In the first attempt by a foreign country to break the blockade of Gaza, a Libyan freighter carrying 3,000 tons of essential humanitarian aid set sail for the impoverished coastal strip. On the shore Gazans assembled to welcome its arrival, a much needed gesture of hope and relief for Gaza’s 1.5 million residents, caged in on all sides in one of the most densely populated areas on earth, allowed only the most basic food stuffs and regularly bombarded with ordinance from the skies. As it approached Gaza’s coastal waters on December 1, the ship was intercepted by the Israeli navy and forced to turn back.
The Libyan shipment followed the lead of three prior ships led by international peace activists that successfully broke the siege of Gaza. Israel allowed the peace activists through after defence officials calculated that obstructing their passage would have amounted to a public relations disaster.
But as the siege of Gaza enters its eighteenth month, and the situation there becomes increasingly dire with no sign of abatement, most Western media no longer view it as newsworthy, save for the occasional reporting on periodic United Nations appeals for action each time Israel tightens the shackles an additional notch. Compounding the problem, Israel has severely restricted media access to Gaza. When the most severe closures are imposed, journalists are barred from entering the Strip to cover the effects.
After more than four decades of occupation, Palestinians have become accustomed to the normalisation of the absurd. They have grown used to waiting for hours under the sun at checkpoints on their way to work and school, to circumventing roadblocks, to living under curfew, to arbitrary arrests and military raids. But the international silence on this man-made humanitarian crisis indicates that the rest of the world has also come to assume that a certain level of suffering is an acceptable norm for Palestinians.
After failing to break the will of Gazans during forty years of occupation, Israel is now resorting to a war of attrition, or occupation on the cheap. As Israel strangles the livelihood of the Gazans, the international community foots the bill, providing just enough aid to keep the Gazans alive, albeit malnourished. The entire population of Gaza has been reduced to a mere subsistence existence, half of them reliant on UN food handouts that have been slow in coming, their aspirations trampled on and their future clouded out by existential concerns of mere day to day survival.
How is it that the international community can sit by idly while an entire population is enclosed in a ghetto and starved into submission?
Israel says that the objective of its siege is to deter by punishment Palestinian militants from firing Qassam rockets at Israeli towns. But this strategy has failed to bring security to Israel. Qassam rockets continue to be launched and Hamas is strengthening its hold on the Gaza Strip, not reducing it. What sort of peace and security can this policy of starvation and economic strangulation bring Israel?
According to the UN, the majority of Gaza’s children suffer mental distress due to abnormal living conditions. Men face degradation as they are unable to provide for their families during the economic standstill. The next generation, denied opportunity, hope and recognition of their political aspirations are learning hate first hand. In the words of senior UN humanitarian affairs coordinator Jan Egeland, Gaza is “a human time bomb ticking.”
The longer this manufactured humanitarian catastrophe is allowed to continue, the further away any possibility of peace will become. If the situation is to improve, the international community must pressure Israel to lift the siege of the Gaza Strip and to engage its adversaries through negotiation. As Israel’s greatest ally, the US can play an important role in this regard. With a new US administration taking office in January, there will be an opening for a new approach. But only if Obama is committed to an engaged, compassionate and even-handed approach will there be a possibility for a brighter future in the Middle East.