Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Palestinians in Gaza began ongoing weekly demonstrations on March 30, 2018 to reassert their right of return to their ancestral homes and lands they were forced to leave when Israel was established in 1948. The “Great March of Return,” as Palestinians have called the protest campaign, represents a vital expression of social movement organizing by Palestinian civil society, which includes human rights and legal activists, grassroots organizers, artists, journalists, BDS activists, political representatives and intellectuals.[1] One of protest organizer’s goals is to raise global awareness about the fact that approximately two-thirds of Gaza’s over 2 million residents are refugees who have been denied their internationally recognized right to return to their homes and land. They also seek to revive the nonviolent protest tradition of the first Intifada of 1987, making great efforts to prevent militarization of the protests.

These nonviolent demonstrators are regularly met with sniper fire from Israeli soldiers along the fence that marks the 1949 armistice line separating Israel from the tiny (25 miles long and five miles wide) coastal enclave of Gaza. Marchers are fully aware of the deadly risks associated with entry into this “no-go zone,” an area unilaterally designated by Israel to be off limits to Palestinians. But the fence does not mark an internationally recognized border: Israel has never declared its national borders and still maintains complete control over Gaza—therefore it remains an occupying power under international law.

Since the demonstrations began, at least 270 Palestinians have been killed, including 49 under the age of 18, the majority shot by Israeli snipers. An additional 31,249 have been injured—more than 500 people each week on average.[2] Despite the toll, marchers continue to demonstrate against their hopeless situation. Gaza has been abandoned by both the international community and the Palestinian Authority (PA) that governs the West Bank. Gazans suffer an unbearably poor quality of life, are surrounded on all sides by one of the world’s most sophisticated and well-equipped militaries, are targeted by bombs, snipers’ bullets, tanks and drones on a daily basis and are subjected to periodic invasions and bombing campaigns that level entire neighborhoods.

The threat of being killed by a sniper is muted by the near-impossibility of life under siege. Siege refers to a regime of total blockade, where local sovereignty over borders, imports and exchange of people and goods is suspended by a hostile power. It encompasses the sanctions and blockade of Gaza, and also refers to the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure as a central objective. Israel’s decade-long siege of Gaza is similar to the catastrophic sanctions regime imposed by the United States on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, which targeted its civilian infrastructure, and to the siege warfare utilized by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen today, which targets food and medical infrastructure in areas under the control of its opponents. It also bears an affinity with punitive sanctions regimes recently imposed on Iran and Venezuela by the United States. Siege is war waged against civilian bodies—a form of war against the people—not the leaders. Yet while other siege regimes typically seek a defined endgame such as changing the behavior of a targeted actor, Israel’s siege of Gaza, aided and abetted by the international community, is unique in its permanence: It is the endgame.

 

A Permanent Siege

It is difficult to identify a date when the siege on Gaza began. The population of Gaza swelled in the aftermath of the Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes in 1948 and ended up in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and beyond. In 1967, Israeli forces invaded the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula, marking the beginning of the military and civilian occupation of Gaza. Palestinians have been subject to military rule since 1967, while Israelis who settled there were provided the protections of civil law. Following the first Intifada in 1987 Israel tightened its external and internal control and by 1994 it had established a fortified external control zone around Gaza through fencing, walls and militarized zones and imposed strict limitations on entry and exit, thus beginning a policy of isolating Gaza.

In 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon undertook unilateral disengagement from Gaza, removing all Israeli settlers and destroying the settlement homes and infrastructure in order to deny them to Palestinians. The international community hailed this withdrawal as an act of peace, but some observers—it turns out with great prescience—expressed concern that the terms of this withdrawal was a prelude to further isolation and violence. After the disengagement, Israel retained exclusive control over Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters, continued to patrol and monitor the external land perimeter (with the exception of its southern border where Egypt retained control and border crossings were supervised by European monitors) and continued to monitor and blockade the coastline. By 2007 Gaza was facing a severe humanitarian crisis—employment, food and other needs were unmet. When the Hamas political party then won national elections in Palestine, rival Fatah forces refused to allow them to take power and the Israeli military and police arrested over 60 members of the Hamas cabinet. Attempts at unity governments between Fatah and Hamas have failed ever since.

