The Freedom Flotilla of nine vessels sailing to the Gaza Strip is exposing the partisan nature of the response of the United Nations and the international community to Israel’s three-year siege on Gaza. The siege — enforced by land, air and sea — has blocked the import and export of supplies, goods and persons in and out of the Gaza Strip for 35 months, punishing 1.4 million Palestinians in the tiny territory. More than half of Gaza’s population are children and nearly 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. Ninety percent of the natural sources of water are undrinkable, and school and health services continue to deteriorate, 17 months since Israel’s military invasion of Gaza in 2008-09.
UN and international aid agencies have sent in limited food and humanitarian supplies to Gaza which managed to prevent starvation and the spread of disease. In an effort to cause the fall of the Hamas authorities in Gaza, Israel has prohibited the UN and humanitarian organizations from sending in the amounts and the type goods that they deemed essential for redevelopment. Therefore, the aid has never been enough to stop the deterioration of livelihoods and critical services like water and sanitation, education and health.
Key principles of humanitarian action include that the aid be delivered with neutrality and impartiality, it should “do no harm” to the people and that it not be used to advance political objectives. These principles have been severely lacking in the international humanitarian operations in the Gaza Strip.
Throughout the blockade, it was well-known by the humanitarian and relief actors, including the most senior UN humanitarian officials, that their aid was failing to meet the critical needs of the population, especially the reconstruction needs which emerged after the extensive destruction from Israel’s military invasion. The United Nations Development Program has just issued a report to this effect stating that:
“[W]hile some recovery is taking place, the realities on the ground show that the international community is, by and large, rendered ineffective in addressing the needs of people in Gaza, whether by default or by design. In fact, in view of the scale of the needs, international assistance in Gaza is tantamount to tinkering at the edges. … Depriving people from their right to pursue a dignified life should raise an issue of conscience.”
Indeed, in the last two years of the blockade, the weekly average for humanitarian supplies going into Gaza hardly ever reached more than 20 percent of the total goods Israel allowed to be imported. Israel benefited from the limited aid since it made the siege tolerable and reduced the urgent need to “break” it.
Despite this, in the three years of the blockade, the UN and Western-backed relief organizations continued to collaborate and comply with Israel’s prohibitive blockade guidelines for the import of goods and maintain their limited aid amounts. They never took any real steps to break the siege nor to send in the prohibited but critical goods through other routes like the sea, air, the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, or even through the hundreds of smuggling tunnels which the World Bank reports constitute the main import route for most of Gaza’s goods. Each one of these alternative routes would have entailed challenging the two main political positions of the Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and UN) and other Western donors on Gaza — supporting Israel and Egypt and the non-recognition, no-contact policy with the Hamas authorities. Even the London-based international humanitarian nongovernmental organization coalition, InterAction, comprised of 150 humanitarian organizations including Oxfam and Save the Children UK, rejected calling for goods to be sent via the sea as part of their large campaign against the siege last winter.
Not that nothing was attempted. Aside from the limited aid, the UN and international aid community held many private meetings with the Israelis and issued statements, and more statements, each one half-heartedly calling for Israel to “open the crossings” and warning of the disaster to come. They also spent almost half a year and dozens of hours debating and drafting a three-page document called the “Minimum Framework for the Delivery of Humanitarian Assistance to Gaza,” which did not focus on how to ensure that enough aid would reach the people of Gaza, but ironically, on the minimum necessary to ensure neutral and impartial humanitarian operations. Describing itself as providing a modus operandi for the provision of assistance to Gaza, the framework offered no concrete plan of action on how to meet the humanitarian needs of Palestinians in Gaza (i.e. by delivery through alternative routes), and made no call, let alone suggestion that the siege must end.
The great heavily-funded halls of these enormous relief operations continue to buzz with talk, rumblings of new strategies, monitoring frameworks and expensive but limited assistance operations. However, the bona fide humanitarian leadership and inspiration to break the siege and end the suffering in Gaza, is not emanating from these halls today, but rather from the deep waters of the Mediterranean Sea aboard the Freedom Flotilla.
History will be the final judge.
Allegra Pacheco is an attorney and worked for an international humanitarian organization in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for seven years.