Helpless in Gaza

JERUSALEM – Scores of Palestinian women and their children carefully sift through the desert sands. They are looking for hard nuggets.

No gold rush here in the Gaza Strip – all they are putting into their sacks are pebbles and pieces of hard rock.

Even Israelis were moved when their main commercial channel, Channel 2, showed on prime-time news on Thursday evening the scenes of despair in besieged Gaza.

The pebbles are sold for a pittance to Palestinian contractors who have no other building material with which to reconstruct the thousands of homes and buildings destroyed last year during Israel’s war on Hamas.

Beyond Gaza, the current United States diplomatic effort aimed at restarting full peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has yet to yield results.

Now, a joint Palestinian-Israeli NGO has stepped in, seeking to fill the dangerous vacuum. In a policy paper, it puts forward recommendations to the international community on how the abysmal Gaza predicament might be resolved.

The paper, devised by the Palestine-Israel Journal (PIJ), was made available to IPS on Wednesday.

The assessments and recommendations of the special PIJ forum are part of a series of advisory papers solicited by the European Union (EU) on how to advance the two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.

The premise of the PIJ paper on Gaza is twofold: "Israel is the party which holds the primary keys to ending the current situation in Gaza. Without pressure from the international community, Israel will not hand over those keys."

The reports goes on to assert that "the siege imposed on Gaza by Israel and the international community is a collective punishment; it creates a hotbed for the breeding of extremism and violence; it serves the rule of Hamas; worsens the social structure of the Strip and creates an unstable and retarded economy that is based on non-production. In the medium and long term, this poses a significant risk to many parties, including Egypt and Israel."

With Israeli-Arab negotiations stalled since the Gaza war, the PIJ forum represents a unique initiative. It brings together Palestinian and Israeli politicians along with civil society activists, military and legal experts, and diplomats from the EU, the U.S., Egypt, and Turkey.

To allow the participants to express their views as freely as possible, the policy paper was drafted under the Chatham House rule. No quotations stemming from the closed-door proceedings were made public.

Among the recommendations were:

  • Depoliticize aid and freedom of movement for people and goods and to enable the normalization of living conditions in Gaza.
  • Demand more robustly that Israel provide clarification of its closure policy and its refusal to accept the EU proposal for the re-opening of the Gaza seaport.
  • Local and international civil societies must vocally and visibly call attention to the international community’s obligation to end its participation in the blockade of Gaza.

Specifically, the PIJ forum calls for the launching of "public campaigns to put more pressure on Israel, with the goal of reflecting more accurately the situation on the ground and the aspirations of the population," in particular "the individual humanitarian aspects."

The forum also advises the international community to "examine its participation in the act of closing off Gaza and ask itself honestly if its goals are being achieved and at what cost."

Regarding the urgency of postwar reconstruction, the PIJ paper urges donors to "secure Israeli guarantees to ensure that the results of continued development aid will not to be destroyed again."

"The international community should regularly issue a public register of the damages, the delays and the destruction of projects built with the help of foreign financial aid as a consequence of Israeli governmental activity and should seek compensation for such damages."

A longtime supporter of the two-state solution, the PIJ does not steer shy of political recommendations.

It reaffirms the requirement of "the territorial integrity of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as agreed upon in the Oslo peace accord (1993) by lifting the Gaza-West Bank access restrictions, which contribute to de-linking and isolating the two territories from each other and to making a future united statehood less likely."

Neither does the PIJ evade the devastating consequences on the Palestinian state-to-be of the self-inflicted domestic political and territorial schism; it insists on the need to "involve Hamas and other political factions in the political process."

For that purpose, it calls for a phased internationally-backed plan "to design and implement a full package that includes national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas; the exchange of prisoners between Hamas and Israel, and new elections based on the Egyptian proposal for moving toward elections in June 2010."

There is no indication as to how immediate relief could be reached to the hard-pressed Palestinians of Gaza.

A report issued last week by the UN and compiled on the basis of work of 80 NGOs spoke of the impact of the blockade of Gaza on the health of the people and on health services in the densely populated Strip.

The UN report stresses that "the economy of Gaza is in virtual collapse with rising unemployment and poverty which will have long term adverse effects on the physical and mental health of the population. The environment is also in decline including water quality, sewage and waste disposal and other environmental hazards (including munitions and medical waste)."

"Hospitals and primary care facilities have not been rebuilt because construction materials are not allowed into Gaza. Operation ‘Cast Lead’ [the Israeli codename for its war on Hamas] damaged or destroyed 15 of Gaza’s 27 hospitals and 43 of its 110 primary health-care facilities.

"Supplies of drugs and disposables have generally been allowed into Gaza – though there are often shortages on the ground. However, certain types of medical equipment, such as X-ray equipment and electronic devices, are very difficult to bring in. Broken medical equipment is often not being repaired, while spare parts are either unavailable or out of date," the report notes.

Israeli Minister of Welfare Isaac Herzog told IPS that, although the conditions in Gaza are "preoccupying," the "humanitarian situation is under control."

Responding to the PIJ recommendation to bring Hamas into the negotiating process, Herzog stressed that a more preferable approach would be for the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to "test [Benjamin] Netanyahu at the table."

In addition to the tight Israeli siege, there has been a further closing-in on Gaza: Egypt is accelerating building of an underground wall on its border with the area to prevent Palestinian smuggling of weapons and all manner of goods barred by Israel.

The women and children combing Gaza’s wasteland may well be there for some time to come.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.