An Israeli convoy of goods and peace activists will go today to Erez, Israel’s border with Gaza, and many Palestinians will be on the other side waiting. They will not see one another, but Palestinians will know there are Jews who condemn the siege inflicted on the tiny territory by Israel’s military establishment and want to see an end to the 40-year-old occupation.
Israel’s minister of justice, Haim Ramon, had pushed for cutting off Gaza’s "infrastructural oxygen" - water, electricity, and fuel - as a response to the firing of Qassam rockets into Israel. Last Sunday, Ramon’s wish came true: Israel’s blockade forced Gaza’s only power plant to shut down, plunging 800,000 people into darkness. Food and humanitarian aid were also denied entry. Although international pressure forced Israel to let in some supplies two days later, and the situation further eased when Palestinians breached the border wall with Egypt, the worst may be yet to come.
The Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, agrees with Ramon’s strategy, saying that it is "inconceivable that life in Gaza continues to be normal." The rapid and deepening desperation of Gaza’s sick and hungry is of no moral concern to her. For Livni, like Ramon, the siege is a tactical measure, a human experiment to stop the rockets and bring down a duly elected government.
The siege on Gaza and the West Bank began after Hamas’s 2006 electoral victory with an international diplomatic and financial boycott of the new Hamas-led government. Development assistance was severely reduced with the improbable aim of bringing about a popular uprising against the very government just elected to power. Instead, this collective punishment resulted in a steady deterioration of Palestinian life, in growing lawlessness, and a violent confrontation between Fatah and Hamas, which escalated into a Hamas military takeover of Gaza in June 2007.
Since then, the siege has been tightened to an unprecedented level. Over 80 percent of the population of 1.5 million (compared to 63 percent in 2006) is dependent on international food assistance, which itself has been dramatically reduced.
In 2007, 87 percent of Gazans lived below the poverty line, more than a tripling of the percentage in 2000. In a November 2007 report, the Red Cross stated about the food allowed into Gaza that people are getting "enough to survive, not enough to live."
Why is this acceptable?
The reduction in fuel supplies that the Israeli government first approved in October not only threatens the provision of health and medical services but the stock of medicines, which is rapidly being depleted. This has forced the critically ill to seek treatment outside the Gaza Strip.
However, according to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, many patients are being denied permission to leave, because of new bureaucratic restrictions imposed on top of an already inefficient and arbitrary system. The organization has also accused the Israeli intelligence service of forcing some patients to inform on others in order to be granted passage.
Since June, Israel has limited its exports to Gaza to nine basic materials. Out of 9,000 commodities (including foodstuffs) that were entering Gaza before the siege began two years ago, only 20 commodities have been permitted entry since. Although Gaza daily requires 680,000 tons of flour to feed its population, Israel had cut this to 90 tons per day by November 2007, a reduction of 99 percent. Not surprisingly, there has been a sharp increase in the prices of foodstuffs.
Gaza also suffers from the ongoing destruction of its agriculture and physical infrastructure. Between June and November 2006, $74.7 million in damage was inflicted by the Israeli military on top of the nearly $2 billion already incurred by Palestinians between 2002 and 2005. Over half the damage was to agricultural land flattened by bulldozers, with the remainder to homes, public buildings, roads, water and sewage pipes, electricity infrastructure, and phone lines.
The psychological damage of living in a war zone may surpass the physical. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, between Sept. 1, 2005, and July 25, 2007, 668 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli security forces. Over half were noncombatants and 126 were children. During the same period, Qassam rockets and mortar shells killed eight Israelis, half of them civilians.
Gaza is no longer approaching economic collapse. It has collapsed. Given the intensity of repression Gaza is facing, can the collapse of its society - family, neighborhood, and community structure - be far behind? If that happens, we shall all suffer the consequences for generations to come.
Eyad al-Sarraj is founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.
Sara Roy is senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.