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Gaza Blockade: A Humanitarian Crisis and Moral Quagmire

Under Hamas control, Palestinians have suffered a severe blockade, but Catholic observers warn the crushing poverty only creates more security threats for Israel and the region.

BY PETER JESSERER SMITH

| Posted 8/8/14 at 6:06 PM

Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
 

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Sirens once more wail in Israel, and airstrikes pound Gaza once again, after Hamas refused to extend a cease-fire with Israel and resumed rocket attacks just hours before a 72-hour truce expired on Friday.

The renewed hostilities represent another failure to secure peace for Gaza and Israel and end the military blockade on the enclave that has exacerbated the humanitarian suffering and economic devastation felt by Palestinians.

“Gaza was in a very difficult, potentially full-blown, humanitarian crisis situation six weeks before the conflict,” said Matt McGarry, country representative for Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza at Catholic Relief Services, speaking to the Register from Gaza City.

“There are 1.8 million people that live in this tiny little stretch of land without the capacity to grow enough food to support itself on a tiny, contaminated aquifer. We can’t get in or out or sail more than three miles off of the coast. And this is not a new situation, but one that has grown over quite some time,” he said.  

“We and other organizations said [Gaza] is really kind of perched on the edge of a potential humanitarian crisis, and it wouldn’t take much to push it over. And with the fighting in the last month being intense, it has emphatically pushed the situation into a full-on humanitarian crisis.”

Close to 1,900 Gazans have died in the monthlong conflict that has dragged on between Israel and Hamas. Central to the negotiations was the lifting of the military blockade on Hamas from Egypt and Israel’s land and sea forces.

Even before it resumed open hostilities, Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri insisted the armed conflict with Israel would continue unless Hamas’ demand for lifting the blockade was accommodated, Fox News reported Aug. 7.

And al-Masri rejected Israeli’s precondition that Gaza militants disarm before the blockade was lifted.

“It is out of the question that the weapons of the resistance should be on the negotiating table,” he said. “They have not been put on the table, and God willing, they will never be.”

 

Israel’s Perspective

“The Israeli idea is that if you want the full end of the blockade, then you have to demilitarize completely,” said Jonathan Rynhold, director of the Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People and senior lecturer at the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

“That’s the Israeli equation: If you’re not prepared to demilitarize, then we have the right to maintain the military blockade.”

Rynhold said the Israeli-Egyptian blockade focuses on preventing military equipment into Gaza and “dual use” items, such as construction materials, which could be put to military purposes.

“Israel didn’t want to let concrete in, as it could be used for military purposes, as indeed it was to build the [terror] tunnels,” he said. “But under international pressure, it was forced to concede, and concrete was allowed in.”

However, Gazans felt the full force of the blockade last year when Egypt, under the leadership of president and former general Fattah Al-Sisi, established strict control of the Rafah border crossing and destroyed 1,200 smuggling tunnels that Hamas used both to import weaponry and needed economic goods.

“That meant that the standard of living in Gaza dropped, because Egypt closed that border,” Rynhold said.

Then in October, construction in Gaza ground to a complete halt after Israel discovered a Hamas-built tunnel into Israel and suspended concrete supplies.

“Hamas used 40% of its budget to build ‘terror tunnels’ into Israel to murder and to kidnap Israeli civilians rather than use it for their own population,” he said. “In large part, a lot of the failure of economic development in Gaza is straightforward: [it’s] to do with the fact that Hamas is a terrorist organization, and that is where it puts its resources.”

 

Blockade: A Moral Gray Area

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a moral theologian and president of Donnelly College in Kansas, said a blockade “can be part of a just-war strategy,” but it has to “strike some kind of balance.”

Banning concrete, steel and other construction materials involves a moral “gray area,” because they are needed for building schools, housing and hospitals.

“You can’t so blockade a people that they don’t have the ability to build or repair the dwellings that keep them alive and give them shelter,” he said.

Further, a military blockade wouldn’t be morally acceptable if it “cut off the necessities of life: food, fuel, water, medicine. Those kinds of things are necessary for every day and are not considered war material because people have to live.”

Israel has allowed shipments of food, medicine and fuel into Gaza, although at levels not sufficient for 1.8 million Gazans to have economic opportunity. Israel’s navy blockades goods coming into Gaza by sea, but the blockade hems in Gaza fishing boats to three nautical miles offshore, leading to overfished waters.

