By Marie Kennedy
As I drove northeast from Jabalia last March, all I could see in every direction was swaths of upturned concrete and twisted metal, what used to be factories and dairies in the industrial heartland of Gaza. In 1995, the last time I had visited Gaza, as I walked through the Jabalia refugee camp carefully jumping over streams of open sewage, I was pessimistic about the chances for meaningful community development in this land where three-quarters of the people are refugees from Israel. Now, I truly despaired.
Though one would not know it from the careful phrasing of the international group of donors who met in Egypt in late March 2009, what I viewed was the result not of a natural disaster, but of the deliberate actions of the State of Israel, with the tacit backing of the United States. For twenty-two days, between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009, Israel dropped bombs from F-16 jets and shot rockets from Apache helicopters, all of U.S. origin. Unmanned drones killed specific targets, many times civilians.
Homes and institutional buildings, including Gaza’s United Nations headquarters, where 700 civilians had taken shelter, were shelled with white phosphorus ammunition. Mosques, houses and apartment buildings were shot at and bulldozed. All police stations and government buildings, including the parliament building, were destroyed. Huge sections of walls in schools were blasted away. The American International School was obliterated and the United Nations school for refugees was bombed, as was the Islamic University of Gaza. The walls of hospitals were pocked with bullets and lone houses stood in plains of rubble. Trees were uprooted and crops bulldozed. Even the small urban gardens supported by the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC) were targeted, as were PARC’s headquarters and greenhouses.
During the attack, the borders of Gaza were tightly closed. The Palestinians of Gaza had nowhere to flee and many were killed. As Richard Falk, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in the Occupied Territories, commented, “This appears to be the first time in wartime conditions that a civilian population was denied the possibility of becoming refugees.” The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), whose workers risked their lives to go out every day during the attack, documented that 1,417 Palestinians were killed and 5,303 were injured. Since the attack ended, more have died and been injured from unexploded ordinance and white phosphorus.
Almost two-thirds of recorded deaths were civilians, and almost one-third of those were children. The United Nations Relief and Works Administration for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimates that more than 100,000 people are homeless as a result of the attack. They are living in tents, hastily constructed hovels in the ruins of their former homes.
The Incarceration of Gazans and Theft of Their Land
The war didn’t start with the December-January offensive. It didn’t even start with the siege that began in June 2007 when Hamas took control of Gaza. It began with the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948, continued with the occupation in 1967, even after Israel supposedly withdrew (but kept control of borders, air and sea space and all movement of people and goods), and intensified with the current siege. In January 2008, almost a year before the recent offensive, UNRWA Commissioner General Karen Koning AbuZayd wrote in The Guardian:
Gaza’s border closures are without precedent. Palestinians are effectively incarcerated. The overwhelming majority cannot leave or enter Gaza. Without fuel and spare parts, public health conditions are declining steeply as water and sanitation services struggle to function. The electricity supply is sporadic and has been reduced further along with fuel supply in these past days. UNICEF reports that the partial functioning of Gaza City’s main pumping station is affecting the supply of safe water to some 600,000 Palestinians.
And the war hasn’t ended with the ceasefire. Since the start of the siege, and especially during the twenty-two day attack and following, Palestinians in Gaza have had to rely on goods brought in through the “illegal” tunnels between Rafah in southern Gaza and Egypt. As of this writing, Israel is continuing to bomb the tunnels and to shell Palestinian fishing boats and kidnap fishers who venture beyond the three-mile limit that Israel imposed during the attack (a reduction from the six-mile limit Israel had imposed in 2000—in violation of international law).
Under cover of the attack and following it, Israel has continued to confiscate more land from Gaza (as it is doing in the West Bank). When Israel “withdrew” from Gaza in 2005, it established a 300-meter “buffer zone” along the border. This zone was carved entirely from Palestinian land and was widened to between 1.5 and 2 kilometers at the beginning of the second Intifada. During the attack, the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) widened it still further, uprooting orchards and crops and bulldozing hundreds of houses as well as industrial establishments. This land, now off-limits to Palestinians, represents more than 40 percent of Gaza. It is also the most fertile agricultural land in Gaza and the only area where relatively large-scale agriculture is possible in this densely populated little strip of land. Farmers risk their lives to continue to work the confiscated land. The U.N. has reported incidents in which the Israeli military has fired on Gaza farmers nearly every week since the ceasefire.
Having destroyed the ability of Palestinians in Gaza to produce sufficient food for the 1.5 million people squeezed into the 140 square miles that constitute the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places on earth, Israel is continuing the war by non-explosive means. Borders with both Israel and Egypt remain closed to all but a small amount of humanitarian aid. The Tel Aviv-based Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement reported in May that the level of goods getting into Gaza is now about 25 percent of what it was before June 2007, when the siege began. As recently reported in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “Only 30-40 select commercial items are currently permitted entry to Gaza, as compared to 4,000 prior to closure.” The U.N. reported in May that “no petrol or diesel has been allowed into the Gaza Strip through Israeli crossing points since November 2, 2008.” And the list of banned items goes on and on: vehicles, livestock, electrical appliances, construction materials, food parcels containing jam, biscuits, tomato paste, tea, sweets, date bars, etc. Borders remain closed to most people as well. Even Palestinians who need medical care not available in Gaza are often denied exit; PCHR reports that a number of people have died as a result.
Israel Shuts Off the Water
Israel “withdrew” from Gaza when the water was no longer potable, mainly due to Israel’s over-pumping of the relatively shallow Coastal Aquifer. According to the April 2009 World Bank report Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development, “only 5-10 percent of the aquifer is now yielding drinking-quality water.” Palestinians in Gaza must use vast quantities of chlorine to treat the polluted water or treat seawater in expensive desalination plants. With the blockade of Gaza and the Israeli offensive, water supply and sanitation have reached crisis levels. Much of the water infrastructure was destroyed in the bombing and materials needed for repairs are among the banned items. In March it was estimated that 150,000 people had no access to tap water and, of course, with the blockade, chlorine and fuel to run the desalination plants, like everything else, have been hard to get. Even before the Israeli offensive, the World Health Organization reported that over a quarter of diseases in Gaza were water related and that “the proportion of contaminants is growing fast.”
Everyone from Pope Benedict XVI to U.S. President Barack Obama is urging an end to the blockade. In Obama’s opinion, “If the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can’t even get clean water at this point, if the border closures are so tight that it is impossible for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel’s long-term security or a constructive peace track to move forward.” As I write, numerous international delegations are attempting to force the issue, congregating on all the crossings from Israel and Egypt to demand that the borders be opened. In wave after wave, including a large flotilla, these groups are committed to challenging the border restrictions for twenty-two days, the length of the Israeli offensive.
Meanwhile, many Palestinians are reduced to two meatless meals a day, quite literally tightening their belts and focusing on doing what they can to pull themselves out of the rubble Israel has made of their land. With few resources, they are making slow progress in removing debris and beginning reconstruction, but individuals and NGOs are doing what they can. A few families, lacking cement, are building houses out of mud. PARC’s greenhouses have been cobbled back together and its model urban garden replanted by a neighbor. Operating out of temporary quarters, PARC has restocked some of the urban gardens and replaced rabbits; it is now beginning the dangerous job of replacing the soil from the gardens poisoned by white phosphorus. The Gaza Community Mental Health Center is training school counselors and doctors to properly diagnose and treat psychosomatic illness, saying they don’t speak of post-traumatic stress, since there is no post; the trauma just goes on and on. PCHR is continuing to publish reports that document Israel’s war crimes. Its most recent report is the extensively documented War Crimes Against Children.
As I celebrated International Women’s Day with eighty Gazan women and in the days following visited families in their tents and homes they had made in the ruins, I was greeted with warmth and traditional Palestinian hospitality. On my last day, as a woman living in the ruins of what had been her home served me tea, her elderly father clambered down the broken steps to pick a leaf of mint for me from the small herb garden he had planted there. Indeed, there is truth in what John Ging, the head of UNRWA in Gaza, said on the day I arrived there: “Palestinians are very civilized people living in uncivilized circumstances.”
What Can We Do?
Marie Kennedy is visiting professor of urban planning at the University of California-Los Angeles. In February and March 2009, as a representative of Grassroots International, she visited Israel, the West Bank and Gaza (the last as part of a Code Pink delegation).