Two news items related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last week revealed, each in its own way, the harshness of the Israeli occupation.
First, the Israeli Security Cabinet voted unanimously Sept. 19 to declare the Gaza Strip an “enemy entity,” setting the stage for the tightening of its economic blockade of the poverty-stricken area and, in particular, the methodical cutting off of electricity and fuel to Gaza’s 1.4 million Palestinians.
Among other things, electricity is necessary for refrigeration and for running motors that pump water, which is already in very short supply.
Second, on the next day, Mahmoud Qasassy, a 17-year-old Palestinian boy, was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer near the Al-Buraij refugee camp in central Gaza. Qasassy was but the latest casualty of Israeli military action. An estimated 5,000 Palestinians have died in the conflict since 2001.
The Israeli declaration of Gaza as a hostile entity was officially justified as an act of retaliation for sporadic Palestinian rocket fire into the Israeli border town of Sderot. The rockets, which the Israeli Defense Ministry has said are more of a psychological than a physical threat, have killed 12 residents of Sderot since 2001.
More broadly, however, the Israeli action reflects its continuing refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Hamas-led government that was democratically elected in 2006.
The Israeli declaration received the immediate backing of Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state.
In the occupied territories and around the world, the Israeli cutoff decision was widely denounced as an act of collective punishment that would only intensify the suffering of Gaza’s population and radically worsen the already existing humanitarian crisis there.
Al Huq, a Palestinian association of jurists, noted that despite Israel’s so-called disengagement from Gaza, “Israel retains full control of the Gaza Strip’s land borders, population registry, airspace and territorial sea.” It said the action was a clear violation of Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power, and in particular its responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of the civilian population in Gaza.
Along the same lines, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said he was concerned “such a step would be contrary to Israel’s obligations toward the civilian population under international humanitarian and human rights law.” He told IRIN, the UN news agency, that the people of Gaza are “already suffering from the impact of prolonged closure” and that they should not be punished for the “unacceptable” actions of militants who fire rockets into Israel.
Similar concerns about the impact of the cutoffs were expressed by Javier Solana, foreign policy chief for the European Union, and by workers for Oxfam, the international humanitarian agency, in the Gaza Strip.
The move was also criticized within Israel. Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace group, said, “The starving of Gaza’s inhabitants is a crime and a folly. Mistreating a million and a half people will make them the most bitter of enemies. Instead of a cruel policy of naked force, we should negotiate with all Palestinians — including Hamas.”
Gush Shalom noted that the Hamas leadership “has explicitly expressed its willingness to discuss a cease-fire and a mutual end to attacks on both sides of the Gaza border.”
The conflict is by no means confined to Gaza, however. A UN agency released a report Sept. 21 that said the number of Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank, roadblocks that severely obstruct Palestinian access to hospitals, homes, schools or work, has increased 52 percent in the last two years.
The report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the problem is rapidly getting worse. It said that in the last month an additional 40 roadblocks had been added, bringing the total to 572.
Moreover, the continuing round-up of Palestinians on the slightest of pretexts — for waving a Palestinian flag, for example — has boosted the number of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, now estimated to be near 12,000.
Israeli actions such the cutoff, jailings, new checkpoints and continuing construction of an apartheid wall prompted Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian legislator and leader of the Palestinian National Initiative, to tell reporters last week that “Israel is ongoing with its assaults against the Palestinian people and is not interested in being a real partner for peace,” despite words of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the contrary.