Early on January 23 more than 20,000 Palestinians from the besieged Gaza Strip poured into Egyptian territory after Palestinian militants from Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC) blew up two sections of the Gaza-Egypt border wall at Rafah.
The wall was destroyed by 20 coordinated explosions. By early afternoon, Egyptian authorities estimated that more than 60,000 people had flooded in from Gaza; the UN put the figure at 350,000.
The Gaza Strip had been under total siege from October 28, when Israel began implementing "phase 1" of its plan to collectively punish the residents of the strip in response to the Hamas take-over of the area. In June 2007 Hamas fighters over-ran the Fatah-aligned and US-backed Palestinian Authority Preventative Security Service after months of bloody fighting between the two factions.
In response, Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency, ousting the democratically elected, Hamas-led PA. Israel declared the region "an enemy entity". On September 19, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert voted to instigate wide-spread fuel and electrical cuts to the region in an attempt to isolate Hamas further.
On October 28, Israel ordered private company Dor Alon to provide 15-20% less fuel than the quantity ordered by Gaza residents. Israel also stopped shipments of fuel entering the region by sea, air or the Egyptian border, resulting in a 40% reduction in benzene (used as fuel for vehicles and generators).
In 2006 Israeli warplanes carried out bombing raids that destroyed Gaza's basic infrastructure, including its only power station. Despite repairs to the plant, before the siege it was only operating at 43% capacity. Israel had also repeatedly closed Gaza's border entrances, preventing the transit of goods.
On January 6, Israel began "phase 2", instituting a further 35-40% reduction in fuel supplied to the Gaza Strip. This led to blackouts of more than 12 hours per day. On January 20, Gaza's power plant was forced to close as reserve fuel ran out.
According to the plant's general director, more than 800,000 Gazans were left without electricity. The closure of the plant also affected the water supply and the disposal of sewage, as fuel and power are needed to pump and filter drinking water and to run sewage treatment plants.
The Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility announced that if the fuel supply did not resume within three days that all sewage treatment plants and 130 water wells would cease to function. According to a January 21 statement by Oxfam International, less than 37 water supply pumps are running in Gaza and 600,000 residents (40% of the population) are currently without running, drinkable water.
Oxfam director Barbara Stocking said there was "massive" concern for public health and that "Israel must immediately allow fuel into Gaza to avoid any further civilian suffering. Cutting off water to civilians is both immoral and illegal, no matter what the provocation may be."
The Israeli siege has also prevented Palestinians in desperate need of medical attention from leaving the strip. More than 72 people have died at the Gazan borders, denied entry to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and/or the West Bank by the Shin Bet (Israeli secret police) over the past three months. In mid-January, Israeli-based human rights group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) told RAMFM radio that the Shabak (the colloquial name for Shin Bet) have been using "medical blackmail" against terminally sick Palestinians. According to PHR's Miri Weingarten, the Shabak had called patients to underground rooms at Erez Crossing, telling them to either become collaborators or be denied travel permits.
Weingarten told RAMFM that this "form of medical blackmail is to be condemned. In fact, we believe it is torture to deliberately withhold medical care for non-medical reasons." Weingarten compared this treatment and the refusal of Israeli courts to address the situation "to Nazi practices in the concentration camps during World War II".
On January 18, Israel moved to prevent UN humanitarian aid (including food and medical supplies) from entering the Gaza Strip, stating that the humanitarian aid would be allowed to enter only with the personal approval of Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak.
In an attempt to stymie growing international criticism, five days later, Israeli agreed to allow four fuel trucks to enter Gaza and a limited amount of medical supplies.
Olmert, however, confirmed that Israel had no intention of lifting the siege, telling the Kadima Knesset faction meeting on January 21 that "as far as I am concerned, every resident of Gaza can walk because they have no gasoline for their vehicles, because they have a murderous regime that doesn't let people in southern Israel live in peace".
According to Ynet News on January 22, foreign affairs minister Tzipi Livni stated that Israel would continue its operation despite world-wide condemnation.
As the Israeli government tightened its noose on Gaza, Abbas and his unelected prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, continued to pursue "peace negotiations" with Israel, ignoring calls from Palestinian NGOs and lawmakers to halt negotiations until Israel lifted the siege.
In response to Abbas and Fayyad's refusal to withdraw from negotiations, Palestinians throughout the West Bank began to stage protests in solidarity with the people of Gaza. In Gaza, thousands of people with candles took to the darkened streets. At the Rafah border a sit-in was staged.
On January 22, less than 12 hours before the blasts that brought down the wall, hundreds of Palestinian women broke through barbwire at the Rafah crossing demanding an end to the Israeli siege of Gaza and to protest ongoing Israeli military attacks, which have resulted in more than 115 people being killed in less than two months. The women were attacked and beaten by Egyptian riot police, who used water cannons, dogs and clubs to try to prevent them from crossing into Egyptian territory.
However, as tens of thousands of Palestinians flooded into Egypt the following day, more than 2000 members of the Egyptian security forces stationed at the border made no attempt to stop them. According to Agence France Presse, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak authorised the entrance of the Palestinians, saying: "I told [security forces] to allow them to buy their basic needs and go back to Gaza as long as they are not carrying arms or anything illegal."
Veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass reported on January 23 that the destruction of the wall had been planned by Hamas and the PRC for months. Writing in Ha'aretz, Hass noted that "after four days of hermetic closure, following months of siege, the planner believed the political and social conditions were ripe to bring down the iron wall that Israeli had put up".
According to Hass, "Hamas operatives had been sawing at the foundations of the wall between the Egyptian and Palestinian Rafah for a few months to make it easier to blow it up when the time came".
In breaking the siege, Hamas has won a victory against both the Israeli government and Ramallah-based Abbas regime. Ha'aretz correspondents Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel noted in the aftermath of the explosion that not only did Hamas "demonstrate once again that it is a disciplined, determined entity, and an opponent that is exponentially more sophisticated than the Palestine Liberation Organization [which is dominated by Fatah]".
They added: "It also took the sting out of the economic blockade plan devised by Israel's military establishment, an idea whose effectiveness was doubtful from the beginning but whose potential for international damage was not."
The dramatic act of blowing up the wall, and the mass response of Gazans in flooding into Egypt to alleviate their suffering, has forced the world's attention on the great crime against humanity being perpetrated on the people of Gaza — a crime, as a number of commentators have pointed out, that amounts to genocide.
[Kim Bullimore has been working and living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the past eight months. Visit her blog at <http://www.livefromoccupiedpalestine.blogspot.com>.]