Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 11, 30

Special Report

Death by Degrees: The Starving of Palestine

By Mohammed Omer

Amneh Abdelal holds her youngest child as she waits for bread at the Al Kholi Bakery in Gaza City (Photo Mohammed Omer).

IT WAS A sunny spring day, a lovely day to be outdoors, in Deir Al Balah, a town in northern Gaza, but Yakoub Rahab, driving his donkey cart down the street, was distracted, troubled, and not in the mood for conversation. He frequently stopped his cart, gathering any bit of scrap lumber or fallen tree branches he could find.

Asked why he was gathering wood, Rahab replied, “The Israelis keep closing the border at Karni,” as if that were all the explanation any fellow Gazan could possibly need. But, he was reminded, the border was open today. “Yes,” he acknowledged, “but for how long? Over the weekend there was no bread, and it opened Monday—but only for half an hour. Then they said it would be open today, and maybe it is, but even if some food gets into Gaza, the Israelis can close it again whenever they want. Right now, my family is running low on cooking gas for the stove. The price on propane cylinders has been rising steadily. Any day now, we’ll run out and I’m afraid we won’t be able to find any more. Propane has to come through Karni too—everything does! If we have firewood, we can still cook.”

Of course, Mr. Rahab was quick to agree that food to cook was in dangerously short supply, and he feared the coming days would only be worse. “I know they say some flour is coming into Gaza, but will it be enough? My family ran out of flour and we stopped baking bread some time ago. We switched to rice and macaroni, but they’ve become very expensive and hard to find. So now my wife and seven family members are rationing—we use only a tiny bit of sugar in tea now. We’re stretching the tea we have to make it last. Our challenge now is whether we survive this or give up and die.”

The same rationing Mr. Rahab was practicing in his home has been adopted by bakery owners throughout Gaza. In mid-March, bakeries began using the last of their emergency stocks of flour, as people lined up for hours. One small woman asked persistently for “Five shekels worth of bread, please! Five shekels worth! Please!”—but there was more resignation than urgency in her voice. She was being jostled in a long line of would-be customers, most of them men, at the Al Kholi Bakery in Gaza City. Amneh Abdelal, a housewife of 37 from the beach refugee camp, braved the crowds herself with her youngest child, a toddler just starting to walk, since her husband, crippled in the intifada, is housebound.

”I used the last of our flour yesterday,” she explained. “None of the grocers have any flour at all, so I’ve been here in line for hours now.” But whether she would be one of the fortunate few to get any bread before the bakery was forced to close was an open question.

In a March 21 press conference, UNRWA’s director of operations for Gaza, John Ging, warned that Israel’s opening of the Karni Commercial Crossing that day and the previous day had done little to relieve the severe food shortages. On Monday, the crossing was shut down after half an hour as Israeli authorities cited a “security threat.” On Tuesday, Ging said, he visited the crossing, and although 20 trucks of flour indeed entered Gaza from Israel, Karni was operating at only 10 percent of capacity, and Israel had specified that this opening was only “temporary.”

In the first 12 weeks of 2006, Israel closed the crossing—the only import/export hub into the Gaza Strip—nearly 50 days. Flour mills and bakeries throughout Gaza normally keep an emergency inventory of 30 to 60 days’ supply on hand, but over a period of weeks have been forced to use that stock. With emergency supplies exhausted, the World Food Program and UNRWA’s normal food distribution program, on which 735,000 Gazan refugees depend, has come to a complete halt. The limited deliveries of flour have done little to ease the situation. Many restaurants and bakeries have closed, while the few that are open ration the amount each customer can buy, hoping to serve as many as possible before closing again.

Exports, too, have ground to a standstill during the prolonged closures, and Gaza’s agricultural sector has been especially hard-hit as farmers have watched their trucks loaded with strawberries, vegetables and cut flowers, slated for export to markets in Europe, rot in the sun as they waited, sometimes for days, at the closed Karni Commercial Crossing. The loss to the Gaza economy has been estimated at between US$500,000 and $600,000 per day.