The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, told Fides news service that the blockade had made Gaza “a factory of desperate people,” susceptible to extremism, and called for its removal as a precondition to any real progress towards peace there.

Said the patriarch, “Even the tunnels built in Gaza are a product of the embargo in their own way: If you put an end to this siege, if you open up the streets and allow freedom of movement of people and goods, if you allow free fishing in the sea in front of Gaza, then everything will be able to move on the surface, and no one will need to dig underground tunnels to pass.”

 

‘A Man-Made Disaster’

Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, said the condition of civilians in Gaza was shocking back in January, when he and a delegation went to visit the Christian community there and observe the effects of the blockade.

“There’s no doubt that Gaza is a man-made disaster,” he said. “It is made by Hamas’ policy, Israel’s policy, and it is made by Egypt’s policy and the policy of other nations as well in the region, he said.

Colecchi said the Egyptian-Israeli blockade was not achieving its stated objectives.

“It’s not freeing the people of Gaza [from Hamas], and it is not creating security of Israel.”

Instead, Colecchi said substantial humanitarian rebuilding was needed to stave off the desperation breeding more extremism.

“We think extremism would have less hold on the population if there were more opportunity,” he said.

Right now, the conditions do not allow Gazans the opportunity to get the work they need to marry and raise families and children in dignity. Colecchi said Israel has legitimate security needs, and Hamas does bear “real responsibility” for the blockade over the terror tunnels. But he indicated that Israel and Egypt’s approach has been heavy-handed by depriving “an entire population of what it needs to flourish.”

“Ordinarily, civilians, women and children, should not be held hostage to political aims and so forth,” he said.

“The way to press forward is to demilitarize Gaza and to focus on putting resources into Gaza that improve the lives of ordinary people.”

 

Future Changes Possible

Rhynold said he believed that “a certain easing” of the blockade, including easing restrictions on fishing boats, could be in the offing if any peace deal is reached with Hamas. He said an economically healthy Gaza is in Israel’s security interests.

“People who are doing well tend not to want to have a conflict,” he said.

The key for Israel, however, will be “strict oversight” to make sure construction items and other dual-purpose goods are not used to rebuild Hamas’ military capabilities.

Said Rhynold, “And that is going to be hard to do, because Hamas still has the guns.”

However, Rynhold believed that more economic items would flow into Gaza, especially if the Palestinian Authority were placed in charge of the Gaza side of the border crossings, since Hamas cannot smuggle in any more weapons through tunnels in Egypt.

“We just have to be careful about the use,” he said. “But we can monitor the use and withhold items unless they are used properly.”

Michael La Civita, communications director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), said that unless Gaza is lifted out of its economic misery and freedom of movement for its people restored, the region is headed for a conflict that would make the present struggle between Hamas and Israel “look like a sandlot fight.”

“You’re basically talking about a strip of land that is smaller than Manhattan, which is densely populated with almost no infrastructure,” he said.

Gaza City’s playground “Friendship Park” was a donation from CNEWA after one of its donors saw how the children were playing in trash heaps and open sewers.

“It was something that did not exist there: grass, swings, things of that nature,” he said. The playground has survived the bombings of Gaza, but not the massive use it has received from the children of Gaza, and it will need to be replaced soon.

 

Economic Solution Needed

But despite that small local improvement, La Civita stressed that the “situation has only gotten worse, not better,” under the blockade. Moreover, Hamas was not starved out, and the crushing poverty is radicalizing people to the point where Hamas — which the U.S. State Department has officially designated as a terrorist organization — appears to be losing its grip over other extremist groups that La Civita says made Hamas look moderate.

“If there is going to be a political solution, there first has to be an economic solution,” he said, noting that former Israeli President Shimon Peres made that same prediction back in 2003, when he was foreign minister, during the Oslo Accords.

“A vast majority of people affected by this are innocent men, women, children and elderly, and they are civilians,” he said. “And they have nothing to do with this.”

Although they number less than 3,000 people, he said the Christians in Gaza have been at the forefront of aiding people devastated by the violence. Catholic and non-Catholic agencies have been meeting regularly, coordinating their efforts and discussing how best to serve the people and not duplicate their services.

Said La Civita, “It’s important to understand that, in the middle of all this, the Church is a beacon of hope.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.