Monday, January 21, 2008 

The plight of Gaza.

The old maxim goes that a society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. Those imprisoned and at the mercy of the state are by definition the most at risk of ill-treatment.

By that definition, the enclave of Gaza is to all intents and purposes a prison, albeit an open air one patrolled from the air by helicopter gunships and remote-controlled drones. The two main exits from the strip, into Egypt and Israel respectively, are almost always shut, despite previous promises from Israel to keep them open, and even then exit is only possible through applications for visas, which are seldom issued. The irony is not lost on the people of Gaza that one of the few things guaranteed to get you out of the Strip is to be so seriously injured that the hospitals within the territory cannot cope with your injuries and so request a transfer to a hospital across the border.

For a number of months now Israel has been slowly but inexorably cutting the amount of power it allows into the Strip, ostensibly in response to the continuous fusillade of home-made rockets fired into Israel by the various militant groups, including Hamas, although strictly it is meant to be maintaining something approaching a ceasefire. Gaza's only power station, which was previously bombed by the Israelis during the 2006 incursion into Gaza which some argue prompted Hizbullah to launch its own raid into Israel, killing and capturing two soldiers, which in turn set-off the summer war between Hizbullah and Israel, cannot provide full power to the roughly 1.4 million Palestinians that live in the territory, and so the people partly depend on the supply into the Strip from Israel's own stations. Israel's move over the past week to an almost complete blockade meant that the station's dwindling supplies were almost down to nothing yesterday, and from being able to supply power for around 12 hours a day, those operating the station had no option but to plunge the territory into darkness. Combined with the economic blockade which has left farmers unable to sell their crops, the massive rise in unemployment and the relentless poverty that goes with it, Gazans are increasingly left to rely on food aid from charities and the UN.

Even this is now threatened by Israel's actions, which almost certainly constitute collective punishment, a war crime under the Geneva Convention. The sheer brazenness of Ehud Olmert, making clear that while live cannot go on as normal in the areas of Israel threatened by the sporadic, ineffective, impotent mortar fire, he'll make certain that life will also "not go on as usual" in Gaza, is the kind of bravado and belligerence which makes it incredibly difficult to believe that there's any chance of peace for years still yet to come. After all, what is exactly "usual" about life in Gaza? The only thing truly regular that we in the West see there is the protests and funerals; it's far too dangerous now for anyone other than local journalists to report on the territory, after Alan Johnson's kidnap last year, and so we hear very little about the crushing helplessness, the constant anger and fear, or the despair of a people that have long had all their hopes and dreams obliterated, of any kind of progress or improvement in their harsh lives.

But, says the neutral observer, wouldn't all this be ended and lifted if the Palestinians sorted themselves out and put a stop to the rocket fire? It would be lovely if things were so simple. The very firing of the Qassams is a sign of the weakness of the Gazans; they're the equivalent of a placebo, a weapon that makes those who fire them imagine that somehow it's resisting the Israelis, while all its doing is in fact contributing to the siege mentality. Even if Hamas decided to halt all the rocket fire tomorrow, the occupation itself would not be lifted, nor would the checkpoints be opened, or probably even the crops allowed through. The people would be back where they started, no better for anything that's occurred since the settlements were evacuated and the current policy of blockading the Strip was decided upon. Since Hamas seized the strip last year, the stranglehold has only tightened as Israel has tried to put pressure on the movement and dismally failed. Fatah's decision for its workers to strike in response only further put popular sentiment behind Hamas as the services disintegrated.

For the moment, Israel's casual inhumanity has been put checked somewhat by the international outcry, the only force which ever makes it so much as think twice,
with Ehud Barak agreeing that the curbs will be diluted tomorrow so that fuel, food aid and medicines can be delivered. Then it will doubtless be back to the same old, with Israel making certain that Gaza cannot sleep, work or just exist while Sderot is threatened by fireworks that occasionally injure or kill, but do cause significant psychological distress. The same fear and anxiety that Gazans live with their entire lives. As Israel continues to make their short existence as miserable as possible, there will never be a shortage of the young ready to take the places of those killed or arrested in their small acts of defiance. For a young country that is meant to feel existentially threatened from all sides, it is remarkably cavalier about those within that, without a settlement to satisfy them, will only continue to fight.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007 

Just two piles of bodies, one Israeli, one Palestinian.

A Palestinian boy stands in front of a burning truck, during the recent in-fighting in the Gaza strip.

The weariness concerning the continuing conflict in Gaza between militants firing their rudimentary Qassam rockets and Israel responding with the overwhelming force of its hellfire missiles is hard to get past. Always beneath the surface of the on-off confrontation between the resistance groups and that of the IDF is a grim calculus of death; 40 Palestinians have now died in air strikes since Hamas and others stepped-up the firing of rockets into the towns of Sderot and Ashkelon, while a single Israeli woman was killed when a Qassam landed on top of a car. 11 other Israelis have been wounded in the last two weeks, while since the Qassams were first launched in 2001 12 Israelis have lost their lives to them.

