A senior UN official is blaming Palestinians for the severe suffering Israel is inflicting on residents of the Gaza Strip with its decision to drastically curtail electricity supplies to the territory where most households already have no more than about three hours of power each day.
Robert Piper, the UN humanitarian coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territories, acknowledged on Wednesday that without immediate action the electricity crisis will bring about the “collapse of vital life-saving, health, water, sanitation and municipal services.”
Health services, including vital surgeries, have already faced severe cuts and disruptions since the crisis worsened in April.
UN parrots Netanyahu
But Piper is echoing the Israeli line that Palestinians themselves are to blame. His statement calls “upon the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israel to put the welfare of Gaza’s residents first and to take the necessary measures to avoid further suffering” – as if all these bodies are equal in their power and responsibility.
Piper adds: “Early this week, the Israeli cabinet agreed to a reduction in the supply of electricity to the Gaza Strip, following a decision by the Palestinian Authority to reduce its monthly payments for that supply by 30 per cent.”
Piper warns that “[i]f, as a result of the Palestinian Authority’s instructions, this decision is implemented the situation will become catastrophic.”
Electricity would then go down to about two hours per day for most people in Gaza.
But Piper’s absurd formulation that the Palestinian Authority is giving “instructions” to a vastly more powerful military occupier follows the line put out by Benjamin Netanyahu.
On Tuesday, the Israeli prime minister claimed that the power crisis in Gaza was an “internal Palestinian matter” resulting from “an argument between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.”
“Hamas demands that the PA pay for electricity and the PA refuse to pay,” Netanyahu said.
Israel is responsible
There is a dispute between Hamas, which rules the interior of Gaza, on the one hand, and the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, on the other.
But the PA’s request to Israel to cut Gaza’s electricity supply is part of Abbas’ broader ongoing effort to pressure the population in Gaza and force Hamas out of power.
This is a continuation of the siege policy implemented by Israel that began 10 years ago, when Hamas took complete control over Gaza. Hamas’ move foiled a US-backed coup by militias aligned with Abbas, that was meant to deprive Hamas of the power it had won as the victor in Palestinian Authority elections the year before.
But the events of 2007 left Palestinians living under Israeli occupation divided between Abbas’ Western-backed PA in the West Bank and Hamas in besieged Gaza.
None of this changes the fact that Israel, as the occupying power in Gaza, is legally fully responsible for the welfare of the population there.
Israel claims that it is no longer the occupying power in Gaza since it withdrew its settlers and soldiers from the interior of the territory in 2005.
But this position has been rejected by the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United States and the European Union, which all maintain that Gaza remains occupied because Israel still exercises “effective control” over the territory despite the redeployment of its forces to the perimeter.
In a statement in May, Piper himself acknowledged that Israel is the “occupying power” in Gaza – a fact curiously omitted from his statement on Wednesday.
The Fourth Geneva Convention, which protects the rights of civilians under military occupation, requires Israel to use all means at its disposal to ensure adequate medical services, public health and other basic necessities of life.
The convention is explicit that relief provided by other sources “shall in no way relieve the occupying power of any of its responsibilities” to ensure public health, medical care and hygiene.
Breaches of the convention and other violations of the laws applicable to armed conflict are war crimes under the the founding statute of the International Criminal Court.
Shocking UN complicity
While it is hardly surprising that Israel tries to shirk these responsibilities, it is shocking that a senior UN relief official is assisting Israel to evade its obligations by blaming the victims.
Last year, The Electronic Intifada revealed that UN officials received legal advice that the UN-backed “Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism” is illegal and violates the very “right to life” of the Palestinian people.
The UN-brokered agreement was supposedly meant to facilitate reconstruction after Israel’s devastating 2014 assault on Gaza, but only reinforced and gave a UN stamp of approval to Israel’s control over the lives of the territory’s two million people.
Egypt’s military regime, which supplies some electricity to Gaza, is reportedly offering to provide more in exchange for Hamas handing over wanted men, a blackmail attempt that uses the lives of Palestinian civilians as bargaining chips.
“Israel is not just a service provider, responding neutrally to a client’s request,” Gisha, an Israeli human rights group that monitors the blockade of Gaza, reminded Israeli officials this week. “Given its extensive control over life in the Strip, Israel is responsible for enabling normal life for its residents.”
Despite the intolerable reality in Gaza, “the Israeli cabinet has decided to accept the Palestinian Authority’s cruel plan to further reduce the power supply to Gaza,” the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem stated on Tuesday. But it warned that Israel remains ultimately responsible: “the reality in Gaza is the result of Israel’s handiwork, achieved by its decade-long implementation of a brutal policy. Israel can, and must, change this reality.”
It ought to be UN officials who are clearly warning Israel to abide by its legal obligations and calling for accountability if it refuses to do so.
Robert Piper has chosen instead to help Israel cover up its crimes.
Update: Israel threatens Piper
In a response to this article on Twitter, Sophie McNeill, of Australian public broadcaster ABC, took The Electronic Intifada to task for “slamming” and “attacking” Piper on a day when Israel has suggested he may be expelled.
According to McNeill, Israel is angered by a statement Piper made last week marking 50 years of Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip:
Piper stated that “occupation is ugly” and “backed by force.” McNeill speculated that Israel’s reported threats to revoke Piper’s visa may be an effort to silence him.
That would be in keeping with Israel’s methods, but it would still be no excuse for Piper not to clearly hold Israel accountable for its responsibility and obligations in the Gaza electricity crisis.
This article has been updated since initial publication.