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Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Picking up the pieces in Gaza

Picking up the pieces in Gaza
by Alice Gray

Eventually it will come to that of course. When this latest festival of death is over, when Israeli politicians decide that the status quo in Gaza has been suitably altered, when enough ‘militants’ have died to make the whole operation ‘worthwhile’.

Who knows? Perhaps Israel will even manage to force regime change in Gaza and oust the Hamas government, although it seems unlikely. Similar tactics (and by that I mean mass murder of civilians in the hope that they will turn on their leaders) have failed utterly in the past to produce the desired results – think Lebanon 2006 or Operation Defensive Shield, 2002. Neither Arafat nor the Hezbollah suffered any diminishment in their popularity on these occasions – rather the reverse in fact.

Even if Hamas where ousted, it seems unlikely that the Fatah party would be foolish enough to accept an Israeli enforced coup. And so it seems likely, as Robert Fisk has recently observed, that Israel will in time talk to the ‘bloodsoaked terrorists’ of Hamas, just as they talked to the ‘bloodsoaked terrorists’ of the PLO before them, the bombing will stop and the troops will withdraw. And what will be left, as the spotlight of the global media swings to some other crisis in some other troubled land?

An impoverished and traumatized population, mourning their dead. Shattered, overcrowded cities and refugee camps with inadequate infrastructure to serve the needs of their residents. A poisoned and degrading environment with inadequate resources to sustain the people of Gaza. A government with no sovereignty over borders, airspace or coast. A frozen development process, with little possibility to improve the humanitarian situation or halt the environmental degradation. This is the status quo in Gaza and this is what needs to change.

Wearisome as it is to trot out the same facts again and again, it is necessary to remind the world of the ongoing tragedy of Gaza, the slow rot that is, day by day and year by year, destroying the very fabric of the country, so that, in effect Gaza’s population are on life-support, with Israel controlling the lifelines.

Here are some of the facts again:

Gaza’s population numbers 1.5 million people, compressed into 365 square kilometres, further compressed because Israel controls a ‘buffer zone’ along the border which varies in width from 150 metres to over 1000 metres.

There is insufficient land to supply the food needs of the population, and such land as there is is increasingly degraded and polluted with agricultural chemicals, industrial effluents and untreated sewage.

There is insufficient water in the aquifer that underlies Gaza to supply the basic needs to the population. As a result, the aquifer is overdrawn and degraded as year by year the water level drops and sea water spills in from the neighbouring Mediterranean. In 2000, 90% of the drinking water was unfit for human consumption by international standards, and the situation has only deteriorated since then.

Sewage infrastructure is completely underdeveloped. There are 3 wastewater treatment plants in Gaza but all are overloaded and in need of upgrading. In March 2007, a sewage lagoon in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza broke, and the resulting wave of sewage swamped a nearby village, Um Nassar, killing 5 people and making thousands homeless. 80% of sewage is discharged untreated into the environment, contaminating soil, water and coastline.

Gaza has one oil-powered electrical plant, supplying electricity to water pumping stations, sewage works, hospitals and residents. In addition, electricity is imported from Israel via 10 feeder cables. When the power supply is cut, pumping stations and hospitals function on diesel powered standby generators. Israel controls the flow of fuel into Gaza and since October 2007, heavy restrictions in the supply of both fuel and electricity have crippled Gaza, interfering with water supply, sanitation and the operation medical machinery in hospitals.

Efforts to implement development projects in Gaza are severely hampered by Israeli restrictions which obstruct the import of vital materials such as cement and pipelines. Vital infrastructure is damaged during Israeli military operations, and it is not always possible to repair it. In June 2006, the transformers at the Gaza Electric Company were destroyed in an Israeli air-raid. The capacity of the power-station was reduced from 140 megawatts to 80 megawatts. Numerous water-wells, pumping stations and pipelines were also damaged.

According to the latest report from Gaza’s water authority, at least 3 wells and one major pipeline have been hit by Israeli airstrikes. In addition, the power-lines supplying other wells have been brought down. Over 530 000 people are without water supply, sewage is backing up in the streets and there is concern that the Beit Lahiya sewage lagoon will break again as the level is rising by 2 cm every day. A major sewage pipeline in Beit Hanoun has broken and is flooding the area.

And so the catalogue of destruction and suffering goes on. Israel restricts supplies of food, fuel and electricity and hampers development, heaping privation on privation, pain on pain. Desperate youths cobble together homemade projectiles and fire them at nearby Israeli towns, Hamas leaders posture and pour forth a delusional rhetoric of revenge and reprisal.

A delusional rhetoric. Even with their full firepower unleashed, Hamas have managed to kill just four Israelis in the last week, adding to the total of 23 killed by rockets or mortars in the last 7 years. Tragic deaths to be sure, but set against the total carnage in Gaza at this time (over 500 dead in the last few days and rising), the suffering of the economic siege, the general festering misery of life in Gaza? Well, what are we to conclude?

Perhaps Israel’s leaders would do well to remember that terrorism has not only a physical but also a psychological infrastructure, an infrastructure that they are building even as they destroy tunnels and rocket launching platforms; that desperate people will resort to desperate measures, that suffering breeds hatred and hatred breeds revenge.

Israel does indeed have the capacity to change the status quo in Gaza, by stopping this endless abuse of the human rights and human dignity of her people. Now, while the eyes of the world are on Gaza, it is time to demand that end.
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