Joharah Baker: In Gaza, People Should Come First

By Joharah Baker

In a move that can only be seen as the logical consequence of Israel’s decision last week to declare the Gaza Strip hostile territory, Bank Hapoalim, one of Israel’s largest banks announced it would sever all business ties with Gaza. The move will effectively deprive the Strip of a steady money supply. Israel Discount Bank also announced it was considering the move, but has not taken any final decision to date.

The move is not surprising in the least, given Israel’s attitude towards Hamas’ takeover and their hell-bent intention on driving the movement into the ground. Last week, the Israeli security cabinet took a unanimous decision to declare the Gaza Strip “hostile territory”, a move by the way, which received the full backing of the United States.

The decision opened up a world of opportunities for Israel in terms of cracking down on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Still, even with the obvious stench of discrimination and collective punishment reeking from the decision, Israel maintains that the move is merely a way of curbing the continuous rocket attacks on Israeli territory.

This was Bank Hapoalim’s rationale behind its decision to halt transactions with the Gaza Strip in addition to Israel’s concern that shekels being funneled into the Strip were being dispatched straight into the hands of Hamas activists. Israeli officials claim that NIS400 million were transferred to the Strip in August alone, while the Palestinian Monetary Authority maintains only half this amount was transferred.

Should other Israeli banks follow suit, the Gaza Strip’s banks will be forced to shut down. Bank Hapoalim’s decision, which will take several weeks to be fully implemented, will have extremely grave ramifications on the Palestinian economy and on people’s immediate lives.

Declaring the Gaza Strip hostile territory will also motion in a major cutback in electricity provided by the Israeli electric company to the Strip in addition to limited fuel supplies.

It does not take a genius to figure out what’s going on. Ever since Hamas legitimately won the Legislative Council elections in January, 2006 and formed the Palestinian government three months later, Israel and the United States have been obsessed with bringing the Islamic group down. Israel has long considered Hamas a terrorist group and the United States quickly and willingly rode the same wave. Such labeling is naturally accompanied by grave consequences. Even though Hamas legitimately assumed power in fair and honest elections, Israel and the United States immediately declared a boycott of the government, halting any financial aid channeled directly to the Palestinian Authority.

More sanctions followed, including the halt of financial aid from other major donors such as the European Union. Hamas was ostracized from the international community and Israel took additional liberties to invade the Strip and assassinate what it considered “militants and terrorists.”

So, just imagine Israel’s horror when Hamas ousted Fateh forces in last June’s battle for Gaza, completely taking over the Strip administratively and practically. Israel’s, and the United States’ intent to obliterate Hamas from the political scene only became fiercer, with additional economic sanctions imposed and military operations that have claimed scores of lives since then.

Now that Hamas – whether justified or not – has remained in its place, Israel is turning to last resorts. It understands that nothing will turn a people against its leaders faster and more efficiently than economic deprivation. When the people of Gaza no longer have jobs or incomes and their children are in desperate need of nutritional food, new clothes and school books, they will naturally turn to their leaders to provide. Hence, with Israel, the United States and most of the world pointing fingers of condemnation at Hamas, blaming their intransigence for the current situation, the people will inevitably lose faith in those who promised to improve their conditions rather than plunge them deeper into misery.

Still, Israel should not be allowed to get away with such flagrant collective punishment. Even if they continue to insist that humanitarian aid will not be hindered in the Strip, statistics do not lie. Over 60 percent of Gazans live under the poverty line and largely depend on food aid to survive. The complete closure of the Strip following Hamas’ takeover has had a devastating ripple effect on Gaza’s economy, including soaring unemployment rates.

Now, with Israel’s banks cutting ties with Gaza, thus severing its major money flow into the Strip, the situation in Gaza can go only one way – downward. Unfortunately, those who will pay the highest price are ordinary Gaza citizens whose main concern is to provide food for their families and a warm and safe roof over their heads.

Politics has always been known to be a dirty game between even dirtier players. This is applicable to almost any time and place. However, what justification is there for starving a people just because their leaders do not conform to the so-called democratic standards of their oppressors?

It is irrelevant whether Hamas has any legitimacy in its position of power in Gaza today. Palestinian politics is rife with legal loopholes and manipulations; it is difficult to discern who the rightful leader is and who is not. What is relevant is that not enough is being done to ensure that our people do not suffer unnecessarily.

It is time for the international community to step up to the plate. The crude, homemade and painfully inaccurate Qassam rockets are not the issue here – they never were. This is about imposing a political will that goes against all the values and norms Israel and the United States claim to embrace and encourage elsewhere. It would be naïve to say double standards do not exist in world politics today but it is reasonable to say that populations should not be made to pay for the behind-the-scene political maneuvers designed, not to serve the people, but to recreate and enforce new dynamics to an already complex conflict.

For once, all players in this conflict need to shift their priorities up a degree or two. Israel, the United States, the international community and the Palestinian leadership in Gaza and the West Bank should take one novel and unprecedented step: putting the people first.

– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (www.MIFTAH.org, Sep 26. 2007)

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