As the World Watches the Crisis in Gaza, Gaza Helps Itself
To begin, it is worth recalling that the Gaza Strip is an area of some 360 square kilometers, whose population before the 1948 war was only 80,000 people. In the months prior to, during and after the war, this population was joined by 200,000 Palestinian refugees from the Jaffa and Beersheva districts of British Mandate Palestine, who were forcibly expelled or fled from their homes in fear of the fighting. Most of the homes and villages from which they hailed were systematically destroyed by the military forces of the newly proclaimed Israeli state, and Gaza itself fell under de facto Egyptian administration until its occupation by Israel in the 1967 war.
Though international laws and conventions proclaim the right of refugees to leave and return to their homeland to be a basic human right, the applicability of this right to the Palestinian refugees in Gaza (and elsewhere) has been consistently rejected by the Israeli government. Accordingly, descendants of the first generation of refugees denied their right to return are registered as refugees by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), for to deny subsequent generations this status would be to reward Israeli intransigence by making the refugee problem disappear with the death of its first victims.
Thus, three-quarters of the 1.4 million people living in Gaza are registered refugees who receive basic humanitarian assistance from UNRWA, and they represent 22.42% of the total number of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA. About half of Gaza’s refugee population (478,272) lives in eight refugee camps - Jabalia, Rafah, Beach, Nuseirat, Khan Younis, Bureij, Maghazi, and Deir al-Balah – whose population densities are among the highest in the world. The Beach camp in Gaza, for example, houses 80,688 refugees in an area of less than one square kilometer.1
The Israeli towns regularly targeted by the Qassam rockets of Palestinian militants have been built upon the lands in which their parents, grand-parents or great-grandparents once lived. Not a single article in the mainstream media on the situation in Gaza has mentioned this rather salient fact, and most reports have also failed to recall that Gaza remains under Israeli occupation. While Jewish-only settlements in Gaza were dismantled under Ariel Sharon’s 2005 disengagement plan, Gaza remains under Israeli control and is regularly subjected to Israeli military incursions. Of the over 1,100 Palestinians that have been killed by Israeli security forces since the August 2005 disengagement, the majority were residents of Gaza. Over the same period, a total of 28 Israelis were killed in attacks by Palestinian militants.2
Furthermore, while the Israeli government insists that its military manouevers and collective punishment of the population of Gaza is merely a response to Qassam rocket fire, the total number of civilians killed in such attacks between June 2004 and July 2006 was fourteen - five of whom were Palestinians, and one a migrant labourer from China. Operation Summer Rain (26 June - 24 July 2006), the codename for the Israeli military incursion into Gaza which the government claimed was launched to stop the Qassams, resulted in the death of 126 Palestinians, including at least 63 civilians, 29 of whom were under the age of 18.3
In this broader context, it is both hypocritical and highly misleading for mainstream news organizations to use terms like “Israeli response” or “Israeli retaliation” to characterize Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Qassam rocket fire is just one of many Palestinian responses to Israel’s occupation of Gaza and its continuing refusal to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians to return, self-determination and statehood. In the first forty-five years after their dispossession in 1948, Palestinians centered their resistance around the model of a popular uprising, using mass demonstrations, general strikes, appeals to the international community, and guerrilla operations against military targets to restore their lost rights. Indeed, the first intifada made up primarily of stone-throwing youths who were regularly gunned down by Israeli forces began in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza. It was only when these tactics failed to produce the desired results that suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians began, the first of which was launched in April of 1993. After the construction of the 60 kilometre long perimeter fence which turned Gaza into the largest prison for refugees on earth, militants began constructing the homemade Qassam missiles, the first successful test launch being in 2001. While it is deeply regrettable that Israeli civilians have been injured, killed and traumatized by Qassam attacks and suicide bombings for 15 and 7 years respectively, the civilian population of Gaza has endured injuries, killings, and trauma at the hands of successive Israeli governments for 60 years now. Their rights to security and self-determination are certainly no less than those of the Israelis who settled on their former lands. They are not children of a lesser God, though the way the media reports on the situation, it is not difficult to see why some people think that they are.
Intensive media coverage of the current crisis in Gaza was sparked by its plunge into darkness on 20 January 2007. In what has become a predictable pattern of blame deflection for propaganda purposes, the Israelis once again blamed Hamas for manufacturing the current crisis. Such claims beggar belief however, given that among the proposals for economic sanctions on Gaza put forward by the Vilnai Committee and adopted by the Israeli Cabinet in October of last year, was a call for electricity sanctions. While the electricity sanctions proposal was halted by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz pending further domestic legal review, Israel nevertheless began drastically limiting fuel and foodstuff supplies to Gaza upon implementation of the sanctions regime on 28 October 2007.4
The only power plant located in Gaza relies on industrial gasoline to operate. This plant was built to reduce Gaza's reliance on electricity supplies from the Israeli grid and it provided 140 megawatts (or two-thirds of Gaza’s electricity needs) when it came into full operation in 2004. It had, however, been running at a reduced capacity even before the current crisis due to an Israeli aerial attack which destroyed the plant at the beginning of Operation Summer Rain. The plant was partially rebuilt, likely with monies received as part of the $48 million “political risk” insurance policy it held with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, “an arm of the US government that provides American businesses with financing abroad and promotes US interests in emerging markets.” 5 In other words, American citizens, whose taxes are regularly used to provide Israel with its military arsenal, ended up subsiding Israel’s destructive act twice over.
