- Hamas itself claims that it is for them to decide how to distribute aid in Gaza because they are “the responsible body in the territory.” On a related point, Mohammed Nuseir, a member of Hamas’s political bureau argued on 1 March 2008: “Gaza is not occupied, so why should Israel have any role [at the Gaza-Egypt border crossing] when it has no presence on the border between Egypt and Gaza?”
- Daily accounts from crossings (produced by Israeli authorities using data provided by Palestinian traders) contradict the report’s premise that Israel’s actions have caused a crisis in Gaza.
- The report contains legal arguments that are subject to ongoing contention and as such, they ought to be dealt with in the nuanced context of debate among international humanitarian lawyers.
Last Thursday, a coalition of eight British-based human rights organisations published a report entitled “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion”.[i] The overarching conclusion, reflected in news items throughout Israeli and international media outlets, is that living conditions for the 1.5 million Palestinians residents of Gaza are worse than at any time since the Six Day War in June 1967, and that Israel is to blame for this crisis. Yet Israel completely detached itself from Gaza in August 2005, uprooting all settlements and pulling out every troop. Even Hamas recognises this, as a February statement by Mohammed Nuseir, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, makes clear: “Gaza is not occupied, so why should Israel have any role [at the Gaza-Egypt border crossing] when it has no presence on the border between Egypt and Gaza?”[ii]
By withdrawing, Israel created an unprecedented opportunity for economic development as a precursor to Palestinian statehood. Despite EU and US aid donations of around $1 billion a year (or $310 per person – the highest per capita rate in the world),[iii] that chance has been consistently undermined by Hamas’s four-fold approach: unwillingness to cooperate with the international Quartet; internecine violence culminating in a coup d’état last June; increased terror against Israel; and deliberate exacerbation of Gaza’s economic plight in order to achieve its organisational aims.
A “Humanitarian Implosion”?
The 16 page report – commissioned by Amnesty International UK, CARE International UK, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Médecins du Monde UK, Oxfam, Save the Children UK and Trócaire – is categorical about a “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.[iv] The following examples illustrate how, whilst poverty and deprivation are rife in Gaza, the report’s findings are questionable.[v]
Daily accounts from crossings (produced by Israeli authorities using data provided by Palestinian traders) contradict the report’s premise that Israel’s actions have caused a “catastrophe”. For instance, the report’s Executive Summary states, “The Sufa crossing is only able to deal with a maximum of 45 trucks a day. In most cases, this number is barely reached.”[vi] Two arbitrarily selected recent examples show that 55 crossings took place there on 2 March and 63 on 5 March.[vii] Separately, World Bank data illustrates how Israel is allowing components for the maintenance of vital infrastructure projects to reach their destinations.[viii] The report also states that 17.7% fewer permits for specialist medical care were issued in 2007 than was the case, according to World Health Organisation figures. Moreover, WHO data shows that 82% of all requests were granted last year, enabling a total of 7,176 Gazans to enter Israel for treatment.[ix] Finally, Israel maintains that medical supplies are shipped into Gaza without any of the limitations being applied to general commodities.[x]
In January, defence minister Ehud Barak was explicit about Israel’s strategic objective of pressurising Hamas to end terror without spurring a humanitarian catastrophe.[xi] Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has also made clear that it is not Israel’s policy “to allow a humanitarian crisis in Gaza”.[xii] Indeed, an independent judicial process holds the government accountable. For instance, part of the Attorney General’s remit is to consider the potential humanitarian consequences of planned security measures.[xiii] The Supreme Court has often overruled the army and government.[xiv] Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, notes “the high standards of the legal system”.[xv] Israeli policymakers’ concerns about humanitarian issues are entirely overlooked by last week’s report. Since 16 June 2007, over 17,600 trucks carrying over 400,600 tons of staple foods, hygiene/medical products and aid supplies passed the five main crossings at Sufa, Erez, Karni, Nahal Oz and Kerem Shalom.[xvi]
The NGO blame game
The NGO report clearly states, “Israel, as the occupying power, is ultimately responsible for ensuring the welfare of the Palestinian population … in the Gaza Strip.”[xvii] Israeli sources have dismissed the report, not because they refute the situation in Gaza, but because they reject culpability two and a half years after having unilaterally withdrawn from the Strip. The report contains legal arguments that are subject to ongoing contention.[xviii] As such, they ought to be dealt with in the nuanced context of debate among international humanitarian lawyers. It is nonetheless worth recalling that at the time of Israel’s withdrawal, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged its smooth completion amid a wealth of praise from across the international community.[xix] No trace of political or ideological impetus exists today within mainstream Israeli society to return.
