Since the beginning of the year, 389 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli occupation forces, including 9 over 60, many women and large numbers of children – 103 teenagers and 18 young children, including several babies and toddlers. One young family, consisting of a mother and three children under 5, were wiped out by gunfire whilst eating dinner in their courtyard at home. (Figures taken from the website for Israeli human rights organisation B’tselem)
A further 200 have died as a result of Israel’s blockade on medical supplies and its refusal to allow Palestinian patients to leave the strip for essential hospital treatment.
Eighty percent of Gaza’s population are now living below the poverty line and over three quarters are dependent on international food aid, which is about the only thing that is allowed, in pitiful quantities, through the Israeli-controlled Karni and Sofa border crossings.
The blockade on Gaza was imposed in June 2007 by Israel with the sole aim of undermining the Hamas government. The Israelis have since maintained that the siege, along with the regular and brutal military attacks on the Palestinian population, is a ‘response’ to rockets fired into Israel from Gaza by ‘militants’.
Yet, as Ali Abunimah points out in The Electronic Intifada: “Israel’s massacres in Gaza were never about stopping rocket fire … they were intended to break the will of the civilian population and force it to turn against the resistance factions and towards the US and Israeli-backed Ramallah Authority. If Israel had wanted to stop the rockets the easy way to do that would have been to accept any one of the truce offers repeatedly proffered by Hamas.” (‘Rays of hope from the Gaza ceasefire’, 20 June 2008)
Almost a year into the siege, a six-month ceasefire was finally agreed through mediated talks in Cairo in June this year. Part of the agreement, and one of the main incentives for Hamas, was that Israel would loosen its grip on the borders, allowing the much-needed routes to be opened up for trade, aid and passage.
However, despite the ceasefire having been more or less maintained, there has been only a minimal increase in the number of crossings into the strip allowed by Israel, with still nothing and no-one allowed out. As a result, there has been little visible effect from the ceasefire on the living conditions in Gaza.
Not content with failing to lift the blockade to anything near the agreed level, Israel is, in fact, still closing Gaza’s borders completely for long periods at a time. This is always justified as a ‘response to infringements’ of the ceasefire by Palestinians, although only a few rockets have actually been launched and none of those have caused anything more than damage to buildings or land.
It is significant, however, that, having refused offers of a truce many times in the last year, Israel has finally had to negotiate with Hamas, albeit through the mediation of Egypt. Israel has thus, however reluctantly, recognised that Hamas is in control in Gaza and is a force to be reckoned with.
Breaking the siege
As the situation in Gaza continues to spiral downwards, the need for an alleviation of the stranglehold is imperative. The bursting of the Rafah border in January by Hamas, enabling crowds of people to pass back and forth and replenish their stocks of food and fuel, was one such example.
The end of August saw another, in the form of two internationally-crewed boats that defied the Israeli guns to dock in Gaza’s port for the first time in 40 years.
On 22 August, the boats, SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty, crossed the Mediterranean sea from Cyprus, with the express intention of challenging the Israeli blockade. The two boats, organised by the Free Gaza Movement, carried 44 activists from 14 different countries. The cargo they brought to Gaza included a consignment of hearing aids for young children who suffer hearing problems as a result of frequent exposure to the sonic booms emitted by low-flying Israeli jet fighters.
Israel initially declared that it would refuse the boats access to the shore, insisting ironically that they would be ‘breaking international law’ if they attempted to dock. Nevertheless, the boats’ crews persisted, demanding their right to land the boats in Gaza’s port to break the illegally imposed siege.
Israel eventually relented, recognising the international impact of refusing. As an Israeli official is quoted as saying to the Jerusalem Post: “it was clear from the beginning that this whole operation was a provocation aimed at making Israel look bad. We decided to let them through in order not to play into their hands.” (‘Israel: Gaza blockade in place despite ships’, 22 August 2008)
The landing of these two boats in Gaza, breaking through the blockade, has set a symbolic precedent. And despite Israel stating that it was a ‘decision made on a one-time basis only’, this has not deterred the members of the Free Gaza Movement, who are already planning their next trip in late September. This is in addition to a boat from Yemen that is due to make a similar journey organised by the Popular Committee Against the Siege.
Trapped in Gaza
Having broken through the siege, four of the ships’ crew, who did not leave when the boats returned to Cyprus, are now stuck in Gaza, with Israel refusing to let them leave via any of the land crossings.
After the zionist government’s initial statement permitting the entrance of Free Gaza and Liberty, it subsequently adopted a contradictory position, stating that the activists’ entry was illegal and that therefore exit via any of the land crossings will not be allowed.
One of the four internationals trapped in Gaza is none other than Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, Lauren Booth. His response to the situation as the ludicrously misnamed ‘Middle East Peace Envoy’ has been to maintain a deathly silence. Ms Booth, however, has made the following statement to the BBC, drawing a valid conclusion from her situation:
“I’d actually like to say ‘Thank you very much’ to the Israeli authorities at Erez for giving me this fantastic chance to feel just exactly what it is like to be inside what is effectively the world’s largest internment camp, where individuals who should have the right to travel under international law are withheld in a 40km by 10km camp.” (Quoted in ‘Blair’s relative “stuck in Gaza”’, 2 September 2008)
Blair himself recently reneged on a planned visit to Gaza after being advised against it on ‘security’ grounds. With the amount of blood on this war criminal’s hands, it should be Blair who is locked up in prison not 1.5 million Gazans.
Rafah crossing open
Just six days after the Free Gaza boats landed, symbolically breaking the siege, Egypt unilaterally opened the Rafah crossing for the weekend. This move, in violation of the US-brokered protocol requiring either a representative of the Mahmoud Abbas-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) or an EU monitor to be present, allowed almost 2,000 Palestinians to leave and more than 1,000 to enter. The majority of those leaving were students attending Egyptian or other foreign universities and patients in need of medical assistance.
Clearly under pressure from its outraged population, Egypt has indicated that another opening of the crossing will take place during the month of Ramadan. Hamas has called for the crossing to be opened more regularly to alleviate the effects of the Israeli-imposed siege.
Oppose the siege, oppose the occupation
While the siege of Gaza continues, the suffering of Palestinians in the West Bank has not abated either. During the first half of 2008, Israeli occupation forces carried out over 827 military incursions into West Bank communities (an average of five per day) and kidnapped or arrested 1,334 civilians. (Figures from Palestinian Centre for Human Rights cited in ‘Rays of hope from the Gaza ceasefire’, The Electronic Intifada, 20 June 2008)
Yet despite the Israeli incursions, indiscriminate attacks and daily humiliations, the Palestinian people continue to stand and fight for their self-determination.
Opposition to the occupation of Palestine and support for the Palestinian resistance is a duty of all anti-imperialists and progressive people. Just as the boats broke the siege from the outside, all progressive people must show in as many ways as possible their solidarity with the just struggle of the Palestinians in their fight for the land of Palestine. Their struggle is our struggle.