Most commentators suggest that the siege began in earnest in 2007, after the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by Hamas fighters, but it is clear that the siege has been in effect for decades: The current situation is only a further deterioration, not a completely new innovation. Allegedly in response to Hamas’ control of Gaza, in September 2007 Israel declared the political party and Gaza itself to be a “hostile entity” (a category with no meaning in International Humanitarian Law) and then sharply restricted the flow of people and goods in and out. As a result, Gaza has suffered a total economic collapse. About 70 percent of the workforce is unemployed or without pay, and about 80 percent of its residents live in poverty. Israel has bombed Gaza’s only power station repeatedly, cutting off electricity to more than half of the inhabitants, while further targeting civil infrastructure including roads, communications, water delivery and sewage treatment.

Sanctions and siege regimes are, however, woefully ineffective at regime change but consistently and reliably effective at dismantling the infrastructure of society and impoverishing targeted populations. There are distinct parallels between the sanctions regime Israel imposed on Gaza after 2005 and the political and economic woes of Iraq after 1991. Iraq went from being one of the most developed countries in the Middle East to one of the least through a regime of de-development composed of attacks on civilian infrastructure followed by strict sanctions from 1991 until 2003. During the 1991 war on Iraq (Operation Desert Storm) US forces targeted human infrastructure such as water distribution, electricity transfer stations, medicine factories, telephone systems and other targets as a means of weakening the population.[3] The devastating sanctions that followed were the harshest ever imposed on a country in the post-war period, ensuring that Iraq would have no means of repairing or replacing the destroyed utilities. The siege on Iraq prolonged the collapse of social and government resources through the daily denial of goods necessary to maintain society. Development indicators revealed a society losing quality of life and technological and medical progress, a process that has been described as “de-development.”

In their description of the sanctions regime on Iraq in place throughout the 1990s, Tariq and Jacquelin Ismael explain the siege on Iraq as a “war against the people.”[4] Their thesis can be extrapolated to siege regimes at large, including the contemporary siege on Gaza, the GCC siege on Yemen and the sanctions on Iran. The continued insistence on the use of siege as a practice against targeted populations indicates not a global desire to coerce or punish opponent governments, but rather a preference for targeting the health of individual bodies of their subjects by denying them the basic needs of any modern society, affecting the entire country. The punitive sanctions imposed on Iran and Venezuela by the United States serve a similar function—making civilians suffer in the service of geopolitics. What makes the Israeli siege of Gaza unique, however, is its permanence. International law provides a legal basis for a hostile state to occupy territory in the interest of maintaining order and preventing lawlessness, but it is based on the assumption that it will be temporary. At some point, the occupying power must annex the territory—providing the full benefits of citizenship to the residents—or withdraw. The Israeli state has managed to make occupation permanent in Gaza by creating a state of permanent siege against the residents of Gaza.

Although Israel is legally obligated to support the Palestinian population in the territories occupied in 1967, the international community has refused to hold Israel to its responsibilities. Israel subcontracts its humanitarian obligations to the Palestinian Authority and numerous humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO), the International Committee of the Red Cross and Norwegian Aid—all of which are incapable of providing the services necessary to support the population. These organizations have no sovereignty in Palestine and operate at the whim of the Israeli government. Further, these organizations cannot represent Palestinian aspirations and goals, and in the case of Gaza, are banned from coordinating with the ruling authority of Hamas because Israel and the United States classifies it as a terrorist entity. As long as the international community refuses to hold the Israeli government to its legal obligations, it subsidizes the siege by providing humanitarian aid that is the responsibility of the occupation authority.

 

Anatomy of Israel’s Siege

The infrastructure of Israel’s siege of Gaza is rooted in the fortified and lethal fence and wall system that surrounds Gaza along the 1949 armistice line, where demonstrators show up to resist the siege and demand their rights. While Israeli spokespeople suggest that the fence system is fragile and weak, new additions to this fence and wall system are constantly devised and implemented.