Israel holds Hamas responsible for current Palestinian hardships in Gaza.[xx] Hamas’s campaign of terror has escalated dramatically in the last few months. Over 675 rockets have hit Israel so far this year.[xxi] As the NGO report does recognise, albeit scantily, Israel has a responsibility to protect its citizens.[xxii] Defensive military operations are rigorously planned to target terrorists and prevent further missile attacks. When men, women and children are inadvertently killed, it is tragic by definition. However, it is not morally equivalent to Hamas’s use of innocent civilians both as a shield and a target. Prime Minister Olmert has stressed that military operations in Gaza will continue until terror groups stop firing rockets.[xxiii]
Hamas’ misinformation campaign
In parallel to its paramilitary activities, Hamas’s political wing is trying to manipulate public discourse and shift international policymaking in its interests. Its leaders attempt to promulgate the narrative of ‘victimhood under siege’. In the case of power cuts, Palestinian journalists have reported that Hamas staged blackouts in broad daylight in order to generate sympathy for their political ends.[xxiv] Moreover, there is evidence that Hamas has sought to tip the balance of the economic blockade towards humanitarian disaster at the expense of the civilian population. For instance, Palestinian health ministry officials reported in December 2007 that Hamas militias “looted the fuel stores destined for hospital vehicles in the Gaza Strip.”[xxv] Last month, Hamas purportedly confiscated 10 trucks of humanitarian aid (food and medicines) sent by the Jordanian Red Crescent Society.[xxvi] It was unloaded at government warehouses in the same fashion as a similar seizure which occurred in January.[xxvii] Finally, Hamas consistently targets border crossings for attacks aimed at hindering the transfer of supplies.
As Knesset member Ephraim Sneh foresaw whilst serving as deputy defence minister last summer, “[t]here will be a crisis in Gaza because it’s being controlled by gangs who show no responsibility to the public,” adding, “Israel is not (Hamas leader) Ismail Haniyeh’s welfare office.”[xxviii] Yet the above activities should not be mistaken for petty theft or mindless vandalism; Hamas wants to be able to distribute aid as and when it sees fit and to redirect limited fuel supplies to military rather than civil uses. A Hamas spokesman’s comment that it was for them to decide how to distribute aid in Gaza because they are “the responsible body in the territory”[xxix] highlights the idiosyncrasy of Hamas’s strategy vis-à-vis their mantra that the Israeli “occupation” continues. Human rights groups, meanwhile, report on the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in a way Hamas hopes will indirectly squeeze Israel into lifting its embargo.
A cursory glance at Hamas’ recent conduct in Gaza highlights the sort of activities aid organisations must factor in to their policy recommendations for alleviating humanitarian stress there. Hamas is trying to put pressure on the international community to get Israel to play by its rules. Israeli diplomats have already made clear that they will not fall into that trap; it seems human rights organisations already have.
It is legitimate for NGOs to criticise Israel, which should be held accountable like every other country. Those that really seek to alleviate poverty and help bring an end to the conflict, however, need to do more than produce a pejorative report which fails to examine Hamas’s key role in engineering Gaza’s current plight. It is incumbent upon NGOs not to play well-rehearsed games which bear no tangible results but instead to develop and scrutinise pragmatic solutions which really work.
[i] ‘The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion’, a joint report by: Amnesty International UK, CARE International UK, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Médecins du Monde UK, Oxfam, Save the Children UK and Trócaire, March 2006.
[ii] ‘Make-believe’, Zvi Bar’el, Haaretz, 4 February 2008. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/950736.html
[iii] ‘EU ‘to keep funding Palestinians”, BBC News, 30 January 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4663742.stm; ‘World Bank Paper Urges Major Easing Of Israeli Closure Measures And Stepped-Up Palestinian Reform Efforts’, The World Bank, 24 June 2004. http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/MENAEXT/WESTBANKGAZAEXTN/0,,contentMDK:20217834~menuPK:294370~pagePK:141137~piPK:141127~theSitePK:294365,00.html
[iv] ‘Study: Gaza humanitarian situation worst since 1967’, The Associated Press, Haaretz, 6 March 2008. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/961340.html; ‘OPT: The Gaza Strip: A humanitarian implosion’, ReliefWeb, 6 March 2008. http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/PANA-7CEGN8?OpenDocument
[v] ‘Study: Gaza humanitarian situation worst since 1967’, op. cit.
[vi] ‘The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion’, op. cit.
