In 2005, Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza. The next year, democratic elections were won by Hamas. Since voting the “wrong way”, the Palestinian people in Gaza have been subjected to a siege by Israel. Gaza is blockaded by land, sea and air by the Israeli Defence Force.
The International Red Cross and the United Nations have found the Israeli government's siege of Gaza to be illegal under international law.
In September 2011, five independent UN rights experts made a report to the UN Human Rights Council that said that Israel's siege of Gaza amounted to collective punishment of the Palestinian people and was a “flagrant contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law" under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Israel's blockade of Gaza is denying the Palestinian people access to medical supplies and food. Hospitals face critical shortages, with 40% of all essential medicines at zero stock level. Out of the 1.7 million Palestinians living in Gaza, 54% are food insecure including 428,000 children.
Israel's illegal blockade has led to a huge shortage of building materials to repair the homes, hospitals, schools, and water and sanitation infrastructure that have been destroyed or damaged by the Israel. Most of Gaza's water supplies are polluted and unsafe to drink. Meanwhile there are power cuts every day.
I spoke to documentary film maker and journalist Harry Fear who is based in Gaza and has reported extensively on the siege of Gaza over the last few years.
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Noam Chomsky has called the Gaza Strip the “world's largest prison”. Would you agree with this description?
I would largely agree with Chomsky’s description. I’ve found, though, that quite a few of those sympathetic with Palestinians don’t actually know that the Gaza Strip has a border with Egypt, and that Egypt is also largely responsible for the imprisonment policy.
Civilian traffic out of Gaza into Israel is basically a no-no, while leaving into Egypt is diplomatically difficult and unaffordable for most Palestinians.
I think the most important aspect of the siege, though, is the economic blockade. The Egyptian border with Gaza is closed to almost all economic traffic — only recently have the Egyptians allowed construction materials to be imported into Gaza.
Palestinians want and need economic independence (not aid dependency), and I haven’t met any Palestinians who want to leave Gaza for any reason other than the poor economic opportunities there (worsened by the siege).
My on-the-ground experience in Gaza has made me realise that there is a real psychological sense of imprisonment and isolation from the world as a result of the siege. This causes widespread depression and eats away at people’s hope and the future prospects for prosperity.
Incidentally, the besiegement policy proves Palestinians are not in a symmetrical conflict or battle with Israel, but are the persecuted party. The government in Gaza can’t do anything to lift the siege, only help alleviate it by facilitating the underground smuggling tunnels into Egypt.
Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the Israeli Defense Force has launched two massive military assaults upon Gaza. What impact have these had upon Gazan society?
I believe the affects of these military operations on Gaza have of course been grave and multidimensional. At a psychological and spiritual level, the resolve and will of the Palestinian people has been tested by most cruel and barbaric aggressions, launched by one of the most powerful militaries in the world, resulting in the massacring of hundreds.
With more than 10000 Palestinians in Gaza killed during the 22-day 2008-09 assault, every family has been touched by tragedy. Similarly, during the the eight-day operation last year, the IDF hit every area of Gaza. No civilian was really safe during those bloody days.
It’s absolutely important to note the unimaginable resilience (including moral resilience) of Palestinians in the face of such barbarity. Some of my closest friends in Gaza volunteered at hospitals during Operation Cast Lead and had to carry dying and dead children through bombed streets, but you wouldn’t know it or guess it from their political stances.
I ask myself: would the British people react in a relatively restrained manner to aggressions of these sorts? I can’t imagine so.
At a physical and political level, huge dame to civilian infrastructure and administrative capacity was done during both operations. Neither were been able to stop militant groups from producing home-made rockets, including rockets that can reach 75 kilometres away from the Strip.
Israel’s operations have tried to prove a terror deterrence to the subjugated Palestinians, but Palestinians resolve hasn’t been broken.
What impact has the siege had on the living standards of ordinary Palestinians?
The siege has explicitly destroyed serious economic prospects for Palestinians. Most Palestinians are living in relative poverty, relying on food aid for support.
Unemployment is more than 50% and most Palestinians are living in refugee camps, awaiting economic freedom to improve their living conditions. Population centres in Gaza constitute some of the most over-crowed and densely-populated residential areas in the world.
At the same time there is quite pronounced inequality in the Strip, as the main city (historic Gaza City) is strikingly developed compared to other areas. What’s clear is that Palestinians have used all means at their disposal to attempt development, by relying mostly on smuggling tunnels with Egypt for imports, proving determination and resourcefulness, as well as Gaza’s economic capacity if it were free.
Medical Aid for Palestinians has criticised the siege of Gaza for the terrible impact upon its health service. How is the siege affecting the medical services in Gaza?
The health services do their best under the circumstances. Limitations include lack of medicines, basic medical equipments and advanced technology that we take for granted in developed countries. Aid efforts and convoys have provided some alleviation, but there is too far left to go.
How has the siege affected the education of children in Gaza?
The worsened economic situation seems to have driven Palestinians to a stronger determination for academic excellence, rather than having had a demoralising effect. Although there are thousands too few school places and a lack of basic texts, there are several universities in Gaza of excellent standards, whose students’ determination and skill is incredible.
Whenever rockets are fired from Gaza into Israel, the British government is quick to condemn such acts as terrorism. Israeli historian Illan Pappe has noted that the far more important issue is Israeli violence against the Gaza Strip. How would you characterise Israeli acts of violence against the Gaza Strip?
Living through the recent eight-day aggression confirmed my previous analysis that Israel’s violent adventures in Gaza constitute illegal, disproportionate and reckless military engagements, resulting in blatant state terrorism and inevitable massacring.
In the past couple of years, it’s been the case that Israel’s attacks have largely been targeted (although sometimes the targeting is erroneous). The key to understanding the state violence is to see that Israel is willing to use incredible and ridiculous force, inevitably causing huge civilian “collateral damage”, in order to kill a suspected militant or two.
Palestinian blood is cheap. Who cares? The mainstream media certainly doesn’t.
More from around the world are taking solidarity actions such as the Aid to Gaza convoys or visiting the West Bank to help with the olive harvest. Can you tell us more about your initiative to take media activists to Gaza?
I’m taking a few dozen media workers and media students to Gaza in July for a solidarity and media-making mission to stimulate improved journalistic coverage on, understanding of and compassion towards Gaza.
From 18 countries around the world, the media convoy members will congregate in Cairo and then complete an intense two-week programme of immersion and media work in Gaza. The participants were carefully chosen by a team in Gaza, based on their education, skills and experience, as well as their willingness to follow-up the trip with awareness-building work when they return home.
I have tried to reinvent the convoy model, moving away from a model of pit-stop visiting of war sites, institutes and then plush hotels, to a model that’s more intense, embedded, realistic and hopefully more socially constructive.