April article

CHAPTER 4: On Israel’s policy towards Gaza

In January I wrote about U.S. policy towards Iraq from 1991 to 2003. From the public record it is quite easy to show what U.S. policy was: By bombing Iraq’s civilian infrastructure and re-imposing economic sanctions, the U.S. knowingly created and maintained conditions “dangerous to human life” – especially the lives of vulnerable young Iraqi children. Top administration officials then stated the reason: The UN economic sanctions would continue until “Saddam Hussein was overthrown.” The major cost of this failed, criminal policy was hundreds of thousands of extra Iraqi children’s deaths. According to our U.S. legal code, this was international terrorism.

The U.S. policy of collective punishment against the entire Iraqi civilian population to force the overthrow of their government has been a disaster. What is surprising – or perhaps not – is that Israel would then pursue the same policy towards the civilian population of Gaza to undermine and overthrow the elected government of Gaza.

The blockade of Gaza – maintained by Israel with the cooperation of Egypt on its border with Gaza – is not done with any international facade of legality; it has simply been unilaterally imposed. But Israeli officials have been very candid about the nature of and reason for the blockade.

Here are two paragraphs from the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz describing the blockade:

As the Hamas team laughs

by Gideon Levy on Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Hamas team had not laughed so much in a long time. The team, headed by the prime minister’s advisor Dov Weissglas and including the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, the director of the Shin Bet and senior generals and officials, convened for a discussion with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on ways to respond to the Hamas election victory. Everyone agreed on the need to impose an economic siege on the Palestinian Authority, and Weissglas, as usual, provided the punch line: “It’s like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won’t die,” the advisor joked, and the participants reportedly rolled with laughter. And, indeed, why not break into laughter and relax when hearing such a successful joke? If Weissglas tells the joke to his friend Condoleezza Rice, she would surely laugh too.

But Weissglas’ wisecrack was in particularly poor taste. Like the thunder of laughter it elicited, it again revealed the extent to which Israel’s intoxication with power drives it crazy and completely distorts its morality. With a single joke, the successful attorney and hedonist from Lilenblum Street, Tel Aviv demonstrated the chilling heartlessness that has spread throughout the top echelon of Israel’s society and politics. While masses of Palestinians are living in inhumane conditions, with horrifying levels of unemployment and poverty that are unknown in Israel, humiliated and incarcerated under our responsibility and culpability, the top military and political brass share a hearty laugh a moment before deciding to impose an economic siege that will be even more brutal than the one until now.

If this seems chilling in its callousness, we can recall the exchange in 1996 from the CBS program 60 Minutes between Leslie Stahl and then UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright:

Leslie Stahl: “We have heard that a half million children have died [in Iraq from the sanctions]. That’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price is worth it?”
Madeleine Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.”

Madeleine Albright was subsequently confirmed to be the next U.S. Secretary of State.

The relationship between the blockade of Gaza and the 2008-2009 devastating military attack on Gaza (which the Israelis named “Operation Cast Lead”) is made clear by these comments of the former head of the Israeli Mossad, Ephraim Halevey, in an article in the Guardian newspaper of the UK (my emphasis):

A Hamas condition for a ceasefire is that Israel lift its three year blockade of Gaza that has helped wreck the economy and left many of its 1.5 million residents hungry, poor and trapped.

Ephraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad intelligence service, wrote in the Israeli press today that the government in Jerusalem could have stopped the rocket attacks long ago by lifting its siege of Gaza. But, he said, Israel has a broader interest — to ensure that it is the Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas, who is popularly known as Abu Mazen, and not Hamas that is politically dominant in the Palestinian territories.

If Israel’s goal were to remove the threat of rockets from the residents of southern Israel, opening the border crossings would have ensured such quiet for a generation. But the real objectives of the operation include preserving Fatah’s status as the sole sovereign in the Palestinian Authority and as a partner for negotiations,” he said.

