Friday, June 30, 2006


I am still on "vacation" (regular edition will return sometime in July) but I could not ignore what is happening to the civilian population of Gaza. Below you will find a report from the UN on the situation, a commentary printed in CounterPunch, and an editorial from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

UN aid chief warns Gaza is on the verge of humanitarian crisis

Gaza is three days away from a deadly humanitarian crisis unless Israel promptly restores fuel and electricity to the densely populated area after its offensive to free an abducted soldier, the United Nations aid chief warned on Thursday.

"They are heading for the abyss unless they get electricity and fuel restored," said Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland, who also urged the Palestinians to free the soldier and clamp down on militants firing rockets into Israel.

Without clean water in the hot summer weather, "we would in days see a major humanitarian crisis," he said. Military action targeting innocent civilians violates international humanitarian law, he added.

"I am confident that neither of the two want to see a massive increase in mortality in the Gaza," where children make up about half of the area's 1.4 million people, Egeland told a small group of reporters.

At the heart of the crisis, he said, was Israel's bombing of Gaza's sole power plant, which supplies about 40 percent of the area's electricity. The remaining power comes from Israel.

An estimated 130 Gaza wells require electricity to pump water, and while some have backup pumps that run on diesel fuel, Israel has allowed no fuel to flow into Gaza for four days, leaving it dependent on emergency supplies expected to last another three days.

Egeland, who as Norway's deputy foreign minister helped orchestrate secret 1992 talks between Israel and the Palestinians that led to the Oslo accords, lamented that both sides in the conflict appeared intent on perpetuating an endless cycle of violence.

"They are locked in a situation where they do their utmost to cut the bridges between them and create hatred that bodes ill for the future," he said. "Why do they do things that are so counter to their own interests?"

Red Cross looks to send medical supplies to Gaza
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), concerned about escalating Middle East violence, called on Friday for Israel to allow urgent medical supplies into Gaza.

Dorothea Krimitsas, ICRC spokeswoman, said Israel was obliged under international law - including the Geneva Conventions - to ensure that humanitarian supplies reach Palestinian civilians.

Israel Air Force fighter jets pounded Gaza on Friday, setting ablaze the Interior Ministry office of the Hamas-led Palestinian government in a widening military effort to secure the release of a soldier captured last Sunday.

"We are negotiating with Israel to allow in humanitarian aid. These are essential medicines and medical supplies for the Palestinian Red Crescent," Krimitsas told Reuters.

"We are concerned at the humanitarian consequences of the escalation of violence and closure of crossing points to Gaza, especially the Karni crossing," she added.

The ICRC is also anxious to deliver food packages and household items for Palestinian families, some of whom have had their homes destroyed, according to Krimitsas.

"Under international law, Israel has the obligation to allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza. It also has the duty to ensure that the vital supplies for the population, including food and medicine, are adequate," she said.

Israeli strikes have knocked out bridges, water systems and a major power transformer in the densely populated Gaza Strip, home to 1.4 million Palestinians.

Hospitals, hard-hit by the loss of electricity, have to use generators for power, consuming precious fuel, Krimitsas said.

"We are worried about the fuel stocks. Palestinian authorities have estimated that they have enough for about 7 to 10 days," she added.


Israel's Appalling Bombing in Gaza
Starving in the Dark

On the excuse of rescuing one kidnapped soldier, Israeli is now bombing the Gaza Strip and is poised to re-invade. It has also arrested a third of the Palestinian parliament, wrecking even its fragile illusion of capacity and reducing the already-empty vessel of the Palestinian Authority into broken shards.

In the shambles, Palestinians may be observing one bitter pill of compensation: vicious angling by Fatah to reclaim control of Palestinian national politics and its rivalry with Hamas are now rendered obsolete. Even the dogged international community cannot maintain its dogged pretense that the PA is actually capable of any governance at all. The demise of the disastrous Oslo model, Israel's device to ensure its final dismemberment of Palestinian land and its fatal cooptation of the Palestinian national movement, may finally be at hand. Perhaps Palestinian unity again has a chance.

But no one knows what will replace the PA. It is therefore not surprising that this transformed diplomatic landscape is absorbing the principal attention of an anxious international community.

