June 2010: Feeding the inmates through the bars

Humanitarian assistance in Gaza and the West Bank: “Feeding the inmates through the bars

Op Ed by Ross Mountain in Arabic in An Nahar, a leading newspaper in Lebanon on Saturday 19th June 2010.

The killing in “self-defense” of unarmed civilians during Israel’s assault in international waters on a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid supplies to Gaza calls attention, once again, to the terrible situation of civilians living trapped under unbearable conditions in Gaza. Anyone asserting that these few boats could constitute a threat to the security of Israel is simply not credible.

It is also the latest in a series of actions that perpetuate an artificial humanitarian crisis –not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank – in which Israeli impediments to the movement of people and goods, on a daily basis test the tolerance and patience of the Palestinians beyond limits. Israel’s construction of the West Bank Barrier, based on its claim that it needs to secure its people, is a cornerstone of this unnecessary crisis. It is the largest infrastructure project in Israeli history, expecting to cost around US$4 billion on completion. Although Israel signed an agreement to reduce the number of checkpoints and obstacles, these increased from 390 in 2005 to 630 in 2008, of which 550 were still in place in February this year.

The barrier and all the closures, differentiated passes and permits, settler- only roads and the enforced separation between Palestinians and Israelis resemble nothing so much as the laws and practices of racial segregation and forced removals that South Africa knew under Apartheid.

Perhaps more cruel than the barrier itself is the arbitrary system of the opening and closing of checkpoints. These often cut West Bank residents from their land, their neighbours and friends, deliberately impeding access between East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank- let alone movement to and from Gaza. The Israeli authorities’ arbitrary decisions determine when, or whether, different border crossings are opened or if the different permits they insist are required are valid for movement or not, and make predictable humanitarian access impossible. Indeed a direct product of this massive expenditure is the progressive impoverishment and heightened frustration of the Palestinian people!

The suffering of civilians in Gaza and frustration of the humanitarian organizations on the ground struggling to provide aid have only increased in the aftermath of “Operation Cast Lead”, the military operation launched by Israel in December 2008. During this operation, houses, factories, wells, schools, hospitals, police stations, the recently built airport, and many UN and public buildings were destroyed and damaged – as were food supply warehouses and water and sanitation systems. More than a year later, families are still living amid the rubble of their former homes, since the continuing blockade has made meaningful reconstruction impossible despite the billions pledged by the international community.

Virtually no improvement has been possible due to the item-by-item restrictions and elaborate procedures insisted upon by the Israeli authorities. With a broken economy and collapsed infrastructure, Gaza’s society has become increasingly destabilized. Over 1.5 million Palestinians remain trapped in Gaza, heavily dependent on restricted aid flows for basic necessities. Around 80% of the population now depends on food aid provided by the international community. As one humanitarian worker, struggling daily with this situation, graphically described it, “we are feeding the inmates through the bars.” In 2009 the international community contributed US$765 million to United Nations appeals for Gaza and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory. The UN appeal for 2010 seeks US$644.5 million. This huge amount of money would be unnecessary if the Israeli authorities removed the barriers, lifted the blockade and respected International Humanitarian Law as repeatedly demanded by the UN, the US, the EU, Russia- the members of The Quartet. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has exceptionally now also called for the Gaza closure to end.

During my recent mission to the region, humanitarian actors on the ground, amongst them donors, NGOs, UN agencies, and other partners shared with my team their concern that international humanitarian assistance was in effect subsidizing the Israeli occupation. How much better and more helpful to building peace between the two communities would it be to invest such money in improving the skills and future prospect of the Palestinian people instead of serving as a band aid to avert the absolute collapse of their living conditions. Let us be clear. This is a manufactured humanitarian crisis that need not exist, that does not need to demand hundreds of millions of dollars year by year.

The collective punishment the civilian population in Gaza is facing means that the international community has to deliver aid to cover needs brought about by the actions of the Israeli authorities. And at a high cost. As an illustration, the World Food Programme reports that the additional costs for procedures demanded by the Israeli authorities for the delivery of their food supplies to the citizens of Gaza has trebled their transport and handling costs. Who pockets this difference? Not the Palestinians, as purchases and storage take place mostly in Israel.

There are many examples of protracted and trivial negotiations to import items such as pencils for schools. Only after months of negotiations, progress was made with the Israelis allowing materials like glass into Gaza to repair windows shattered by the attack in December 2008. However, this was only achieved after involving the highest level of the UN and diplomatic missions.

Making matters worse, the application of the political “no contact” policy with Hamas by a number of key donors to humanitarian programs in the occupied Palestinian territories violates the basic humanitarian principle of dealing with all authorities – de facto as well as de jure – to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches the vulnerable on the basis of their needs. Indeed, as the International Crisis Group has emphasized the international donor community must shoulder its share of the blame for continuing to politically support the isolation of Gaza.

The thwarted efforts of the flotilla to bring humanitarian and building supplies have highlighted Israel’s restrictive policies despite the outcry of the international community. In the wake of the Israeli killings, will donor countries now insist on the lifting of the blockade on humanitarian supplies for Gaza and the absurd limitations on movement including in the West Bank? None of these pose a credible threat to the security of Israel and would make all the difference to the health and welfare of the population of the occupied Palestinian territory. Or will the obstinacy of the Israel government and the spin of its skilled spokespersons be allowed to prevail once more?

Desperation grows in Palestine: HRI 2010 Crisis report

Ross Mountain is DARA’s Director General. He visited oPt in March 2010 within the context of the Humanitarian Response Index (HRI) 2010.