Date posted: October 31, 2007
It is ironic how everyone across the spectrum – politicians, civil society and the average man on the street – all stress on the protection of innocent civilians during times of conflict, and yet it is these very civilians who pay the heaviest price.
This is not exclusive to Palestine. Look at Iraq or Afghanistan. The United States, the great defender of democracy and civil rights, prides itself on waging war right. The "innocent civilians" caught in the midst of its sublime endeavor to grant freedom and independence to the Iraqi people are brushed off as unfortunate collateral damage. They were never the target of America’s wrath, the US claims, but they are certainly the ones who have suffered from it the most.
Here in Palestine, the Gaza Strip is the new Iraq. This cramped 365 km2 piece of land is packed with 1.4 million people, most of whom are living in poverty and unemployment and all of whom have been virtually isolated from the rest of the world, particularly since last June.
It is no secret that Israel loathes Hamas and that the United States fervently backs its ally in this opinion. With Hamas in control – or at least as much control as possible under the circumstances – Israel, the United States, and to a large extent, the Fateh-led government in the West Bank all want to see a weakened and politically incapacitated Hamas that would no longer pose as a threat to their strategic plans.
Hence, the isolation, the boycott and the recent sanctions slapped onto the Strip over the past week. Israel is exploiting the firing of Qassam rockets into Israeli territory as its pretext for this barrage of measures in Gaza, citing the lives of innocent Israeli citizens as its primary concern. The fact that innocent Palestinian citizens are taking the brunt of the beatings is a seemingly unimportant sidebar for Israel.
Not everything about Israel’s argument is bogus, to be fair. Palestinian resistance groups, namely Hamas’ Izzedin Al Qassam Brigades, along with others such as the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, do shoot crude, homemade rockets into Israeli territory. These mostly imprecise missiles usually land in open fields, leaving an innocuous hole in the ground. Sometimes, however, they hit houses or other facilities and even cause Israeli deaths. According to the Israeli Human Rights organization B’Tselem, 14 Israeli civilians were killed in the two-year period between 2004 and 2006 by thousands of Palestinian rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. Just to put things in perspective, in November of that same year, 19 Palestinians were killed in one day from an Israeli artillery shell in Beit Hanoun. Seventeen of the dead were members of the same family.
So, while it can be argued that Israel does have a duty to protect its citizens, meting out collective punishment against an entire population in its name is a whole other ballgame.
Earlier this week, Israel announced it would reduce fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip. It also approved a defense ministry recommendation to beginning intermittent power cuts to the Strip every time a rocket it fired. Both these motions have been met with opposition by Palestinian and Israeli rights organizations in Israeli courts. However, according to the Palestinian Petroleum Authority, deliveries of diesel fuel and gasoline are already down by 30 percent. Israel maintains its plan entails a 5-11 percent reduction depending on the situation.
In either case, such measures can only be categorized as collective punishment. Less fuel means less electricity, less transportation, less machinery, etc. If rockets continue to be fired into Israel and Israel begins cutting electricity off homes, schools, shops and streets, who will suffer? The few diehards who will launch those rockets whether there is electricity or not? Hardly.
The point here is that Israel’s priority is not really to curb the rockets or even to protect its citizens. If that were the case, the airtight closure and economic sanctions on Gaza, which undoubtedly create a spawning ground for extremism, would never have been put in place. Rather, Israel is hoping to starve out Hamas, which it sees as the only viable opponent to its regional plans, and install a more moderate, politically flexible Palestinian authority in its place. On the contrary, the continuous firing of rockets plays straight into Israel’s hands because it gives them an excuse to continue its aggression against the Gaza Strip.
Even when Israel receives rare international criticism for its actions, these condemnations are always laced with a criticism of the Palestinians. On October 29, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the Israeli measures in the Gaza Strip "unacceptable", saying they only deepen the humanitarian distress of the residents. While he called on Israel to reconsider its actions, this was not before strongly condemning the "indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel."
In addition, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that Israel is getting closer and closer to carrying out a wide-scale military offensive into the Gaza Strip if the rockets do not stop. While Israel’s military actions can not be considered "wide-scale", over the past few days seven Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the Gaza Strip alone. Yesterday, Israeli forces killed four policemen who formerly served in the deposed government in Bani Suheila. Three others were killed the day before in Rafah and Beit Hanoun. One Israeli soldier was also killed in an armed confrontation with Izzedin Al Qassam operatives near the Sufa Crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Hence, regardless of whether Hamas or the Fateh-led government or even Israel can argue valid points in favor of their political stances, the fact remains that these sanctions have and continue to be extremely crippling for the people of Gaza. Israel, no matter what it may say, is not concerned with the average citizens of the Strip. It made that very clear when it declared the Strip "hostile territory" early last month, thus granting itself carte blanche to tighten the noose around the Hamas leadership and the people it governs inside it.
When essential daily necessities are rationed out by an occupying power with the intent to punish, it is inevitable that the "innocent civilians" everyone is so keen on protecting, will suffer the most.
More importantly, so that Israel may not be allowed to mete out such cruel punishment with impunity, the international community – the United States first and foremost – must not treat this state as if it were above the law. Just like the US waged entire wars on countries, supposedly because they did not adhere to international laws and resolutions, Israel should be made to adhere to these same standards. If the world continues to treat Israel with kid gloves, there is no telling how far it will go before Gaza cracks.
Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.