Building upon the surface fortification of this line since the early 1990’s, in 2018 Israel began construction of an underground wall system, littered with electronic sensors, designed to thwart Palestinian tunnel construction. Along the Gazan coastline, in January 2019 Israel completed the construction of a new submarine barrier with numerous sensors and detection systems. Israeli forces are also rebuilding the fence around Gaza, now extended to 20 meters in height. Although the United Nations has emphasized that approaching a border fence is not a crime that merits lethal force, Israel continues to attack unarmed demonstrators with sniper fire. The fence itself has long been fortified with a heavily militarized and automated infrastructure. So-called “lotus towers” house remote-controlled and automated heavy guns. The constant presence of drones and blimps keep watch on the population under siege.

The militarized fence and wall around Gaza should be understood as simply one facet of a larger infrastructure of siege. Israel maintains complete hegemony over Gaza, and all imports and exports are subject to Israeli and Egyptian control. When the Oslo Accord agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) first went into effect in 1993 there were eight crossings between Gaza and the outside world. In the ensuing years, Israel has closed these crossings, leaving only three: Rafah on the border with Egypt, for travelers only; Erez in the north on the 1949 armistice line also for travelers only; and Karam Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom) also on the armistice line, the only remaining cargo terminal.

Israel justifies this decrease in terminal space as a means of protecting its ill-defined national security. In effect, the closure of the other terminals limits the amount of supplies allowed into Gaza by the Israeli military. Because Israel banned trucks from crossing the armistice line, trucks must unload in the terminals and then reload the cargo onto trucks from the Gaza side. This process takes time, and because all cargo must go through the same terminal, the import of one type of good comes at the expense of another. When Israel allows in construction materials such as concrete or iron rebar, for example, it does so by limiting the trucks loaded with grain. In 2018, after weeks of non-violent protests, Israel unilaterally closed the Karam Abu Salem crossing after demonstrators attempted to set fire to the infrastructure in protest of the siege. For 45 days, the crossing was closed, increasing the suffering in order to exert pressure on Gazan society to stop the weekly marches. Though marches continued, the effects of closures are cumulative as Gazans work through their emergency stocks of food, medicine and other necessities.

While the imports allowed through Karam Abu Salem were augmented by Palestinian smuggling through tunnels for several years, the newer subterranean walls and the flooding of those tunnels with sewage and seawater by the Egyptian authorities has made Gaza once again completely dependent on the crossings. Tunnels still exist on the southern border, but they are rare and controlled and taxed by Hamas, which mostly uses them for its purposes rather than for consumer goods.

Aside from imports, Gazans rely on small-scale food producers—farmers and fishers—to supplement their diets. Because 30 percent of arable land in Gaza falls within the Israeli-defined no-go zones, many farmers risk their lives when they approach their lands since Israeli soldiers arbitrarily open fire with sniper weapons and automated gun-towers. Water for cultivation is pumped from the coastal aquifer, which means that food grown in Gaza tends to be contaminated with parasites, bacteria and industrial runoff from farms both within and without the strip. The land within the no-go zones has access to the cleanest water, free from some of the worst sewage contamination found across the rest of Gaza. After 2012, the Red Cross negotiated an agreement allowing farmers to grow crops of specific heights in the zones within 300 meters of the fence and larger crops within 1 kilometer, but farmers are still at risk of being shot each time they enter the zone. Rudimentary irrigation infrastructure like simple reservoirs and gas water pumps are often targeted by Israeli machine gun and rocket fire, making farming extremely difficult and fraught with danger.[5] Further, Israeli military planes fumigate the farmers’ plots without warning or explanation of the chemicals used. Researchers have discovered that Israel is using Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, resulting in the wholesale destruction of crops along the armistice line.[6]

Fishers face a similar fate, as they ply waters with ever-changing limits decided by military fiat, announced from heavily armed warships. Though the military places buoys demarcating the acceptable fishing boundaries, fishers are often targeted by Israeli navy ships even within these limits. When the navy rams fishing boats and fires live ammunition at fishers they destroy lives and livelihoods and make fishing a labor of resistance, not sustenance.[7] Fishers and farmers that I have interviewed make the argument that their work is one based in sumoud (steadfastness) and resistance to dispossession. In interviews, they cast their continued efforts to farm and fish under impossible conditions as ideological—not driven by profit, but by an insistence on the independent provision of food not regulated or controlled by the occupation.