The border closures have crippled Gaza’s health care system as well, as vital drugs, infant formula, and medical supplies remain stuck in Israel. Hospitals’ and clinics’ emergency supplies are running dangerously low. Anesthetic drugs are so scarce that all elective surgery has been cancelled. Supplies of chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics and kidney dialysis solutions are nearly exhausted, creating life-threatening emergencies for those patients. “We have no idea how to deal with patients,” said one doctor at Gaza City’s Al Shifa hospital. “We see dozens of them every day, and can do nothing for them because we have no supplies. Right now, I am a surgeon who cannot do surgery.”

The international community finally began to pressure Israel to relieve the impending humanitarian disaster in Gaza. In a surprising but welcome move, American Ambassador Richard Jones hosted a Sunday evening meeting at his home March 19 for representatives of Israel, Palestine, the EU and the U.N. which resulted in the temporary opening of Karni. Israel is pressing to move import/export operations to the much smaller Kerem Shalom crossing in south Gaza, while the Palestinians are working toward a permanent re-opening of Karni.

While according to international law an occupying power is responsible for the welfare of the civilian population in territories it occupies, Jerusalem-based Israeli-Arab Druze lawyer Usama Halabi explained that some might argue that Israel’s withdrawal of ground troops from Gaza last September relieved them of that responsibility. “However,” noted Halabi, “Israel controls the airspace, the seacoast, and all imports and exports, so they are still an occupying power and responsible for the food shortages. In my opinion, closing the border is simply a way for the Olmert government to put pressure on the newly elected Hamas government, to try to ensure their failure before they even officially take power. But starving over a million civilians can never be the right way to solve political differences.”

An Acceptable Policy?

It is no exaggeration to speak of impending starvation among a population where 40 percent of the children are already malnourished. Asked if the Israeli government truly is willing to let Gaza’s elderly and ill, pregnant women and children literally die of starvation, Halabi replied, “I don’t think this policy will get wide support from Israeli citizens, but I think the government itself is perfectly willing to see Palestinians starve.”

His opinion is widely echoed among Gaza’s citizens. Abu Kamal, a man of 51 from Jebalya, said, “Israel always boasts that it’s the only democracy in the Middle East. Well, we had a fair and completely democratic election in January, and by democratically choosing Hamas, starvation is our reward. That’s how much the Israeli government respects democracy!”

The Tel Aviv government has been insisting this extended border closure and the resulting impending famine in Gaza is purely due to security concerns. But, said Hassan El Wali, a security official on the Palestinian side of Karni, “There is no security problem here. The Israelis told us that the crossing point would be open for several days but we are not really sure about that,” he added, accusing the Israelis of dreaming up security problems as a tool against the Palestinians. An Israeli official confirmed to the Associated Press that the Karni closure was in part to send a message to Hamas, although he also said the security threats were real. He insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, presently set up only for travelers and their personal effects and run by Palestine, Egypt and EU monitors, offers a bit of hope for the future. Egypt has offered to send trucks of flour into Gaza at once, but they are still waiting on the Egyptian side for clearance to cross. A delegation of Rafah children demonstrated at the Rafah Terminal with signs asking the EU to pressure Israel to permanently reopen the Karni crossing. The European observers received the children and their official letter to the European Union. The demonstration took place around midday, and as the EU monitors were served lunch, they chose to forego their meals and give their box lunches to the Rafah children as a gesture of solidarity and good will.

International law speaks of the illegality of “collective punishment,” but it is easy to lose sight of the individual children, grandparents, and pregnant women, the mothers, fathers, and babies behind the verbiage, the statistics, and graphs. Language quickly becomes inadequate. How exactly do we parse out the nuances of starvation? Should we call it a “crisis” now, when hungry people are lining up outside bakeries throughout Gaza? Should we save the term “disaster” for the day Gazans begin to die of starvation? These fine points of reporting probably matter little to Mrs. Abdelal and hundreds of thousands like her who, if not on Saturday night, then the following day,had to explain to her little boy why he had to go to bed hungry. 

Mohammed Omer reports from the Gaza Strip, where he maintains the Web site <http://www.rafahtoday.org>. He can be reached at <[email protected]>.

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