From Banned Crayons To Concrete, Gaza Struggles To Rebuild After A Decade Of Israeli Blockade
GAZA — (OPINION) Gaza residents are starving and struggling to rebuild crucial infrastructure under the effects of Israel’s decade-long blockade on the import of supplies.
Following the electoral victory of Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2006, Israel, which had ostensibly left Gaza the previous year, established a total blockade of air, sea and land, assisted by Egypt. This decimated the economy, and limited movement from Gaza even to the West Bank. Two years later, some supplies were delivered to Gaza for the first time.
As reported by Gush Shalom in “The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs” in April of 2008, “The supplies contained mainly essential foodstuffs and water filters, which are essential in the Strip because the water there is practically undrinkable. The Palestinian Coalition Against the Blockade intends to give priority to hospitals, where the need for clean water is paramount. For many months, the blockade prevented filters from entering Gaza, producing a serious threat to public health.”
It was hoped at that time that such filters, and other supplies, would be readily imported to Gaza. However, this was not the case, and Palestinians relied on tunnels between Gaza and Egypt described as “virtually the only way that goods have reached the residents of the tiny territory.” In September of 2015, Egypt, in complicity with Israel, flooded the tunnels, effectively closing off Gaza from the rest of the world.
During the bombing of the Gaza Strip by Israel in the summer of 2014, over 500,000 people were displaced; over 100,000 remain homeless. Today, little has been rebuilt, because of Israeli restrictions on building materials allowed to enter the area. The extensive list of items that Israel prohibits includes wooden boards thicker than 1 cm which, of course, presents a significant challenge to the rebuilding of any structures.
Water and sanitation remain crucial problems in the Gaza Strip, but the ban on many types of pipes and pumps prevent much progress from being made in this area.
Yet this is just the acute situation in Gaza; the chronic situation tells an equally tragic story. In June of 2012, Israel ‘softened’ the restrictions on imports, but still prevents, among other products, the following:
- Specific types of metal profiles;
- Ball bearings;
- Lathes and their parts;
- Composite materials;
- Hunting knives;
- Optical equipment, such as lasers and night vision goggles;
- Certain navigation aides;
- Diving equipment;
- Flares and fireworks;
- Rock drills and
- Equipment for drawing water from excavated sites.
Of particular interest regarding the rebuilding of the destroyed homes and businesses in Gaza, Israel prevents the following from entering:
- Portland cement and lime in bulk, bags or barrels;
- Natural and quarry aggregates and all varieties of gravel;
- Ready concrete;
- Precast concrete elements and products;
- Steel elements and/or construction products;
- Iron for foundations and columns, at any diameter, including wielded steel nets;
- Steel cables of any width;
- Forms for construction elements, plastics or galvanised iron;
- Industrialised forms for casting concrete;
- Plastic or composite beams more than 4mm thick
- Thermal isolation materials and products;
- Blocs at any width, concrete; silicate; Ytong aerated concrete or its equivalent; or gypsum;
- Materials and products for sealing structures;
- Asphalt and its components (bitumen, emulsion) in aggregate or packaged ;
- Steel elements or framing products for construction;
- Cast concrete elements and products for drainage over 1m in diameter, and
- Precast units and sea-borne containers.
But this does, indeed, represent a liberalization of Israel’s brutal blockade. Prior to 2010, as reported by Dr. Kevin M. Cahill, Chief Advisor on Humanitarian Affairs to the President of the U.N. General Assembly, Israel “… also restricted the importation of lentils, pasta, tomato paste and juice by some incomprehensible logic that these items may pose a security threat. In a particularly cruel twist, even batteries for hearing aids used by deaf children cannot be imported, condemning these unfortunates to a world of silence.”
Additional items that have been banned in Gaza for their apparent threat to Israeli security include chocolate, vinegar, toys and even potato chips.
A report in 2010 by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, occupied Palestinian territory, noted that the number of Palestinians living in what is considered ‘abject poverty,’ meaning they are unable to obtain such basic items as soap, school stationery and drinking water, had tripled since the blockade began. Additionally, most of Gaza’s population only has electricity for about twelve hours each day.
In addition, a report by the UNRWA states that,
“Imports of industrial fuel designated for the Gaza Power Plant continued to decline for the fifth consecutive month, due to a lack of funds needed to purchase the industrial fuel required to operate the plant. As a result, the majority of Gaza’s population experienced rolling blackouts of up to 12 hours per day, every day.”
Gaza: the largest open air prison in the world
There has only been a deterioration in the situation since that report was written, nearly six years ago. Prior to the Israeli onslaught of 2014, the World Bank reported that the Gaza Strip had the highest unemployment rate in the world at a staggering 43%, with youth unemployment exceeding 60%. Tens of thousands of people remain homeless.
