Diverse Voices Amidst a Humanitarian Catastrophe

By Rima Merhi – Boston
I was standing outside the Israeli Consulate in New England with a group of demonstrators under the rain on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calling for an end to the siege of Gaza horrified that the world remains silent after sixty years of Israeli violation of basic Palestinian human rights.

Israel commemorated this anniversary by striking Gaza two weeks later. Over 1,000 people dead, more than 5000 wounded and 13,000 displaced in seventeen days represents for many Arabs Israel’s idea of New Year’s greetings to the Middle East.

“Gaza is the pinnacle of the refugee problem. It is the ghost of Israel and a reminder that you cannot look the other way,” said Ehud Eiran, a research fellow at the JF Kennedy School of Government.

The Israeli government has made it clear that the siege of Gaza is a direct collective punishment for the rockets fired by Hamas on Israeli territory. But the collective punishment of approximately one and a half million civilians in Gaza for over eighteen months has been repeatedly denounced by the international community as it stands in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.

After forbidding any journalist to enter Gaza for almost three weeks in November, and given the restrictions of movement imposed on journalists who entered Gaza in December and the prevailing chaos, many fear that the extent of damage caused to civilians by the blockade or the invasion is unknown. Even CNN was denied access.

“Gaza is the single most urgent human rights and humanitarian crisis in the Middle East,” said Ms. Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of Human Rights Watch for the MENA division.

“The problem is that Gaza is entirely dependent on external aid and external resources,” she explained. “In November there was total closure for 13 days, and 20 trucks per day in the first week of December compared to hundreds of trucks per day prior to October 2008.” With a shortage in basic foods, medication, water and electricity, and inability of UN trucks to enter much needed humanitarian aid- particularly after IDF opened fire on UN truck driver – Gaza today lies on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe with 80% of civilians in need of urgent food aid as reported by the UN.

“Egypt should open the border at Rafah to allow for immediate humanitarian aid, and there is no excuse for Egypt not to do so,” she insisted.

According to Ms. Whitson, the second most significant contributor to human rights violations in the Palestinian Occupied Territories is the presence and continued expansion of “absolutely illegal” settlements in the West Bank.

Human Rights Watch has called for a cut in aid to Israel equal to the amount spent on illegal settlements and the wall in the West Bank.

Despite the fact that Human Rights Watch documented evidence that over 250 civilians were killed in 2007 in Gaza and the West Bank, including 59 children, “in all of 2008, the Israeli military police had launched only one investigation into suspicious killing of civilians,” said Ms. Whitson.

“You do not investigate yourself when you are at war,” said Eiran, explaining that after the second intifada fewer casualties were investigated by the Israeli military police.

“International norms are helpless,” added Eiran, “that’s why there is a preference for power. The siege of Gaza was clearly not working. It did not weaken Hamas or stop the shelling of Israeli territory,” forcing the Israeli government to step up measures.

“Even the ex-head of the Mossad –Efraim Halevy- was for talking with Hamas,” Eiran said. “But will Hamas change?” he asked, criticizing the anti-Semitic nature of their ideology, intent to destroy the state of Israel and derail the peace process.

“Both political systems are in a flux,” Eiran said, highlighting the sensitivity of the political situation at a time when “all statements are made with an eye to the elections.” He explained that the situation is all the more uncertain with the election of a new American administration presided by Barack Obama-to resume office January 20 2009.

The US was the only country in the Security Council to abstain from voting for immediate ceasefire last Thursday.

“The message is clear. This is a war between might and right and history shows that right is always victorious,” said PLO representative to the UK Dr. Husam Zomlot.

“Israel thinks it can act with impunity. No longer. All those who perpetrated war crimes should be brought to justice,” he insisted.

“You want a neighbor that is poor, hungry, uneducated, and leaderless. And what do you expect? …I don’t know who is planning on behalf of Israel, but apparently all what is there is to reach an agreement that would represent the least for Palestinian rights,” said Dr. Zomlot.

“I do believe we have to engage with Israelis about Zionism,” said Dr Zomlot. He held the view that Palestinians had done their utmost to reconcile themselves with this rejectionist ideology. “I think my generation has to think and rethink again how to challenge Zionism and not fall into the trap that our fathers fell into trying to adapt to it,” added Dr. Zomlot.

“There is international consensus for settlement through a two state solution, but the US needs to stop blocking it,” said MIT professor Dr. Noam Chomsky, moving beyond Zionism to frame the crisis of Gaza within the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.

Dr. Chomsky held the view that the future of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations is a test of American democracy. “When two thirds of the American population favor a two state solution and this has no effect of American foreign policy, we need to ask how come we are not a functioning democracy where public opinion matters,” he questioned.

Regarding the new American administration, Dr. Chomsky expressed concern that Obama had already shunned the hopes of many Arabs and Americans with the appointment of highly controversial public figures, particularly the appointment of Ms. Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State.

According to Dr. Chomsky, Camp David peace negotiations in 2000 presented “one break in US/Israeli rejectionist policies,” pointing out that “this is not ancient history. It can be retrieved.”

Dr. Herbert C Kelman, professor emeritus at Harvard and the former director of PICAR–the Program on International Conflicts Analysis and Resolution—at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, opposed any solution imposed by the US to resolve the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. But “I strongly favor active US engagement to push the peace process forward,” he added.

He explained that the joint reconstruction of the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians is necessary for developing a “sense of ownership and commitment,” critical for the implementation of any negotiated agreement.

For the Obama administration, Kelman recommended a multi track approach to drive the peace process forward, and one that includes:

1) Support for inter-Palestinian dialogue between Hamas and Fatah leading to a unity government;

2) Bolstering of Syrian-Israeli negotiations, “since they are not in conflict with Palestinian-Israeli negotiations; rather, these two tracks give strength to one another”;

3) Moral support for The Arab League Initiative;

4) Working with other parties like the UN and NATO to develop an interim international force to ensure security for both sides as Israel withdraws settlers and troops from the Occupied Palestinian Territories;

5) Unequivocal condemnation of actions on both sides that contradict previous agreements and violate the principles of human rights and humanitarian law.

The question remains, will the Obama administration emerge as an effective intermediary and alleviate the suffering of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian territories? What will it take to stop the killing and the siege? Will the children of Gaza ever celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights?

“I will celebrate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when my people are free, when my parents who were forced to immigrate to London can go back home, when I can go back to Rafah camp where I spent 14 years of my life. My mind and heart are always in Palestine and particularly in Gaza where my people live as prisoners in abysmal conditions. Every Palestinian family is under attack. They are killing starving people. Israel must stop this massacre and get out of Gaza,” he insisted. 

– Rima Merhi is a freelance journalist, human rights activist and researcher spending a year at Harvard. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. (Originally published in middle-east-online.com)

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