By Kathleen and Bill Christison
Palestine and Palestinian suffering have always taken a back seat in the world’s attention while the United States starts this war, finishes off that war, or expands it; while the world deals with wars and economic crises; while the attention of the compassionate is taken up by starvation and pestilence and war in Sudan or in Congo or Rwanda or Somalia. Throughout these crises – quite legitimate crises all – Palestine is always left to molder, sometimes at a more rapid pace in more inhumane circumstances than at other times.
Right now, the circumstances could not be more inhumane. Right now, the paramount Palestinian crisis is in Gaza, where Israel – with active political and ongoing financial backing from the United States – is blockading a tiny, horribly overcrowded piece of land and consciously depriving its 1.5 million people of all of the essentials of life: of food, of medicines, of equipment to keep hospitals running, of fuel for cooking, of fuel for producing electricity, of fuel for running generators, of fuel for automobiles, of spare parts for sewage treatment plants (so that plants break down and sewage pours into the streets and, in quantities in the millions of liters, into the Mediterranean), of clean fresh water.
You might want to believe, Mr. Obama, that this is all the Palestinians’ own fault because they have been firing rockets into civilian areas of Israel and they deserve all the punishment they are receiving. But, in fact, Mr. Obama, if you were paying attention, and if you really cared, you would know that Israel started this latest round. Israel broke the four-month-old ceasefire on November 4, when an Israeli unit entered the Gaza Strip and attacked an area in the central Strip, claiming that Palestinians were digging a tunnel and intended to “kidnap” an Israeli soldier. When Hamas responded to this ceasefire violation with rockets, Israel imposed a total blockade on the already besieged territory and closed all entry and exit points.
That was over four weeks ago. Four weeks, in which Gaza’s inhabitants have lived with dwindling food supplies, virtually no electricity, little heat as winter approaches, no medicines, no life. In those weeks, Israel has opened the border to one or two small food shipments, but this is like a drop in the ocean for a million and a half people already living in poverty. Within ten days of the Israeli closure, UNRWA, the United Nations refugee relief organization that provides food to Gaza’s huge refugee population, had run out of food for the 750,000 people it regularly feeds. Two-thirds of Gaza’s population are refugees who have already been living a miserable life in camps for over 60 years. Well over half of the total Gaza population are children.
The who-struck-John in this latest round is not what matters, Mr. Obama – not that it was Israel that broke the ceasefire, not that you and your Israel-supporting advisers might believe that the Palestinian response to the Israeli incursion should be counted, bullet for bullet, an “overreaction”: multiple rockets in retaliation for one tiny little incursion. What matters is that this is collective punishment – punishing an entire civilian population for the actions of a few militants. What matters is that this is punishing people simply because they are Palestinians, non-Jews, intruding on Zionism’s desire for exclusive Jewishness in Palestine. What matters is the scale of the oppression under which Palestinians live, thanks to Israel and to us, its U.S. enabler.
For this latest blockade is not the first, and it is not a new phenomenon in the long history of the Palestinian attempt to survive Israel’s domination. The international embargo of Gaza, demanded by Israel and led by the United States, has been in effect for almost three years, since Hamas was democratically elected in January 2006 to head the Palestinian legislature and government. The blockade was further tightened in June 2007, when Hamas thwarted a U.S.-inspired coup attempt by its Palestinian rival Fatah and took over control of Gaza. But even these last three years in Gaza’s troubled history are only a more severe version of the misery Gaza has been enduring for decades.
American economist Sara Roy, a student of Gaza’s sufferings through the last several decades, long ago concluded that Israel’s strategy throughout the occupation has been not simply to let Gaza’s economy drift but rather to pursue a strategy of what she calls “de-development,” ensuring that Gaza can develop no economic base at all, by actively depriving it of economic resources and the institutional development capabilities needed to create and sustain a thriving economy. Israeli journalist Amira Hass, another student of Gaza who lived there for several years in the 1990s, has written that even the Oslo peace process proved so oppressive in Gaza that it became synonymous “with mass internment and suffocating constriction.”
(It is worthy of note, Mr. Obama, that both of these experts on Gaza are women, both are Jewish, and both are the daughters of Holocaust survivors. Both know far better whereof they speak and are far richer in compassion than all of the pro-Israel lobbyists among your advisers who have succeeded in tying your tongue.)
The result of these years and these various stages of enforced misery comes as no surprise. According to a recent report by the International Red Cross, there has been progressive deterioration in “food security,” meaning the assured supply of enough nutritious food for a healthy life, for 70 per cent of Gaza’s population. The dramatic fall in living standards caused by the international embargo has resulted in a widespread shift in diet from meats, fruit, and vegetables to foods, including cereals and sugar, that are “alarmingly” deficient in iron and Vitamins A and D. What the Red Cross terms chronic malnutrition is steadily rising and will have long-term consequences. Forty per cent of the population is classified as “very poor,” living on considerably less than $1 per day.
For God’s sake, Mr. Obama, this is intolerable. Yet you remain silent.
Several years ago, a woman in Norway wrote us in response to an article about some other Israeli atrocity against the Palestinians, and we have had her plea posted over a computer ever since. “What is the worth of a civilization,” she wondered, “that has no eyes and ears for the suffering and agony of the people under Israel’s bombs?”
“What is the worth of a civilization” that can turn aside from these horrors? This is a hard, hard judgment. But it fits. It fits your behavior, your silence, Mr. Obama. In fact, much of the rest of civilization has finally begun to notice what is happening in Gaza – much too late, but anything is better than perpetual silence. The U.N. secretary general called for an end to the blockade of Gaza last week; the president of the U.N. General Assembly has advocated a boycott and sanctions against Israel for its behavior; the EU parliament has taken note; various other international organizations – including the International Red Cross, the World Bank, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and a large coalition of mostly British charitable organizations, among others – have expressed deep concern at the state of utter collapse in Gaza that is the direct result of the long-running embargo, imposed on Gaza by the United States and Israel. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently condemned the blockade after a visit to Gaza, calling the situation there ten times worse than when she last visited in 2001. Gazans have no hope, she said.
This is a U.S.-created, U.S.-supported humanitarian disaster, Mr. Obama. For God’s sake, why can’t you – why won’t you – stop it? All it would take is a call by you for an immediate end to the blockade and embargo. The symbolic value of such a call, which would put meat on the bones of your talk about compassion and on your call for tearing down the walls between peoples, could be massive. The impact on Gazans would be beyond description.
-Kathleen and Bill Christison have been writing on Palestine and traveling there for several years. Kathleen is the author of two books on the Palestinian situation and U.S. policy on the issue, while Bill has written numerous articles on U.S. foreign policies. They have co-authored a book, forthcoming in mid-2009 from Pluto Press, on the Israeli occupation and its impact on Palestinians, with over 50 of their photographs. Thirty years ago, they were analysts for the CIA, but this is a part of their past that they would now prefer to forget. They contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org. (A version of this article was published in CounterPunch Print Edition, Vol. 15, No. 20, Nov. 16-30, 2008, pages 5 – 6)