The Middle East Channel

Gaza after the revolution

For the U.S. government and media, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been treated as a stepchild of sorts to the revolutionary events sweeping the Middle East. This was clarified to me recently by a prominent American journalist who confided he was unable to report on Israel/Palestine because "they’re just too far from the news right now."  ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

For the U.S. government and media, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been treated as a stepchild of sorts to the revolutionary events sweeping the Middle East. This was clarified to me recently by a prominent American journalist who confided he was unable to report on Israel/Palestine because "they’re just too far from the news right now." 

Gaza certainly continues to be ignored. Yet on the evening of March 14–one day earlier than planned–2,000 Palestinian youth and numerous civil society organizations gathered in a square in the middle of Gaza City calling on Hamas and Fatah to end their divisions and restore democracy in Palestine. Yesterday, March 15, thousands of people protested on the streets of Gaza, including young Hamas supporters, small groups loyal to Fatah and other small Palestinian factions, as well as Facebook activists. In Ramallah, some 8,000 demonstrators, the majority of whom were university students and young people, marched through Al Manara Square demanding national unity. Gazans are seeing their protests move to cities in the West Bank, creating a coordinated and strengthened movement.

More importantly, given the changing political landscape in neighboring Egypt, Gaza’s strategic importance may become even more vital for regional security. There are emerging indications in policy circles that the Egypt-Gaza relationship and how it may evolve are far more worrisome to the U.S. and Israel than is publicly acknowledged.

Gaza’s importance was already strikingly demonstrated in a December 2007 Wikileaks cable written and classified by then US Ambassador to Egypt, Francis J. Ricciardone. Entitled "Repairing Egyptian-Israeli Communications," it reveals: "[T]he Egyptians continue to offer excuses for the problem they face: the need to ‘squeeze’ Hamas, while avoiding being seen as complicit in Israel’s ‘siege’ of Gaza. Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Soliman told us Egypt wants Gaza to go ‘hungry’ but not ‘starve.’"

Indeed, most Gazans have been impoverished and too many have known hunger, a reality (in the form of a strangulating economic siege) deliberately and principally imposed for years by Israel, the U.S., EU and Egypt on a defenseless and overwhelmingly young civilian population. Perhaps most alarming, recent indicators strongly suggest that the ability of people to feed themselves and their children has diminished even further.

In a recent report on food and water insecurity in the Gaza Strip, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI) revealed some striking statistics regarding the damage incurred. For example, levels of food insecurity–defined by the World Food Programme as a "lack of access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food, which meets dietary needs…for an active and healthy life"–rose from 40 percent in 2003 to 61 percent towards the end of 2010. This means that over 900,000 people out of a total population of 1.5 million "do not have the self-sufficient means to grow or purchase the bare minimum amount of food for themselves and their families" (while another 200,000-plus remain vulnerable to food insecurity).

Currently, at least 75 percent of Gazan families are dependent for their basic needs on some form of humanitarian assistance — dubbed the "humanitarian minimum"– provided by international donors, all of whom (including several Arab states) are complicit in Gaza’s devastation. PHRI further argues that according to an Israeli army document, ‘Food Consumption in the Gaza Strip-Red Lines’, "Israel’s obligation to Palestinians in Gaza only extends to ensuring bare necessities required for survival. According to this principle, personal and economic development above this [humanitarian] minimum should be actively prevented." And it has. The diminished level of personal wellbeing is revealed by the fact that without high levels of international humanitarian aid Gaza would undoubtedly suffer a widespread nutritional crisis.

Economic development was precluded long ago but Gaza’s current reality is crushingly adverse, characterized by the virtual collapse of an economy that was once considered lower middle income (together with the West Bank) and an unemployment rate that reached 45 percent in 2011, among the highest in the world.

According to the UN, in August 2000 10,614 truckloads of food and materials entered Gaza. By January 2011 this plummeted to 4,123 truckloads (as desperately needed construction materials remain banned) and exports fell from 2,460 to 107 truckloads.

Although Arabs waging revolutions may not now be protesting Palestinian conditions, their subjugation shall remain at the center of the discourse despite the preferences of U.S. policymakers and journalists. Israel’s occupation may seem exceptional to current events but this will not last because the struggle for democracy in the Arab world will not stop at Gaza’s (or Israel’s) border. 

There is no doubt that the same Arab people who are fighting for freedom in their own countries will challenge the immoral situation in Palestine, especially in Gaza, and ask: How can a predominantly young population, desperately willing and able to work, be made dependent on handouts? And there is equally no doubt that Palestinians will no longer accept their continued impoverishment and decline.

Although popular demands for reconciliation, democracy and ultimately an end to occupation will depend for their success on support from the Hamas and Fayyad governments, the role of the international community is absolutely crucial: it must facilitate an end to the crippling siege of Gaza — citizens from all around the world will again attempt this May to break the blockade with the next Gaza freedom flotilla — and meaningfully work toward the creation of a Palestinian unity government.

The power balance in the region is slowly but inexorably shifting in a manner that does not favor US-Israel dominance (with its acceptance and legitimizing of Israeli occupation and Palestinian dispossession). It is the Arab people — not their regimes — who have always supported Palestinian rights, and they may soon be in a position to insist on them. So, too, will Palestinians.

Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Her latest book, Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

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