The illegality of this policy of blockade of basic humanitarian goods to the people of Gaza has also been discussed at some length in a letter to the Washington State Attorney General, Rob McKenna, from ten international lawyers and legal scholars. (The detailed reason why the letter is directed to Rob McKenna will be the subject of next month’s posting.) The letter states in part (with my emphasis):

For five months, from June to early November [2008], both Israel and Hamas had observed a truce along the Israel-Gaza border that had brought substantial calm to the area. … Israel’s assault was not necessary to preserve the security of its citizens. Innocent Israelis have undeniable rights to be free of indiscriminate attack. Yet their government failed to explore negotiating a renewal of the truce, which had brought the greatest calm to the region in years.   Hamas had offered to extend the truce in public pronouncements in the days immediately preceding Israel’s attack, as long as Israel abided by its terms – including ending its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel ignored those offers.

Related to this point, President Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech incorrectly stated the international requirements of a “just war.” Obama said: “The concept of a ‘just war’ emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense ….” However the U.N. Charter says that war is justified only if it is “a last resort AND in self-defense.” It must be BOTH in self-defense and also a last resort. But Operation Cast Lead was not a last resort, as pointed out above; therefor it must be seen as an avoidable and illegal aggression.

Finally, it should be obvious that Dov Weissglas’ quote (from the Ha’aretz article above) that “Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won’t die” is simply untrue. While Palestinians in Gaza may not die directly of starvation, everyone will recognize that chronic malnutrition – especially among very young children whose immune systems are not well developed – makes children particularly vulnerable to opportunistic diseases. These are diseases which a normal healthy child can resist, but a malnourished one may easily succumb to and die from. Just as happened to so many children in Iraq.

The World Health Organization writes, “The shortage of fuel required to operate the Gaza power station, as well as the regulation of the electricity supply from Israel are continuing at the same rate, leading to many health, social, and economic impacts.” Just as in Iraq, when electricity is deliberately shut down, the health consequences will be dramatic. Just as in Iraq, electricity is essential to process safe drinking water and process sewage.

When the condition of drinking water and sanitation systems is included, the risk of dying from all of these conditions is much greater than if they were not present. In short, just as in Iraq, the deaths that will occur will be more hidden than if there were skeleton-like bodies to be photographed for the media. This is the nature of slow death by sanctions or blockade. It is why Professor Joy Gordon titled her book on the Iraq sanctions Invisible War.

In a 46-page report Protecting Children from Unsafe Water in Gaza, UNICEF concludes: “90-95 per cent of water in Gaza is too contaminated to drink say UN agencies, The World Bank and the Coastal Municipal Water Utility (CMWU); ― ‘only five per cent – 10 per cent of the aquifer is suitable for human consumption and … this supply could run out over the next five to 10 years without improved controls.’”

Of these conditions, President Obama commented in a news conference: “[I]f the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can’t even get clean water at this point, if the border closures are so tight that it is impossible for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel’s long-term security or a constructive peace track to move forward.” (This important paragraph was completely missing from The New York Times coverage of this meeting between the President and Prime Minister Netanhayu.)

From a Gaza Mental Health Programme report on the Gaza population:

95 percent of people were negatively affected by the blockade on Gaza
93 percent of people have given up on some daily living requirement
96 percent of residents are sad or depressed and studies show that tensions and despair in Gaza are rising
47 percent of patients lack medications
Nearly half of all children have lower energy, suffer physical pain and were unable to complete school assignments.

Retiring Congressman Brian Baird, (WA-3) who visited Gaza four times since Operation Cast Lead, recently said of the ongoing Israeli blockade, “… from a humanitarian perspective, it’s a tragedy. From a legal perspective, it’s unlawful. And from a strategic perspective, it’s unwise.” (Winter 2010 newsletter of The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace & Justice )

This is certainly true. But when an act or policy is unlawful, it is important to identify which law has been violated. As with the U.S. policy supporting bombing of civilian infrastructure and sanctions on Iraq, the Israeli policy towards the people of Gaza is a violation of the Geneva Convention prohibition of collective punishment; and, since it is admittedly done to undermine a government, it is also an act of international terrorism.

The United States government cannot honestly contend it is engaged in a war against international terrorism at the same time as it supports a close ally which engages in it.

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