 

Targeting Health

Beyond attacks on sustenance and self-sufficiency, Israel directly targets medical infrastructure by destroying facilities, vehicles and health practitioners themselves. It also denies the import of material needed for the maintenance and development of health systems that must serve 2 million incarcerated people. The health impacts of numerous Israeli invasions have remained untallied, largely due to a lack of epidemiological expertise in Gaza. Even so, there are a small number of studies that point to the lasting effects of the types of weapons Israel uses in Gaza, including the prevalence of preterm and low birth weight babies and birth defects among children born since 2011.[8] The direct targeting of the civilian population causes immediate injury, but also creates a further burden for a health system stretched beyond the point of collapse. The system also suffers from the refusal of donors to cover the most basic costs. Donor shortfalls must be understood in the context of the fact that according to International Humanitarian Law, Israel is obligated to provide for the health of the population. The refusal of the international community to hold Israel to this basic standard is an indication of profound complicity with the siege.[9]

In 2014, Israeli forces bombed five hospitals across the Gaza Strip, some to oblivion. Further violence is committed by the siege when it prevents needed materials from being imported. Gaza maintains a highly vaccinated population, largely due to the efforts of UNRWA, but in 2015 medical staff I interviewed began to describe shortages of vaccines—in particular the PENTA vaccine (which addresses five illnesses in one vaccination: diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B (rDNA) and Haemophilus influenzae type B conjugate). Pentavalent vaccines are an essential component of creating immunity to diseases that are fully preventable but can ravage youth and the elderly if the vaccine is not administered. In the intervening years, more and more drugs and medical materials have become unavailable in Gaza, from antibiotics (a long-standing problem) to cancer and blood pressure medication, to vaccines. These shortages are not solely due to Israeli reticence to allow medications through Karam Abu Salem, they are also caused by infighting between Fatah and Hamas, and an unwillingness of the international community to maintain funding for UNRWA, most evident in the US government’s defunding of UNRWA in 2018.

The United Nations report “Gaza in 2020: A livable place?”[10] projected a negative conclusion based largely on the fact that 95 percent of drinking water in Gaza is contaminated. Palestinians are forced to either drink water unfit for human consumption or spend precious funds on brackish water delivered by truck from desalination plants. More than a decade after its initial proposal, the Israeli military allowed the construction of a large-scale desalination plant that opened in 2017. This plant, however, falls far short of the needed capacity. Further, according to civil engineers I interviewed in Gaza, the desalinated water is combined with conventional contaminated water supplies as it is sent into the decrepit water distribution network, in order to stretch supplies over a larger number of consumers.

The water crisis is further exacerbated by the lack of reliable electricity. Water distribution relies on electric pumps, from large stations to small residential pumps. In order for an individual to receive water on a given day, the water network must be functioning at the same time as electrical service. This coordination is unlikely because of the unpredictable availability of power. During the most severe shortages, individual consumers receive two hours of electricity per day, with no set schedule from one day to the next. While many families augment the power utility with home generators, these are notoriously unreliable, highly polluting and extremely dangerous in dense living conditions where they have caused deaths from asphyxiation.

A final aspect of the siege’s impact on the population’s health revolves around the mental health of Gazans. Medical staff, social workers and case workers are frequently overwhelmed by the mental health needs of the population, particularly due to the toll military violence takes on Palestinians. Further, the lack of opportunities for travel, for work, for sustaining families also puts extreme stress on individuals, families and communities targeted by the siege. Domestic violence rates increase with the damage to the economy and societal structures brought about by the siege. The increasing sense of hopelessness finally added Gazans to the list of those trying to flee violence through dangerous boat voyages across the Mediterranean, a phenomenon deeply unusual in Gazan society.

