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Why the Gaza disaster is not 3 weeks old and has not stopped along with the bombs

Monday 26 January 2009

Following the latest Israeli aggression on Gaza that started late December 2008, the eyes of the world have been opened to the reality of the daily lives of the people of Gaza; or the reality that the media has agreed to disclose.

People’s knowledge on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict varies and fluctuates regarding the political tendencies of the individual, the geographical location of where they and the type of media exposure they receive.

Though the media throughout the world eventually picked up the story of the ongoing slaughter of Gaza and the cost to Palestinian women, children and infrastructure, there was important background and context information that was hardly mentioned during the climax of a war.

“Why rocket are still fired on Israel?” was a recurring question we received at Palestine Monitor.

Although nothing can ever justify aggression, the use of violence and the loss of civilian life, there are facts that have to be emphasized on why combatants were still targeting Israel after the so-called Israeli disengagement from the Strip in 2005.

Yesterday, in a conference on media bias by IPCRI, we heard a journalist from the Jerusalem Post assuming that the main cause that lead to bias in the Israeli public opinion, and in the newspapers that were feeding that same opinion, was that Israelis strongly believe in the ‘disengagement’ of 2005 and assume that Israel has not exerted any control on the Strip since then. For the majority of them, he said, “and I myself was among those, this was a unilateral war, resulting from 8 years of unilateral aggression by Hamas on Israel.”

But Gaza’s misery did not start 3 weeks ago; and it has certainly not ended following the ceasefire.

The context which is often neglected in the Israeli press is that of the deadly and worsening siege policy on the Gaza Strip started 18 months ago.

Illustrative of the depth of this siege are the recent surveys concerning the rapid increase in ‘stunted growth’ in Gaza’s Children over the last years.

A phenomena like stunting does not occur overnight, nor can it be quickly reversed, and is a sad figure which will hopefully awaken Israel and the world to the lies that they left Gaza ’all alone’ after 2005.

Gaza, January 2009 Picture: AP Since the June 2007 take over of Gaza by Hamas, Gazans have been living in a constant state of siege and blockade, resulting in severe restrictions and shortages of the most basic supplies such as food, flour, fuel, cooking gas, electricity, water supply, medicines and medical equipment. This siege has been declared as a form of collective punishment and condemned by a vast array of governments and Human Rights organizations alike.

On the 17th of December 2008 - the eve of the ‘Cast lead’ operation’- UNRWA, the United Nation Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees - 70% of the Gaza residents are registered refugees dependent on for food supplies - suspended its food aid to Gaza and 750,000 Palestinians due to border closure. UNRWA storage warehouses in Gaza were completely empty and no trucks have been allowed to cross into Gaza to fill them up.

Prior to the Israeli ‘Cast Lead’ operation, the situation in Gaza was already classified by the main legitimate international humanitarian organisations as a “humanitarian crisis”.

Human rights and development organisations such as Amnesty International, Care International, Medecins du Monde, Oxfam and Save the Children declared in March 2008 that the situation in Gaza represented “the worst humanitarian crisis in the Strip since Israel occupied it in the 1967 war” and that this was “a man-made disaster resulting from the isolation and blockade.”

A disaster that has been severely exacerbated by the Israeli assault which left over 1,300 dead, more injured people than hospitals can manage and the destruction of most of the civilian facilities and infrastructure in the Strip.

Stunted growth as a long term gift for Gaza children
The brutal siege has crippled Gaza, and most importantly the children. In 2007, Surveys pointed that 10% of Palestinian children suffer permanent effects from malnutrition. One obvious effect of malnutrition among children is stunted growth [1], which has increased about 3% percent in the last two years. Report found that 13.2 % of the children of Gaza suffer stunted growth, compared to 7.9% percent in the West Bank.

Gaza, January 2009 Picture: AP Both numbers are alarming, but it also shows that this gap is being increased rapidly, between the two entities that constitute Palestine: Gaza and the West Bank. They are indeed living two different realities and suffering from different treatment from Israel. The Gaza Strip is facing policies of heavy siege while the West Bank is facing a permanent occupation. As both are heavily restricted in movement back and forth, the health differences between the Palestinians from Gaza and their counterparts in the West Bank is indeed growing at the same rate that there ability to interact are disappearing.

Most recently, a Worldvision report released in December 2008, prior to the attacks, updated the terrible impact of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip on the Palestinian children. “Children are malnourished and lacking vital protein and vitamins which is leading to stunted growth in around 27% of children in the Gaza.” Mild stunting affects almost 13% of children, moderate stunting 8.46%, and severe stunting 4.83%.

From 2007 to 2008, numbers related to stunted growth in Gaza in fact jumped from 13% to 27%, as a concrete indicator of the consequence of the siege policy.

The survey has revealed disturbing findings linked to the physical and psychosocial well being of children – underscoring the need for long-term, sustainable development.

According to Eyad Saraj, a psychiatrist who works closely with UNRWA, "Stunted growth is a major problem. We see children who are 12 years old yet have the bodies of 8 year olds. They suffer from cognitive problems due to nutritional deficiency".

Rural communities, such in Beit Lahya in the Northern Gaza Strip, rely on farming, fishing and the service sector for its livelihood – all of which have been severely impacted by Israeli military operations, movement restrictions in the sea and border closures leading to a devastated local economy.

While nearly every household in Beit Lahya has access to water, the quality is so poor that 95% of households have to buy their drinking water. Many children are affected by parasites and diarrhoea, which is adequately treated in only 24% of cases, as the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics points out, as a result of the Israeli blockade, nearly 86% households reduced their spending for food, while over 66 % of households decreased their expenditures for health care.

Challenges ahead – Why the massacre has not ended with the silence of the bombs
When looking on the UN development maps, stunted growth in the region should affect less than 2% of the children, the same rate as the European welfare states or the wealthy kingdoms of the Arab Peninsula. This is the reality in Israel, but the maps fail to point out the differences between them and their Palestinian neighbours.

Stunted growth rate increased incredibly fast during the past 5 years in Gaza and the West Bank. Even with interventions, the rates don’t go down fast. A real challenge for a country where 17 percent of the Palestinian population is made up of children under the age of 5, and 46% are under 15.

Children in Gaza may not be dying from air strike and gunfire since Sunday but they may still starve to death or succumb to easily treatable ailments.

There is more to a war than bombs and tanks; there are also the slow deaths of innocents as a result of Israel’s policy of collective punishment and ‘ghetto-ization’ which promises to retard Palestinian physical and economic development for years to come.

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