Palestinians in Gaza gather in front of the Rafah border crossing at the border with Egypt, 22 January 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)
By now, people watching their news programs around the world would have caught a glimpse of Gaza City in candle-lit darkness. A pretty sight indeed if it were not for the fact that most of the people in the Gaza Strip will have to depend on these candles as their only source of light now that the power plant servicing much of Gaza’s population has shut down completely. There is no fuel to keep the plant running because Israel has imposed a complete lock-down of this most densely populated place on earth. That means no movement in or out of the Gaza Strip for people, or any kind of shipments in of vital food, fuel supplies and medicines. It is more than a miserable existence: it is a slow death.
This is the sixth day of Israel’s draconian action against a people already suffering from the punitive sanctions imposed on them after their democratic elections in January 2006 did not yield a result palatable to Israel and parts of the international community. Israel’s latest 24-hour reprieve to let in some supplies is not going to change the circumstances under which the Palestinians have had to live for the last two years. At most, these supplies will last two days. The Palestinians have been struggling to survive in conditions that reached emergency levels even before this latest siege. Hunger, poverty and unemployment are widespread and in this maximum-security prison surrounded by Israel’s military cordon, disease, malnutrition and anarchy are dangerously close to breaking out.
Israel claims that its actions are in response to the homemade rocket fire aimed at the Israeli town of Sderot bordering the Gaza Strip. But by no stretch of the imagination is the firing of rockets compared to Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza an even contest. The Palestinians are imprisoned in Gaza and have no military force other than guns and homemade rockets. Israel, on the other hand, has the most sophisticated weaponry in the world at its disposal and uses it with merciless ferocity. It is bombing the Gaza Strip with its F-16 fighter planes and helicopter gun ships and is launching artillery fire from the tanks it has surrounding this tiny stretch of land. In just the last few days, some 40 people have been killed and 120 injured, most of them civilians.
Israel’s responses are completely disproportionate to the damage caused by the rocket fire from Gaza, which is a symbolic retaliation for Israel’s aggression and its effect is largely psychological. While it certainly makes life miserable for the residents of Sderot, Israel itself is not under threat. The number of Israelis killed and injured by these rockets has been very few compared to the exponentially more Palestinians killed in Gaza. In six years, twelve Israelis have been killed while hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in retaliation, not to mention the hundreds more that have been wounded, often permanently maimed.
Such collective punishment of an entire population is illegal under international law. Most of the Palestinians in Gaza are not combatants. Like in any other population, there is the usual mix of civil servants, doctors, teachers, lawyers, health care workers, engineers, journalists, politicians, students and the thousands of people upon whom any society depends to keep services running — except that hundreds of thousands are now unemployed. And then of course, there are the mothers and children, the elderly and the sick, the incapacitated, the mentally impaired, the charity workers, volunteers, people who do not have a say about what decisions are made. There are also angry young men who feel helpless to protect their families and people already burdened by decades of humiliation and oppression, and many of them are fighting back as any people would do under attack, but their means are primitive and limited because they cannot leave the confines of Gaza.
Over 1,000 Palestinian civilians have gone out on the streets in protest and to beg the world to put an end to this enforced starvation and siege. People are queuing up to find bread, but no one is baking because there is no electricity. Connections with the outside world are dwindling as mobile phones and laptops run out of battery power. There is no water because the pumps need electricity. Washing machines, cook tops and ovens are useless. People cannot get to work because there is practically no fuel for cars and buses. Hospitals with generators are running out of fuel to power them, halting all surgery procedures. Babies in incubators will die once the power goes. Asthmatics on ventilators will suffer. People needing dialysis machines and heart monitors will collapse. Clinics and laboratories will lose their tests and vaccines. Soon, all communication with the outside world will cease and what are we going to do about it?
Najwa Sheikh Ahmad who works for UNRWA in Gaza and began the Candles for Gaza Campaign with her husband last year in October has written to say, “The Israeli side is doing its best to steal every joyful moment in our lives. Starting from treating us like another weird species that should have no mercy, to destroying the best happy moments that a family can have, the wedding of a son, to the slow killing of my people, like banning their right to have medical treatment outside Gaza which has seen 72 people die already, to finally controlling every border and banning the regular rights of having electricity, water and fuel — basic needs that no one should have to bargain over. I am sitting in the dark cold with my three children and I try to keep them busy, but the days are long and dark and they feel bored and are starting to make trouble. Oh God, how exhausting it is to live this way in the 21st century.”
John Dugard, UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Palestinian territories said that “The killing of some 40 Palestinians in Gaza in the past week, the targeting of a government office near a wedding party venue with what must have been foreseen loss of life and injury to many civilians, and the closure of all crossings into Gaza raise very serious questions about Israel’s respect for international law and its commitment to the peace process.”
Luisa Morgantini, the vice president of the European parliament, has expressed concern over the escalating acts of murder committed by the IOF troops in Gaza and the West Bank and has urged the EU high representative Javier Solana and the world community to work side by side to force the Israeli government to stop the violence and mass punishment against Palestinian civilians.
The UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, the Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said that “This kind of action against the people in Gaza cannot be justified, even by those rocket attacks”.
Israel’s actions have done nothing to further the peace process over which there was so much fanfare only a few weeks ago. Where will it all stop if Israel is allowed to continue its siege? When people are taking their last gasps in their battle for survival, who knows where desperation will lead them — mass riots, anarchy, and absolute despair where death will be better than life?
Israel might find that giving the Palestinians their freedom and allowing them the dignity of self-determination in their own land might be far more effective in bringing about a peaceful solution than all this bloodshed and misery. Fifty years have passed since Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan said, “How can we complain about Gaza’s hatred towards us? For eight years, they have been sitting in refugee camps while right in front of them, we are turning the land and villages of their forefathers into our home.” How much deeper must the hatred be after decades of oppression that has reduced their existence to a mere specter of life? Without a political solution that includes Gaza in negotiations to settle the wrongs done to the Palestinians, a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis is as remote as ever.
The Palestinians need candles desperately and they need your voice to speak for them. There are many ways that you can do this. Organize demonstrations or vigils, or take part in ones that are already being organized. Take the time and write to newspapers and politicians urging them to take action and bring an end to this humanitarian disaster. Also, a deluge of letters to the Israeli Embassy would allow the Israelis to see that the world does not support a siege on the people of Gaza. The power is in your hands to spread the word through your churches, work groups, clubs, neighborhood networks, and simply by talking to everyone you know. We cannot stand by and allow this slow agonizing death of a whole people to continue whatever justification Israel gives for its actions. There has to be another way that gives succor to the people of Gaza and hope for a better future than the ominous one being forced on them right at this moment.
Sonja Karkar is the founder and president of Women for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia.