22 June, 2009 – The Guardian Blog
Palestinian man moves a goat through a smuggling tunnel from Egypt
to Gaza under the border at Rafah. Photograph: Khalil Hamra/AP
Two years after the Israeli blockade began, times remain extremely hard in Gaza.
What’s on the menu? Not cherries, kiwi fruit, green almonds, pomegranates and chocolate – they are expressly prohibited, according to an investigation by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. So are all “delicacies”, including the honey and sesame snack halvah. However, a ban of many months on carrots and pumpkins has now been lifted. So pumpkin-stuffed ravioli could be had in Gaza today (pasta is allowed at the moment, though only since John Kerry made a protest in March).
Every consignment of fruit, vegetables or processed food for the 1.5 million Palestinians living in what has been called the world’s largest refugee camp is, according to the paper, inspected by high-level Israeli officials. For what? For unsuitable tastiness, apparently. An official told Ha’aretz :”We don’t want Gilad Shalit’s captors to be munching Bamba right over his head.” Shalit is an Israeli soldier taken prisoner by a Palestinian group three years ago. Bamba is a peanut-butter flavoured corn snack, the most popular in Israel.
For the imprisonment of Shalit, and of course other acts of opposition – including random rocket attacks – against the state of Israel, every inhabitant of Gaza has lived under a blockade which will have lasted two years this month. The Israelis control the entry of everything including humanitarian supplies from fuel oil to food. The blockade is, as UN officials and numerous diplomats have pointed out, an act of collective punishment against an entire people, and thus clearly illegal under international law.
There are many problems in Gaza, such as the lack of reconstruction following the recent open conflict as documented in this film last week on guardian.co.uk. Some are certainly the fault of Hamas, the hard-line elected government. But the food import restrictions demonstrate just how complete, and arbitrary, Israeli control is over the Gazans, whose welfare and rights are technically an Israeli responsibility.
According to Ha’aretz, the food import policy doesn’t actually have much of a plan – what fruit and veg can go in is decided daily by the defence ministry, or according to the whims of army officers on the ground. They are clearly influenced by Israeli farmers and fruit growers. Recently melons were allowed in, because there was a glut of them in Israel, but onions were not. All foods command higher prices in Gaza, than they do in Israel, so there is clearly an incentive to corruption.
In recent months, according to another Ha’aretz article, tea, coffee, sausages, semolina, milk products in large packages and most baking products have been forbidden. According to the UN, Gaza rarely receives more than 50% of the domestic cooking gas it needs. The new Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday evening promised little hope for a let-up in the Gazans’ suffering, despite pressure from the Obama administration. One moderate Palestinian MP called Netanyahu’s proposals “the consolidation of apartheid”.
Gazans meanwhile do what you’d expect of anyone in a prison camp. Because the Israelis limit the amount of meat that can come in (no live animals have entered six months), they have been smuggling livestock through the notorious tunnels built into Egypt. They catch as much fish as possible, thought the Israeli navy won’t allow their boats to go far from the shore, on security grounds. The orange groves I saw on the outskirts of Gaza City 18 months ago provided famous fruit – though many were contaminated as a result of the collapsing sewage system (the Israelis would not allow the concrete and parts needed for repairs to enter). But many of the trees were destroyed by Israeli tanks in the fighting six months ago.
But though there is often a good variety of food, smuggled or permitted by Israel, in Gaza’s markets, the reality is that it’s too expensive for most families to buy. Unemployment in Gaza is now around 50%. Most Gazans’ work was in Israel, but that all stopped when the Israelis closed the border. To buy meat or fish or vegetables most Gazans’ only recourse is to sell the flour and oil they are given as aid by the UN. If you want to know more about how the poorest Gazans manage to feed themselves see my piece from Observer Food Monthly last April, when the blockade was less than a year old.
Now Save the Children says one in three families cannot afford balanced meals; and the UN agencies say that more than 10% of children are so malnourished their growth has been stunted. This proportion is growing rapidly. Anaemia due to lack of protein is another persistent problem – affecting 65% of children and 35% of pregnant women.
There are three quarters of a million or so children in Gaza. The intransigence of politicians on both sides of the fence is condemning them to the real risks of their bodies and brains not developing properly – whatever the horrors of war are doing to their minds. But it’s not just about a lack of cherries and chocolate. The Israelis have bombed schools, and the blockade prevents textbooks, crayons and even writing paper getting in.
437 children were killed when the Israelis bombed and shelled Gaza at the beginning of this year, out of a total of 1,324 Gazans killed, according to the Palestinian human rights commission. (The Israeli army put the total at 1,166, and says less than 300 were civilians). In the same period 13 Israelis died. Three of them were civilians, from the border towns that Palestinian groups habitually target with rocket attacks.
What do you think? Is this old-fashioned siege – or ghetto – strategy working? Can you use hunger as a way of defeating an enemy – and is it right to use it against all of them, including children? When I’ve written about this in the past on WoM, the orchestrated responses of the lobby groups have soon filled the comments slot – can we try to keep it grown-up, and thoughtful, this time?