Besieged Gazans are the world’s forgotten people

Tensions between Gaza and Israel are mounting once again. There have been Israeli air strikes and Islamic Jihad rockets, and Israel recently claimed that it had intercepted a Gaza-bound missiles shipment, though the claim seemed rather implausible.

It also said it had uncovered what it described as the “most advanced” tunnel into Israel from Gaza which could have been used to mount attacks. On the other side of Gaza’s hermetically sealed boundaries, Egypt claimed to have destroyed a mind-boggling 1,370 smuggling tunnels.

This has sealed off what little economic breathing space Gaza had to withstand the naval and land blockade of the Strip. And the figures speak for themselves.

Although Gaza has been overshadowed by the catastrophes related to the Syrian civil war and other regional events, the forsaken and forgotten territory is enduring a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions.

Official unemployment runs at nearly 40 per cent, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and some 80 per cent of the population receives aid, according to UNRWA, the UN relief agency. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages and endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Even though things are relatively quiet for now and Hamas is sticking to the ceasefire negotiated in 2012, the situation, driven by desperation, could spiral out of control at any moment. “It is only a matter of time until a flare-up with Israel escalates into a major conflagration,” warned the International Crisis Group, the conflict-prevention think tank, last week.

To prevent this destructive eventuality, the ICG calls on Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza in return for continued guarantees that rockets will not be fired into Israel.

I think that the ICG’s blueprint may delay a confrontation for a time, at best, but it will not prevent it. The only way to do that is for both Israel and Egypt to end their siege of Gaza and for Hamas and all the militant groups to provide cast-iron assurances that they will not carry out attacks on either of their neighbours, who will also refrain from launching military operations on Gaza.

Hawks in both Israel and Egypt will immediately object, and claim that the blockade is the only way to contain Hamas. In fact, officials in both countries have indicated their desire to go beyond containment and to bring down the de facto sole ruler of Gaza.

Echoing Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz has warned that, if rocket fire resumes, Israel may invade Gaza to topple Hamas. 

But Mr Steinitz’s proposal betrays a severe absence of intelligence. After all, previous efforts to dislodge the Islamist movement – including major military operations since Hamas came to power, in 2006, 2008-9 and 2012 – have only strengthened its grip on power.

Even if Hamas is faltering or on the brink of collapse, there is the troubling question, asked by many in Gaza, of who will come after.

Israel once supported Hamas and its precursors as a supposed counterbalance to the PLO, and, in the process, contributed to creating something far more radical. Many fear that Islamic jihadists, not the Palestinian Authority, would dominate such a post-Hamas Gaza.

Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, with little noticeable effect on Israel’s security or on prospects for peace.

In fact, sealing Gaza off from the outside world has turned what used to be a relatively open and liberal society dependent on shoppers and tourists into an insular prison colony controlled by religious fundamentalists.

This proven inefficacy, as well as the humanitarian crisis, may be what prompted outgoing ­UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi to speak out strongly. While acknowledging the legitimacy of Israel’s and Egypt’s security concerns, he said: “I think the world should not forget about the security of the people of Gaza.”

Mr Grandi added that the blockade was “illegal and must be lifted”.

“I also want to make a strong appeal for exports to resume because the lack of exports is the main reason for the poverty of Gaza,” he added.

And it is not just Mr Grandi who is fed up with the blockade; others in the international community are too. Even the European Union is losing patience. In a recent report, the EU’s heads of mission called for a “strategy for a political endgame resulting in Gaza’s return to normality”, naming Israel as “the primary duty bearer” due to its role as the occupying power, while urging Hamas to state its “categorical renunciation of violence”.

If the status quo remains, the ever-worsening situation in Gaza will only succeed in radicalising a new generation of Palestinians. After all, some, having lost everything, may decide that they have nothing left to lose.

Ending the Gaza blockade is both the principled and pragmatic thing to do.

Khaled Diab (www.chronikler.com) is a Belgian-Egyptian freelance journalist

On Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea


 

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