Whose responsibility?

Palestinian rescue workers search for bodies amongst flooded houses after a cesspool embankment collapsed in the village of Um An-Nasir, in the northern Gaza Strip, 27 March 2007. (Wesam Saleh/MaanImages)


More than a week ago, the walls of an overused cesspool in northern Gaza collapsed, flooding a nearby Bedouin village with up to two meters of raw sewage. At least five people drowned to death, with dozens more left sick, injured, or missing.

Predictably, the international community’s fingers are pointed at the Palestinian Authority, which was warned of the danger of Beit Lahia treatment plant’s flooding but did not take the necessary steps to ensure the villagers’ safety. To many, it’s just another example of how the Palestinians are incapable of ruling over themselves. But the PA is only part of the problem. In fact, funds were secured long ago for transferring the dangerous sewage pools, but according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), the project “was delayed for more than two years due to delays in importing pipes and pumps from abroad as a result of the closure imposed by IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces] on the Gaza Strip. In addition, IOF military operations in the project area prevented workers from free and safe access to the area to conduct their work. It is noted that this project is funded by the World Bank, European Commission, Sweden, and other donors.”

Almost two years ago, Israel claimed to be withdrawing from Gaza, yet according to the Human Rights Council report commissioned by the UN last year and released two months ago, “Even before the commencement of ‘Operation Summer Rains’, following the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit, Gaza remained under the effective control of Israel. … Israel retained control of Gaza’s air space, sea space and external borders, and the border crossings of Rafah (for persons) and Karni (for goods) were ultimately under Israeli control and remained closed for lengthy periods.” Rafah has been open an average of 14 percent of scheduled times, so Gazans (including sick people needing treatment in Egypt, and students) have had to wait sometimes for weeks on end to get through either way. Last December Israel promised to allow 400 trucks a day to pass through Karni crossing, delivering among other things desperately needed food and medical supplies, and allowing produce out to support the largely agriculture-based economy. The promise has yet to be implemented, which has had “disastrous” consequences on the local economy. The report continues, “In effect, following Israel’s withdrawal, Gaza became a sealed off, imprisoned and occupied territory.”

Last week, over fifty fishermen were arrested in Gaza when they tried to go fishing. Rather than the Palestinians, it’s Israel that controls Gaza’s waters, so the Army opened fire on the small fishing boats. Israel also frequently shoots through the cage around Gaza from sniper positions if not conducting all-out ground invasions (two this past week) or air bombardments. Israel has killed more than 700 Gazans (including hundreds of women and children) since the celebrated “withdrawal” still used by Israel’s apologists to show that Palestinians can’t take advantage of a good opportunity if it falls into their laps.

Recently, perhaps the most paralyzing feature of Israel’s continued control over Gaza — as well as the West Bank — is the US and Israeli-led economic embargo against the Palestinian government since Hamas’ victory last year. Doctors, teachers, elected officials, and other civil servants have not been fully paid in more than one year, pushing the population into a humanitarian crisis (about quarter of the population is financially dependent on these salaries). Over 80 percent of Gazans are living below the official poverty line, and even issues as serious as overburdened cesspools are often left unaddressed. It is tempting to wonder why the international community should be held responsible for financially supporting the Palestinian population to begin with. The late Tanya Reinhart articulated her answer to this question during her last lecture in France. She explained that Europe, like the US, had no right to cut off food and medicine from the Palestinians:

“It was not an act of generosity which Europe could either carry on or not,” she said. “It was a choice which had been made to take on the obligations imposed by international law on the Israeli occupier to see to the well-being of the occupied populations. Europe chose not to oblige Israel to respect its obligations, and preferred to pay money to the Palestinians. When it put an end to this, it breached international law.”
The United States, Europe, and Israel (which has withheld $55 million per month in taxes collected from Palestinians on behalf of the PA) say they will only return the Palestinians’ lifelines if Hamas agrees to three conditions: (1) renouncing violence, (2) accepting previous agreements, and (3) recognizing Israel. These conditions sound reasonable enough, but are painfully ironic for anyone living on the ground here. True, Hamas has not sworn off violence once and for all, but neither has Israel. In the past year, Palestinians have killed 27 Israelis, most of them soldiers. During that same period of time, Israelis have killed 583 Palestinian civilians (suicide bombers, fighters, or others targeted for assassination are not included). Hamas has held fairly consistently to a unilateral ceasefire since January 2005, when they announced their transition from armed struggle to political struggle. Actions speak louder than words. Hamas says it reserves the right to resist violently, but has stopped attacking Israelis. Israel claims that all it wants is peace, yet the daily invasions and assassinations continue.

