947-8.

In conversations with Israelis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem I still remember vividly the perceptions some had of Gaza as a filthy place with open sewers where the people have brought their miserable state on themselves and where they dreaded serving for the army.

Fortunately I had my own very fond memories of visits to Gaza to counter the too often negative coverage and perceptions of this small but densely populated area of land. A day spent by the sea with Palestinian friends, in cafes and meeting families. The Palestinian students I stayed with were young aspiring women. From relatively well off families in Gaza, they found ways around Israeli controls to travel to the West Bank to study for their degrees. On my last visit to Gaza I attended a wedding on the beach.

The siege on Gaza intensified when the people voted in a democratic election for Hamas, the punishments were collective and disregarded international law. The repercussions play out in Gaza like some grim social experiment on how far you can push a population to the edge before it snaps. The anarchy in Gaza that ensued was inevitable and Israel responded by declaring Gaza a "hostile entity".

Gaza is effectively living under a new kind of occupation where Israel controls who lives and who dies and who works and who doesn't. Gaza is facing a humanitarian crisis and the world has turned away. The Israeli government, sole supplier of fuel, has cut supplies, yet again, in direct response to rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. Ma'an, a private Palestinian news agency reported that Gaza "will be without power for at least eight hours a day because Gaza's power plant does not have the fuel it needs to run at full capacity". Interruptions in the supply of power can be life threatening and cut essential hospital services, sewage works and water provision for a population that has 80% living below the poverty line.

On the Al Jazeera English website reporter Mike Hanna said of Bush's visit to the West Bank that: "If the US president's motorcade ever traveled in Gaza City … he would see the medical supplies that have stopped coming in to Gaza, the shortage of fuel following the Israeli decision to reduce the amount of fuel piped across the border and the periodic shutting down of the power stations. If George W Bush ever came to Gaza, he would see the ordinary people who do not fire Qassam missiles over the border into Israel. He would experience the darkness of an existence that Gazans believe results from the collective punishment of a civilian population supposedly prohibited by international law."