The figures surely tell their own story. However much pain can be inflicted by Hamas and others on Israel, they only get it returned to them with far more vengeance than they could ever manage. Since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, over 1,000 Israelis have been killed, while over 4,400 Palestinians have died. A similar tale occurred during last year's Israel-Lebanon-Hizbullah war, when over 1,000 Lebanese civilians died while only 43 Israelis did, a battle in which Hizbullah was almost universally seen as the victor, despite the casualties.

The higher than usual firing of Qassam rockets came at a time when Gaza had again became an open battlefield between Hamas and Fatah gunmen, continuing their power struggle which has simmered ever since Hamas won the elections in January of last year, triggering the economic boycott which has left the Palestinians ever more cut-off and reliant on help from such well-intentioned fair-weather friends as the Iranians. The tactic seems to have worked in stopping the in-fighting, only to heighten the carnage caused by the predictable response from Israel. Both sides have a contempt for human life that helps them justify their respective responses; each attack is a response, every missile an act of self-defense. The absolute stupidity which keeps Hamas and others firing their pathetic rockets is almost impossible to countenance, bringing only death and destruction in their wake, while doing nothing to help bring an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestine state any closer. It's easy to blame the Israelis for the way their missiles kill the innocent while also targeting militants, but the Qassams, however technologically backward, and psychologically rather than physically damaging, could not be tolerated by any state. The response to them may be disproportionate, but few would deny them the right to attack those launching the homemade missiles into Israel. It might be considered collective punishment, which is illegal, but no one's really prepared to raise their voices that loudly about it.

This bloody, tedious stalemate has become one of the defining features of the Israel-Palestine conflict. However often both sides reach out with apparent olive branches, Hamas doing so early this year, when one of its militant leaders admitted that Israel was a reality, in complete contradiction with its anti-semitic charter which calls for its destruction, and Olmert recently, when he gave a cautious welcome to the Arab Peace Initiative, while still refusing to discuss the matter of the right of return for refugees, the bloodshed seems to inexorably continue with no end in sight. Welcome developments, like that of Palestinian women who bravely confronted Israeli soldiers last year in peaceful, unarmed direct action protests, which if taken further could have taken the gun out of Palestinian resistance, seem to have come to a halt.

As ever, there seems very little to be optimistic about. Hamas continues to hold the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who before long will have been in captivity for a year, while Israel continues its own raids on Palestinian politicians and others; many of those held during last summer's incursions into Gaza are still in custody, while Nasser al-Shaer, regarded as one of the most moderate members of Hamas, was again arrested, having been detained for a time last year. The Israeli government itself is still mired in the aftermath of the heavy criticism handed down in the Winograd inquest into the Lebanon war, Olmert and Peretz both on their way out, Kadima likely to be replaced by Likud and Netanyahu at an eventual election.

Where the battle being fought between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army fits into all this is anyone's guess. A radical Islamist group which apparently shares the same Salafist ideology as al-Qaida, it seems to have sprouted almost out of thin air, leading many to wonder just who's backing it and why. The usual claims that it's all Syria's doing, despite the Syrians being diametrically opposed to takfirists, even if it might let some of them cross into Iraq over its vast border, don't seem to stand up, while Seymour Hersh has alleged that Saudi Arabia, much more sympathetic towards Sunni radicals as long as they don't attempt to overthrow their own corrupt monarchy, was funding the group as a bulwark against any eventual attempts by Hizbullah to gain further power in Lebanon. In any case, the fears that the Nahr al-Bared camp would be turned into a bloodbath through indiscriminate fighting between al-Islam and the army appear to have been thankfully proved unfounded: most of the refugees in the camp have now fled, while a tense truce is holding, although this may only be a lull while the army restocks. While sympathy for al-Islam was always low, the tactics of the Lebanese army, using the same shelling methods which the Israelis have in the past subjected Gaza to, could have raised tensions in other refugee camps in Lebanon.

The solution to all of this also remains the same as ever. The Palestinian groups, or at the very least, Hamas and Fatah, should announce unilateral ceasefires. Hamas needs to recognise Israel's right to exist; it doesn't have to renounce violence yet, which would likely be too far a step all at once. In response, Israel should stop all building works on settlements within the West Bank, and begin negotiations on the question of prisoners, either to be swapped or released or otherwise, which could then be built on into negotiations on a state in itself. The populations of both Israel and Palestine always agree on one thing: both desperately want peace. It's just some of their politicians at the moment which don't.

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