The second condition involving previous agreements is hard to take seriously given Israel’s consistent violations. In one of her last speeches in New York at St Mary’s Church, Reinhart cited an early 2006 interview in the Washington Post in which “Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh explained that according to the Oslo Accords in 1993, five years later in ‘98, there should have been already a Palestinian state. Instead, what Israel did during this whole period was appropriate more land, continue to colonize, to build settlements, and it did not keep a single clause of the Oslo Agreements.” When will the US demand that Israel adhere to previous agreements in order to receive the billions that we hand over every year?

And finally, the last and crucial condition is that Hamas must recognize Israel. The question is, what exactly is meant by “Israel”? Does “Israel” mean a place where Jewish people are respected and secure, or is it something else? Israel defines itself as “the state of the Jewish people.” It’s not the state of its citizens; Israel is the state of a group of people who aren’t its citizens, and not the state of a group of people who are its citizens. Palestinian citizens of Israel don’t have equal rights to Jews because so many laws are aimed at condensing or chasing away Palestinian communities in order to fully “Judaize” the country. Israel has an artificial Jewish majority that was created and is maintained through various forms of ethnic cleansing. Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state is conditional upon the dispossession and either expulsion or bantustanization of the indigenous Palestinian population. If you ask one of these Palestinians if he recognizes the right of such an Israel to exist, a country built on his land that explicitly excludes him and discriminates against him, and that Palestinian says “no,” is he being racist or anti-Semitic? Or is he himself defending against racism and anti-Semitism? (Remember that Arabs are Semites, too.)

Israel cannot specify what exactly it wants Palestinians to recognize because Israel doesn’t actually recognize itself. Israel has refused to clarify its own borders, because they keep expanding as the Jewish state establishes more settlement “facts on the ground.” In spite of all of these things, the PLO actually agreed to recognize Israel, renounce terror, and sign agreements with Israel almost twenty years ago. Israel responded with continued colonization and resource confiscation in the occupied territories and bombardment of Lebanon to root out the PLO, which was becoming dangerously moderate (see Chomsky’s classic, The Fateful Triangle). Hamas too has indicated that it would consider peace if Israel withdrew to its internationally recognized 1967 borders leaving Palestinians with just 22 percent of their historic homeland, but Israel says full withdrawal is out of the question. It is Israel who has yet to recognize Palestine’s right to exist, not the other way around.

One more point of irony is that Israel justifies the ongoing siege of Gaza as a response to the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit even though such collective punishment is cruel, illegal, and hugely hypocritical. Just last week, the Israeli Army abducted and imprisoned 29 Palestinians, including one child. The week before that they took 37 Palestinians, including five kids. The week before that they took 61, and the week before that 63, and the week before that 107 Palestinians. Israel has “captured” (“kidnapped” would be a more appropriate word for many since most of the abductees were civilians) at least 860 Palestinians this year, and it’s only April. Palestinians are illegally holding one Israeli, and Israel is illegally holding more than 11,000 Palestinians, including about 40 elected officials and almost 500 women and children. If the Israeli Army is justified is collectively starving and bombarding 1.3 million Gazans to avenge the capture of one of their fighters, what could the families of 11,000 Palestinians claim is justified?

In reality, Israel is holding more than 1.3 million Palestinians prisoner with its ongoing siege of Gaza. Most of them are refugees, encaged in one of the most densely populated places in the world while many can practically see their land through the cage around them, but are forbidden from ever returning because they are not Jewish (I, on the other hand, could go live there next month if I wanted to). The Beit Lahia sewage treatment plant was designed in the 1970s to serve up to 50,000 people, but the local population has since risen to 200,000. The “sewage tsunami” is as much a result of population density as anything else. In comparison, the land-rich West Bank feels like paradise, but perhaps not for long. As the Wall continues to snake around West Bank towns and villages, cutting inhabitants off from their land, jobs, schools, hospitals, and each other, Israel’s intention seems clear: those Palestinians who won’t leave the West Bank altogether will be squeezed into bantustans, each of them a new Gaza. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority, civilians, and popular resistance will continue to be demonized with claims of “anti-Semitism” even though the worst crimes are not their own. The guilt and responsibility are not just Israel’s. They are all of ours.

Anna Baltzer is a volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service in the West Bank and author of the book, Witness in Palestine: Journal of a Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories. For information about her writing, photography, DVD, and speaking tours, visit her website at www.AnnaInTheMiddleEast.com