International organizations renew condemnation of Gaza siege

Palestinian medics treat a man wounded by Israeli fire during a protest of Israel’s buffer zone in Gaza City, April 2010. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

On Monday, 14 June, Muhammad Juma Abu Wardeh, a 17-year-old Palestinian laborer, was shot and wounded by Israeli snipers along the “buffer zone” in eastern Gaza as he collected materials for a cement plant in Jabaliya, north of Gaza City. Israel’s ongoing blockade against the Gaza Strip has prevented access to raw construction materials, such as cement and industrial aggregates, forcing workers to risk their lives to trawl open agricultural areas for resources.

Since the 31 May attack on the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla, during which Israeli naval commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara ship in international waters and killed nine unarmed activists, international organizations and several governments have condemned Israel for its actions at high sea. Furthermore, they have addressed the draconian policies associated with the three-year blockade against the Gaza Strip that the Freedom Flotilla aimed to break.

In a move widely seen as a token gesture meant to ease public outcry against its policies, Israel’s National Security Cabinet stated on Thursday, 17 June that it would change its “method” of the blockade in order to ease the import of banned items into Gaza. According to a 17 June statement by Amnesty International, citing media reports, “Israel is to move from allowing only listed products into Gaza to using a list of products that will be specifically prohibited. It is not yet clear which products will remain prohibited and there is also no mention of allowing the free movement of people, also a human right under international law” (“Israel Gaza Blockade must be Completely Lifted”).

The Palestinian news agency Maan reports that “under the plan, the port would remain closed, the naval blockade would continue, the Erez crossing would close and Israel would continue controlling the 300-meter wide ‘no go zone’ that amounts to some 67 square kilometers of the tiny Gaza Strip” (“Israeli cabinet to change ‘method’ of siege,” 17 June 2010). The elected Hamas government swiftly condemned Israel’s plan, saying that it was an attempt to “mislead” the public.

In its statement released following the Israeli government’s announcement, Amnesty International urged the Israeli government to “completely lift” its blockade against Gaza. Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, denounced Israel’s move: “This announcement makes it clear that Israel is not intending to end its collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population, but only ease it. This is not enough … Any step that will help reduce the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza is to be welcomed, but Israel must now comply with its obligations as the occupying power under international law and immediately lift the blockade.”

Alongside the draconian banning of imports into Gaza, the non-existent export flow has plunged Gaza into an economic crisis, which is not addressed in Israel’s new plan for the blockade.

“Just as important as allowing goods into Gaza is allowing exports to leave Gaza, yet there is no mention of this in today’s announcement,” stated Smart. “Banning the vast majority of exports, raw materials and the movement of people has destroyed the economy of Gaza, and pushed its population into unemployment, poverty and dependency on aid agencies for survival. These problems will not be solved while the blockade continues.”

Amnesty’s appeal comes on the heels of a similar statement released on Monday, 14 June by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In its statement, the ICRC categorized Israel’s blockade against the Gaza Strip as a violation of international law, ending three years of self-described neutrality by the organization, as it hesitated to publicly condemn Israeli policies against Gaza until this point.

“The closure imposed on the Gaza Strip is about to enter its fourth year, choking off any real possibility of economic development,” the statement read. “Gazans continue to suffer from unemployment, poverty and warfare, while the quality of Gaza’s health care system has reached an all-time low … The whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.”

The ICRC’s full statement calls on the international community to make sure Israel ends the blockade and meets its obligations toward Palestinians in Gaza under humanitarian law (“Gaza closure: not another year!”).

ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno told The Electronic Intifada from Washington, DC that although confidential meetings to address the Gaza blockade were held with Israeli officials last year, the Israeli government had not fulfilled its obligations under international law. “We’ve been saying all along that [Israel was] violating international law,” Schorno said. “Now we’re publicly denouncing its violations of the law against Gaza.”

Schorno said that the ICRC identified several issues that impede normal life in Gaza under Israel’s blockade. “First of all, the closure is the main obstacle. We emphasize that the strict provisions of health services in Gaza — including the medicines that patients are allowed to receive, the maintenance of medical equipment, and the electricity shortages — are very problematic. Dialysis machines, for example, need electricity to work. Power cuts prevent doctors from treating patients. And the situation regarding clean water is terrible. There is virtually no access to clean water, as the entire ground system has been contaminated.”

Schorno told EI that as a direct result of Israel’s blockade, along with Egypt’s years-long collusion with Israel’s policy of border closure, Palestinians inside the Gaza strip have been forced to purchase lower-quality goods at skyrocketing prices — usually smuggled through the vast tunnel network at the Gaza-Egypt border. He also said that Israel’s militarized enforcement of Gaza’s shrinking maritime sovereignty in the Mediterranean, and the 300km-long “no go zone” along the land perimeters of the strip, has devastated the local fishing and agricultural economies.

“What we’re aiming for with this statement is to ensure that signatories to the Geneva Conventions abide by its obligations,” Schorno added. “Israel did not provide any results. We’re not naive; we don’t think that the statement will immediately change things, but we can call on all parties to act and for collective punishment to come to an end. The fact that we can speak about this matter, and these violations, makes a difference. This is an important step.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an award-winning independent journalist, writing for The Electronic Intifada, Inter Press Service, Truthout and other outlets. She regularly reports from Palestine, where she also runs media workshops for youth in the Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.