A Hamas official told Al-Jazeera on 21 January that the plant was operating at a capacity of 80 megawatts prior to its 20 January closure which he ascribed to the total lack of fuel for operations. He also claimed that the one-off emergency shipment of fuel from the EU which Israel would permit to enter Gaza on 22 January would allow the plant to operate for two days at a reduced capacity of 60 megawatts. Without further shipments however, the plant will once again have to be closed, since there are no reserves left to fall back on. An UNRWA official on Al-Jazeera English confirmed that he had visited the plant and that the fuel tanks were indeed empty. Thus, Israeli equivocations designed to avoid responsibility for the humanitarian crisis its policies have produced are once again exposed as out of touch with reality.
The lack of electricity in Gaza at the height of a bitterly cold Middle Eastern winter means not only that many families do not have the power required to heat and light their homes, but also that the water supply, which runs on electrical pumps, is affected. As a result of the two day blackout affecting most of the northern Gaza Strip (some 700,000 people), sewers backed up flooding the streets of densely populated refugee camps, producing conditions ripe for the outbreak of an epidemic.
Driven by the overall desperate conditions, on 22 January, a group made up primarily of women gathered at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, demanding the gate be opened so as to access food, medicine and other supplies denied to them by the siege. They managed to break through the door briefly before being beaten back by Egyptian police. This scene of Egyptian men beating Palestinian women further enraged much of the Arab world who had already taken to the streets to demand action on the part of their governments whose apparent allegiances to Uncle Sam, seem to outstrip that to their own peoples.
As the international community convened to hem and haw over how to address the crisis, niggling over the wording of a proposed Security Council resolution - eventually dropped in favour of a Presidential statement due to the opposition of the United States to the issuing of any resolution at all - Gazans once again took their destiny into their own hands.
On the night of 22nd masked militants detonated landmines at the base of the wall between Egypt and Gaza and then bulldozed sections to allow people to pass through. The United Nations reported that 350,000 people from Gaza flocked into Egypt on the 23rd to buy food, cigarettes, propane, and other items that had been unavailable to them for months. President Mubarak of Egypt, who arguably had the power to open the crossing the day previous, claimed he "decided" to let the people pass through for humanitarian reasons. Without the initiative taken by the militants and the people however, it is highly unlikely that he would have opened the crossing of his own accord. Between the teeming mass of humanity and growing domestic protests, he had little choice but to defer to popular sentiment, disappointing his American and Israeli benefactors.
As the international community continues to fail in holding Israel accountable for sixty years of crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people, the people themselves continue to show enormous resilience and perseverance against the most incredible of odds. The idea floated by Bush and Olmert at Annapolis that Palestinians should give up their right to return to places now located within Israel because Israel's right to retain its identity as a Jewish state is, in their eyes, greater than the rights of millions of refugees to exercise the most basic of human rights is beyond insulting, and is further rejected by the vast majority of the refugees it would affect. Without recognition and implementation of this right, the depth of the resentment built up in generation after generation of refugees will not lessen with time, despite the prognostications of Ben-Gurion that, “The old will die and the young will forget”. Many of the old have died, but the young, some of whom are now lobbing Qassams at Israel, have certainly not forgotten.
Without a radical shift in thinking, there will be many more Qassams and perhaps much worse in Israel’s near future. Wishful thinking will not make the problem go away. To right all wrongs, Israel must accept that a narrowly defined ethnic state made up largely of European settlers at the expense of its indigenous inhabitants cannot hold off the “barbarians at the gate” forever. The full day of reckoning will arrive. It is only a matter of time before the walls in and around the West Bank and Gaza that separate Palestinians from one another (and from their Palestinian brethren that are citizens of Israel) meet the same fate as the wall in Rafah. If Israelis hope to have any kind of future in the region, it behooves them to act pre-emptively to rectify all outstanding injustices - this time, not with might, but for what is right.
1 Gaza refugee camp profiles. UNRWA. Figures as of December 31, 2006. See http://www.un.org/unrwa/refugees/gaza.html.
2 Calculated based on statistics from B’tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. See http://www.btselem.org/english/Statistics/Casualties.asp for a detailed person by person breakdown.
3 Attacks on Israeli Civilians by Palestinians. B'tselem. See http://www.btselem.org/English/Israeli_Civilians/Qassam_Missiles.asp.
4 Gaza Humanitarian Situation Report (1 - 31 October 2007). United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Activities. See html version at http://188.8.131.52/search?q=cache:cbovg581ua0J:www.ochaopt.org/documents/Gaza_Sitrep_2007_11_05.pdf.
5 Gaza Power Plant Hit by Israeli Airstrike is Insured by US Agency. Farah Stockman. Boston Globe. See http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2006/06/29/gaza_power_plant_hit_by_israeli_airstrike_is_insured_by_us_agency/.