In 2013, the head of the Popular Committee Against the Siege, Jamal al-Khudari, noted the following: “The losses directly incurred by the industrial sector every year exceed $150 million. About 80% of Gaza’s factories were damaged by the Israeli blockade, causing their closure in whole or in part.”
Khudari attributed “those losses to the tight blockade and the barring of raw materials and construction materials for the private sector, pointing out that more than 200 materials are banned under the dual-use pretext. He accused Israel of “carefully choosing which raw materials to ban in order to ensure that the economic wheel stops and that thousands of workers, engineers, construction workers and factory workers lose their jobs.”
Khudari referred to Israeli-defined “dual-use” items, those items that could, conceivably, be used to make rockets, from entering Gaza. It must be noted that those “rockets” have been described by Dr. Norman Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors and an outspoken critic of Israel (he is no longer allowed in the country), as “enhanced fireworks.”
The ineffectiveness of these rockets is clear. Israel reported that, since 2001, over 4,000 such ‘rockets’ were fired into Israel resulting in fewer than 100 deaths and about $150 million in property damage. The bombs Israel dropped on Gaza during the summer of 2014 equal approximately the strength of one of the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan during World War II. In the 51-day onslaught by Israel against Gaza, over 2,000 Palestinian were killed, and 20,000 homes destroyed. No one will ever say that the U.S.-provided weaponry that Israel uses can be described as “enhanced fireworks.”
Israel’s concern about what goes into the making of rockets is puzzling. The list of non-food items that Israel bans includes cement, glass, steel, bitumen, wood, doors, plastic pipes, paint, metal pipes, metal reinforcement rods, generators, high voltage cables, wooden telegraph poles, wheelchairs, dry food items, crayons, stationery, soccer balls and musical instruments
These facts and figures can be dry, until the human cost is understood. This writer spoke via Skype with a young friend who lives in the Gaza Strip on January 11, 2016. Saad (not his real name) spoke of the frustration he and so many others feel at not having access to so many basic commodities that much of the world enjoys. Some goods are available for purchase, but because the economy has been crippled by the blockade, there is little money to buy them.
Although this may be seen as only anecdotal evidence, it supports this writer’s conversations with other residents of Gaza. Another friend, 24-year-old Mahmoud Abu Selah, said this: “The blockade converts our life from thinking about the future, to scheduling life around when we have electricity; to a life of seeking for food and water. … In short the blockade stops the life completely here.”
In 2011, a panel consisting of five independent human rights experts reported to the U.N. Human Rights Council. They stated that the blockade subjects the people of Gaza to collective punishment in “flagrant contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law.” Such punishment violated Hague Conventions on the laws of war. Additionally, as Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states the following: “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed.”
The United Nations, ineffectual in the best of times, has demanded an end to the blockade, to no avail.
What’s next for Gaza and the State of Palestine?
The U.S. government, which is almost completely silent about the blockade, but occasionally states that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal, gives Israel nearly $4 billion in aid annually, and this amount is ever increasing.
The U.S. vetos any U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, despite the widely reported animosity between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Such ‘animosity’ has not prevented Mr. Obama from keeping the ever-flowing money tap to Israel wide open, such that his administration has given more money to Israel than any previous U.S. administration. So much for human rights and international law.
All of the current candidates running for president of the U.S., with the exception of Green Party candidate Jill Stein, bow to Israel without reservation, so Palestine can expect no assistance from the U.S. after January 2017. And for nearly 70 years, the United Nations has provided no help.
Palestine is recognized by most of the countries of South America, Asia and Africa. The European Union, and individual governments of European nations are holding more and more votes on recognition, and the tide seems to be moving in that direction. The U.S., Canada (to its everlasting shame), and a few other nations will be left behind as the world moves toward human rights for the Palestinians and adherence to international law.
International recognition of Palestine is something Israel opposes, since it would, in effect, “level the playing field.” With Israel becoming increasingly isolated in the international community, occupation of an equally-recognized nation-state would not sit well. Even now, the international movement to boycott Israel — which includes academic, entertainment and products — is taking a toll, and has even been described by some within the country as “an existential threat to Israel. “
Israel no longer calls all the shots. Turkey, which ‘downgraded’ ties with Israel in 2011, after ten Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli soldiers aboard the Gaza Flotilla, is now in discussions with Israel about renewing ties, but has made the end of the blockade of Gaza one of the conditions for doing so. Egypt is pressuring Israel not to accede to this demand. Yet the international community sees the blockade as illegal. What is an apartheid regime to do?
While Israel can rely on unlimited financial support from the U.S., its options for international legitimacy are fast waning. Eventually, the world will demand that it adhere to the same rules all other nations are supposed to play by.
With Israel’s current leadership, and the fairy tale, alternate reality so many Israelis appear to live in, it will be a rude awakening.
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