[vii] ‘NGO Monitor: NGOs Use False Claims on Humanitarian Conditions in Gaza’, NGO Monitor, 6 March 2008. http://www.ngo-monitor.org/article/ngo_monitor_ngos_use_false_claims_on_humanitarian_conditions_in_gaza; ‘Gaza Strip Daily Report: 2 March 2008’, Office of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, Ministry of Defense, State of Israel.
[x] ‘UK Rights Groups: Gaza in Severe Crisis’, Aron Heller, Associated Press, 7 March 2008. http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5gf6wbGZX2ALZl9yL4-99VuksC9bQD8V7KOO01
[xi] ‘Israel eases its siege of Gaza’, Herb Keinon, Yaakov Katz and JPost.com staff, The Jerusalem Post, 22 January 2008. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1200572506982&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
[xii] ‘Olmert: We won’t allow Gaza to slide into a humanitarian crisis’, Aluf Benn, Haaretz, 17 June 2007. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/871829.html; ‘Olmert promises Abbas not to disrupt flow of food, medicine into Gaza’, Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, 28 January 2008. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/948306.html
[xiii] ‘Analysis: What exactly is a humanitarian crisis?’, Dan Izenberg, The Jerusalem Post, 21 January 2008. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1200572510771
[xiv] ‘The Case for Israel’, Alan Dershowitz, 2003 (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons).
[xv] ‘Trial of Palestinian Leader Focuses Attention on Israeli Courts’, Greg Myre, The New York Times, 5 May 2003. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9802E5DA133CF936A35756C0A9659C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
[xvi] ‘Gaza Strip Daily Report: 3 March 2008’, Office of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, Ministry of Defense, State of Israel.
[xvii] ‘The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion’, op. cit.
[xviii] See, for instance, ‘International Law and Gaza: The Assault on Israel’s Right to Self-Defense’, Abraham Bell, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 28 January 2008. http://www.jcpa.org/JCPA/Templates/ShowPage.asp?DRIT=1&DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=111&FID=378&PID=0&IID=2021&TTL=International_Law_and_Gaza:_The_Assault_on_Israel%E2%80%99s_Right_to_Self-Defense; ‘Proportionality in the Modern Law of War: An Unenforceable Norm, or the Answer to our Dilemma?, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Amichai Cohen, 15 August 2006. http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/besa/perspectives20.html; ‘The Case for Israel’, op. cit.
[xix] ‘Annan commends Israeli withdrawal from Gaza’, UN News Ce
tre, 12 September 2005. http://www.un.org/apps/news/storyAr.asp?NewsID=15767&Cr=middle&Cr1=east; ‘Middle East Quartet praises Sharon, Palestinians on Gaza disengagement’, UN News Centre, 20 September 2005. http://www.un.org/apps/news/storyAr.asp?NewsID=15901&Cr=middle&Cr1=quartet
[xx] ‘British aid groups say humanitarian situation in Gaza the worst since 1967’, The Associated Press, International Herald Tribune, 6 March 2008. http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/03/06/africa/ME-GEN-Israel-Gaza.php
[xxi] ‘Statement by Amb Levanon to Human Rights Council, Geneva’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 6 March 2008. http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Foreign+Relations/Israel+and+the+UN/Speeches+-+statements/Statement+by+Amb+Levanon+to+Human+Rights+Council+6-Mar-2008.htm
[xxii] ‘Gaza: Humanitarian situation worst since 1967’, Amnesty International UK, 6 March 2008. http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=17689
[xxiii] ‘Israel eases its siege of Gaza’, op. cit.
[xxiv] ‘Palestinian journalists: Hamas staged blackouts’, Khaled Abu Toameh, The Jerusalem Post, 23 January 2008. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1201070777685
[xxv] ‘Hamas Manufacture a “Crisis,” But Media Blame Israel’, Tamar Sternhal, CAMERA, 22 January 2008. http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=69&x_article=1432
[xxvi] ‘Hamas confiscates humanitarian aid trucks sent to Gaza from Jordan’, Deutsche Presse Agentur, Haaretz, 8 February 2008. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/952322.html
[xxvii] ‘NGO Monitor: NGOs Use False Claims on Humanitarian Conditions in Gaza’, op. cit.
[xxviii] ‘Israel cuts back fuel supplies to Gaza’, Ari Rabinovitch, Reuters, 17 June 2007. http://www.reuters.com/article/featuredCrisis/idUSL17485730
[xxix] ‘Hamas confiscates humanitarian aid trucks sent to Gaza from Jordan’, op. cit.