Nevertheless, politics should not be the greatest international concern. For over in Gaza, one appalling act must now eclipse all thoughts of "road maps" or "mutual gestures": on Wednesday, Israeli war planes repeatedly bombed and utterly demolished Gaza's only power plant. About 700,000 of Gaza's 1.3 million people now have no electricity, and word is that power cannot be restored for six months.

It is not the immediate human conditions created by this strike that are monumental. Those conditions are, of course, bad enough. No lights, no refrigerators, no fans through the suffocating Gaza summer heat. No going outside for air, due to ongoing bombing and Israel's impending military assault. In the hot darkness, massive explosions shake the cities, close and far, while repeated sonic booms are doubtless wreaking the havoc they have wrought before: smashing windows, sending children screaming into the arms of terrified adults, old people collapsing with heart failure, pregnant women collapsing with spontaneous abortions. Mass terror, despair, desperate hoarding of food and water. And no radios, television, cell phones, or laptops (for the few who have them), and so no way to get news of how long this nightmare might go on.

But this time, the situation is worse than that. As food in the refrigerators spoils, the only remaining food is grains. Most people cook with gas, but with the borders sealed, soon there will be no gas. When family-kitchen propane tanks run out, there will be no cooking. No cooked lentils or beans, no humus, no bread ­ the staples Palestinian foods, the only food for the poor. (And there is no firewood or coal in dry, overcrowded Gaza.)

And yet, even all this misery is overshadowed by a grimmer fact: no water. Gaza's public water supply is pumped by electricity. The taps, too, are dry. No sewage system. And again, word is that the electricity is out for at least six months.

The Gaza aquifer is already contaminated with sea water and sewage, due to over-pumping (partly by those now-abandoned Israeli settlements) and the grossly inadequate sewage system. To be drinkable, well water is purified through machinery run by electricity. Otherwise, the brackish water must at least be boiled before it can be consumed, but this requires electricity or gas. And people will soon have neither.

Drinking unpurified water means sickness, even cholera. If cholera breaks out, it will spread like wildfire in a population so densely packed and lacking fuel or water for sanitation. And the hospitals and clinics aren't functioning, either, because there is no electricity.

Finally, people can't leave. None of the neighboring countries have resources to absorb a million desperate and impoverished refugees: logistically and politically, the flood would entirely destabilize Egypt, for example. But Palestinians in Gaza can't seek sanctuary with their relatives in the West Bank, either, because they can't get out of Gaza to get there. They can't even go over the border into Egypt and around through Jordan, because Israel will no longer allow people with Gaza identification cards to enter the West Bank. In any case, a cordon of Palestinian police are blocking people from trying to scramble over the Egyptian border--and war refugees have tried, through a hole blown open by militants, clutching packages and children.

In short, over a million civilians are now trapped, hunkered in their homes listening to Israeli shells, while facing the awful prospect, within days or weeks, of having to give toxic water to their children that may consign them to quick but agonizing deaths.

One woman near the Rafah border, taking care of her nephews, spoke to BBC: "If I am frightened in front of them I think they will die of fear." If the international community does nothing, her children may soon die anyway.

The astonishing scale of this humanitarian situation is indeed matched only by the deafening drizzle of international reaction. "Of course it is understandable that [the Israelis] would want to go after those who kidnapped their soldier," says Kofi Anan (while the Palestinian population cowers in the dark listening to thundering explosions demolish their society), "but it has to be done in such a way that civilian populations are not made to suffer." Even as Israel bombs smash Gaza's roadways, the G-8 stands up on its hind-legs to intone, "We call on Israel to exercise utmost restraint in the current crisis." How about the Russians, now angling for position in the new "Great Game" of the Middle East? "The right and duty of the government of Israel to defend the lives and security of its citizens are beyond doubt," says Russia's foreign ministry, as though poor Corporal Shalit warrants any of this mayhem, "But this should not be done at the cost of many lives and the lives of many Palestinian civilians, by massive military strikes with heavy consequences for the civilian population."

