US Policy in Gaza Remains Unchanged

One year ago Thursday, the last Israeli tanks were lumbering out of the Gaza Strip, ending the 22-day Gaza War and leaving in their wake a decimated landscape and population.

A year later, the humanitarian and security situation in the devastated coastal enclave remains dire, yet the Barack Obama administration continues to overlook the crisis in Gaza, an approach which some experts say is an extension of the previous administration’s policy.

This policy has also done little to alleviate what human rights groups warn is a growing humanitarian crisis, plunging the Gaza Strip further into poverty and insecurity.

Sworn into office in the midst of the Gaza War, President Obama gave early prominence to the Middle East peace process in his administration’s foreign policy. Yet that rhetoric has failed to materialize into progress on the peace process or relief for the people of Gaza.

The U.S. remains resolute in its refusal to engage with Hamas, the Islamist party that now rules Gaza and is designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. This policy began to have a dramatic affect upon Gazans in 2007, under President George W. Bush, when Hamas took control of the territory.

"Obama showed his trajectory early on," said Paul Woodward, editor and creator of the reputable blog "The U.S. made a decision to sideline Hamas after the 2006 [Palestinian] elections, which they and Israel [had initially] supported — marginalizing Hamas and by default, marginalizing Gaza."

"The Obama administration has engaged in much more cosmetic changes than strategic changes," Woodward told IPS.

Such cosmetic changes included soaring rhetoric that reached out to Arab and Muslim communities in an effort to strengthen ties that had been weakened under the previous administration.

"America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own," Obama said during his landmark speech in Cairo.

Despite such commitments, Gaza, which has been subject to a tightening blockade by neighboring Israel and Egypt since 2007, continues to languish without access to the necessary humanitarian aid, reconstruction materials, and trade opportunities that would allow it to recover from the devastating conflict.

As the crisis deepens, U.S. complicity in the siege is becoming more evident in the eyes of the Arab world.

"The idea that the U.S. is impotent… is something that no Palestinian in Gaza who we met believed," said Amjad Atallah, at a Brookings Institution event last week. Atallah is the co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.

The Gaza War, also known as Operation Cast Lead, was a three-week battle between Hamas militants and the Israeli army last winter. The conflict resulted in widespread devastation and casualties in Gaza, where more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed. There were 13 Israeli causalities suffered from Hamas-launched rockets and during the ground incursion into the territory.

According to Human Rights Watch, the blockade has forced 80 percent of Gaza’s population of 1.5 million people to rely upon humanitarian aid and a black market supplied by smugglers.

Smuggling tunnels below the Gaza/Egypt border are the only remaining link to the outside world for the Gaza’s citizens, and have "literally driven Gaza’s economy underground," said Daniel Levy, co-director of the Middle East Task Force, at the Brookings event.

Yet even this last loophole in the blockade is threatened. According to the BBC, Egypt has started work on an underground barrier, with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which cuts off the cross-border tunnel system used by smugglers to circumvent the siege.

"I don’t think there has ever been an instance in history when the United States played such a complicated role in the physical blockading of a population – it’s no wonder they don’t want to take any credit for it," said Yousef Munnayer, executive director of the Palestine Center, about the Obama administration’s understated participation in the cordon of the Gaza Strip.

Some analysts believe the wall is a strategic maneuver on the part of the U.S. to pressure Hamas into a reconciliation with Fatah, the dominant political party in the West Bank, in order to restart stalled peace talks.

"Egypt’s tough new stance toward Hamas is enabled by Cairo’s current efforts to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization… Hamas is being squeezed on all fronts," said Yossi Alpher, the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, in his column in The Jewish Daily Forward.

While the Obama administration has failed to follow through on its commitments to relieve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the United States Congress has, it seems, largely ignored it. Since January 2009, a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives that expresses concern about the situation in Gaza has stalled in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

In contrast, last November the House overwhelmingly supported a resolution that condemned the Goldstone Report, the product of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza conflict. The report, named after respected jurist Richard Goldstone, found both Hamas and Israel committed war crimes during the 22-day conflict.

Rep. Keith Ellison was one of only 58 representatives to vote against or abstain from voting on the resolution. He also represents one of only a handful of U.S. elected officials who have visited the Gaza Strip, while more than 70 members of Congress have traveled to the region. During his trip to the territory in February 2009, Ellison met with residents of both Gaza and the Israeli border town of Sderot.

"When someone like [Rep.] Keith Ellison visits Gaza, I would say that does more for American security in the Middle East and your public diplomacy than virtually anything else we’ve seen this year," Levy said at a briefing on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

But Ellison remains an outlier among members of Congress. "If you want to know how much knowledge there is [among] my colleagues in Congress, all you need to do is look at the vote on the Goldstone Report," Ellison told the audience at the Brooking Institution last week.

"I bet nobody read the Goldstone Report or even the executive summary. So we’re ready to condemn a report which we have not read at all," he added, describing his colleagues in the House of Representatives.

The combination of the war and the continued siege has plunged the Gaza Strip into crippling poverty and the effects of the closure on the health sector have been catastrophic. Amnesty International reported recently that chronic shortages in equipment and medical supplies are routine, leaving health professionals with insufficient resources to treat their patients.

Even as the Obama administration attempts to re-start the peace process, Gaza casts a looming shadow over any such efforts. Some experts claim that peace negotiations are futile until the siege in Gaza has been addressed.

"That’s the precondition for everything," said Andrew Whitley, director of the Representative Office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, in reference to the lifting of the blockade in Gaza.

(Inter Press Service)