Critics of Israeli policy have long expressed a concern that the occupation relies on collective punishment, which is prohibited by international law. De-development and the siege, however, represent a kind of collective torture, forcing Palestinians to cope and endure in conditions that, while met by resilience, no group should be forced to endure. This torture takes the form of a frontal attack on the physical and mental health of Palestinians, a denial of the basic requirements of medical care, sustenance, community and mental health through infrastructures of dispossession.

 

Permanence and Resistance

Gaza is a segregated, debilitated and subjugated colony of Israel. The occupation writ large is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, the medinas of French colonies, the indigenous reservations across North America and other colonial regimes. Gaza represents an extreme form of settler colonialism—the conversion of a Bantustan into an open-air prison. Israel manufactures humanitarian crisis through its siege to create permanent isolation and deprivation, which is supported by the international community through its political inaction and its supplying of humanitarian aid in spite of the Israeli government’s legal obligations.

While the Israeli government refuses to acknowledge the siege, its goals can be identified. Gaza is a tiny territory inhabited by more than 2 million Palestinians, most with claims to return to their homes, supported by international law. In a settler-colonial state premised on ethnic purity, such as Israel, Gaza represents an intolerable demographic challenge. The political economy of siege means there is no need to end the siege, it can continue indefinitely, powered by Israeli and Egyptian hostility, the indifference and complicity of powerful international actors who themselves vilify the civilians living in the strip, and the pittance paid by international humanitarian actors that subsidize the costs of keeping an entire population incarcerated. Israel’s siege of Gaza has become a permanent condition.

Many demonstrators are driven to participate in the Great March of Return by the totalizing and debilitating nature of the siege. Abandoned by the international community, political parties and purveyors of international law, protesters place their bodies in the line of fire, demanding attention from news media that prefer to cover spectacle and the drama of live ammunition, and that have often neglected to report the basic realities of unbearable life in Gaza. Much like hunger strikers from Israeli prisons to Guantanamo Bay, the protesters risk their own lives to make a statement that they hope will finally bring attention from the global media and long overdue action from the international community. ■

 


Endnotes

[1] Jehad Abusalim, “What is ‘The Great Return March?’” American Friends Services Committee Blog, April 19, 2019.

[2] United Nations Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs, Occupied Palestinian Territory, “Humanitarian snapshot: casualties in the context of demonstrations and hostilities in Gaza,” March 30, 2018 – April 30, 2019.

[3] Stephen Graham, “Demodernizing by Design: Everyday Infrastructure and Political Violence,” in Derek Gregory and Allen Pred, eds., Violent Geographies: Fear, Terror, and Political Violence (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[4] Tareq Y. Ismael and Jacqueline S. Ismael, Iraq in the Twenty-First Century : Regime Change and the Making of a Failed State (New York: Routledge, 2015).

[5] Ron J. Smith and Martin Isleem, “Farming the Front Line: Gaza’s Activist Farmers in the No Go Zones,” City 21 (2017).

[6] Adalah, “Human Rights Defenders to Israel: Stop Spraying Dangerous Herbicides over Gaza Strip,” January 9, 2019.

[7] Ron J. Smith, “Isolation Through Humanitarianism: Subaltern Geopolitics of the Siege on Gaza,” Antipode 48 (2016).

[8] P. Manduca, N. Al Baraquni, L. Al Baraquni, D. Abu Abadi, H. Abdallah, G. A. Hamad, T. A. Mosa, S. Balousha, H. Miqdad, W. Mohammed, M. Salah and R. El Shawwa, “Hospital Centered Surveillance of Births in Gaza, Palestine, 2011-2017 and Heavy Metal Contamination of the Mothers Reveals Long-Term Impact of Wars,” Reproductive Toxicology (2019).

[9] Noura Erakat, “It’s Not Wrong, It’s Illegal: Situating the Gaza Blockade Between International Law and the UN Response,” Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law, 11 (2011).

[10] UNRWA, “Gaza in 2020: A livable place?” (2011).

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