And what says noble Europe, proud font of human rights conventions, architects of the misiĆ³n civilizatrice? "The EU remains deeply concerned," mumbles the mighty defenders of humanitarian law, "about the worsening security and humanitarian developments." Seemingly soggy phrases like "deeply concerned" are diplomatic code for "We are seriously unhappy." But under these circumstances, "remains deeply concerned" suggests that this staggering crime is just one more sobering moment in the failed "road map."

Diplomatic bubbles of unreality in the Middle East are the norm rather than the exception, but at some point the international community must face the very unwelcome fact that it needs to change gear. A country that claims kinship among the western democracies of Europe is behaving like a murderous rogue regime, using any excuse to reduce over a million people to utter human misery and even mass death. Plastering Corporal Shalit's face over this policy is no more convincing that South African newspapers emblazoning the picture of one poor murdered white doctor over their coverage of the 1976 Soweto uprising.

Israel has done many things argued to be war crimes: mass house demolitions, closing whole cities for weeks, indefinite "preventative" detentions, massive land confiscation, the razing of thousands of square miles of Palestinian olive groves and agriculture, systematic physical and mental torture of prisoners, extrajudicial killings, aerial bombardment of civilian areas, collective punishment of every description in defiance of the Geneva Conventions--not to mention the general humiliation and ruin of the indigenous people under its military control. But destroying the only power source for a trapped and defenseless civilian population is an unprecedented step toward barbarity. It reeks, ironically, of the Warsaw Ghetto. As we flutter our hands about tectonic political change, we must take pause: in the eyes of history, what is happening in Gaza may come to eclipse them all.

Dr. Virginia Tilley is a professor of political science, currently working in South Africa. She can be reached at


The government is losing its reason

By Haaretz Editorial

Bombing bridges that can be circumvented both by car and on foot; seizing an airport that has been in ruins for years; destroying a power station, plunging large parts of the Gaza Strip into darkness; distributing flyers suggesting that people be concerned about their fate; a menacing flight over Bashar Assad's palace; and arresting elected Hamas officials: The government wishes to convince us that all these actions are intended only to release the soldier Gilad Shalit.

But the greater the government's creativity in inventing tactics, the more it seems to reflect a loss of direction rather than an overall conception based on reason and common sense. On the face of it, Israel wishes to exert increasing pressure both on Hamas' political leadership and on the Palestinian public, in order to induce it to pressure its leadership to release the soldier. At the same time, the government claims that Syria - or at least Khaled Meshal, who is living in Syria - holds the key. If so, what is the point of pressuring the local Palestinian leadership, which did not know of the planned attack and which, when it found out, demanded that the kidnappers take good care of their victim and return him?

The tactic of pressuring civilians has been tried before, and more than once. The Lebanese, for example, are very familiar with the Israeli tactic of destroying power stations and infrastructure. Entire villages in south Lebanon have been terrorized, with the inhabitants fleeing in their thousands for Beirut. But what also happens under such extreme stress is that local divisions evaporate and a strong, united leadership is forged.

In the end, Israel was forced both to negotiate with Hezbollah and to withdraw from Lebanon. Now, the government appears to be airing out its Lebanon catalogue of tactics and implementing it, as though nothing has been learned since then. One may assume that the results will be similar this time around as well.

Israel also kidnapped people from Lebanon to serve as bargaining chips in dealings with the kidnappers of Israeli soldiers. Now, it is trying out this tactic on Hamas politicians. As the prime minister said in a closed meeting: "They want prisoners released? We'll release these detainees in exchange for Shalit." By "these detainees," he was referring to elected Hamas officials.

The prime minister is a graduate of a movement whose leaders were once exiled, only to return with their heads held high and in a stronger position than when they were deported. But he believes that with the Palestinians, things work differently.

As one who knows that all the Hamas activists deported by Yitzhak Rabin returned to leadership and command positions in the organization, Olmert should know that arresting leaders only strengthens them and their supporters. But this is not merely faulty reasoning; arresting people to use as bargaining chips is the act of a gang, not of a state.

The government was caught up too quickly in a whirlwind of prestige mixed with fatigue. It must return to its senses at once, be satisfied with the threats it has made, free the detained Hamas politicians and open negotiations. The issue is a soldier who must be brought home, not changing the face of the Middle East.

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