The Gaza Strip in early 1992: the first intifada is yet to end, and intensive diplomatic efforts which would lead later to the Oslo Accords are ongoing, raising hopes for an end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Although that period was violent, with daily mass demonstrations, confrontations, arrests and casualties, it was at least possible to dream of a better future. Returning 16 years later, in 2008, with the media and the international community highlighting a major humanitarian crisis in Gaza, I was prepared for the worst. However, unlike Somalia, where I had just ended my last assignment, the population in Gaza was not on the brink of massive starvation, nor were there hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. This is a different type of crisis, one which is not immediately apparent in this dense urban landscape. The population is enduring a massive assault on its human dignity: 1.5 million children, women and men are gradually losing the freedom to live their lives as they wish a population locked into one of the most densely-populated places on Earth. While the situation in the West Bank is better, there too there are some troubling signs of an impending crisis.
The current crisis
The current crisis in Gaza was triggered by the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 and the unprecedented blockade imposed by Israel. The blockade marked the peak of a gradual process of isolation that started in the early 1990s with the imposition of a general closure, which forced Gazans to obtain special permits to leave the Gaza Strip. Now in its third year, the blockade has resulted in a degradation in the living conditions of the entire population. Approximately 120,000 jobs have been lost as a result of severe import restrictions and an almost total prohibition on exports. Three-quarters of the population is affected by poverty and food insecurity. Access restrictions have also led to a steady decline in the infrastructure and the quality of services in vital sectors such as health, water and sanitation and education.
The Gaza populations distress is compounded by the lack of civilian protection. Israels Cast Lead military operation of 27 December 200818 January 2009 provides a devastating example. The bulk of the 1,383 fatalities were civilians not involved in the fighting, including over 330 children. Tens of thousands were injured or traumatised. Enduring three weeks of daily bombardment from land, sea and air, the population had nowhere to seek refuge: borders were sealed and safe havens non-existent since even UN premises and schools, where civilians had taken shelter, were hit by direct shelling.
The widespread destruction to homes, infrastructure and productive assets during the offensive has further deepened poverty and undermined the chances of economic recovery, if and when conditions improve. Locked in by a medieval siege whose enforcers decide what items will be allowed in and what people will eat, Gaza has become a humanitarian welfare society supported by the international community. At the same time, despite billions of dollars pledged at the Sharm El Sheikh donor conference in March 2009, homes and schools cannot be repaired due to the ban on the entry of construction materials. Locked in and isolated, Gazans are collectively prevented from building their own future. Women and children in particular are paying a high price, as shown by a recent UN survey revealing an increase in the prevalence of domestic and gender-based violence. Possible factors behind the increase in domestic violence include the unprecedented levels of trauma and stress that emerged after the conflict, as well as the growing number of male heads of households who have lost their homes and jobs.
The internal Palestinian divide between Hamas and Fatah has increased the burden on an already exhausted population. At least 360 people have been killed in factional violence since May 2007. Individuals suspected of affiliation with opposition factions have allegedly been the victims of arbitrary arrests, torture and extra-judicial executions. Schools and hospitals have been disrupted by strikes and political infighting. Meanwhile, Hamas is extending its control over every level of the social fabric. Morality screening is starting to impact upon various sectors of society, with NGOs being requested to separate female from male staff.
Albeit on a different scale and intensity, West Bankers too, including those living in East Jerusalem, are seeing their freedom to live and develop their life as they wish being eroded as a result of Israeli policies. Restrictions have significantly limited the opportunities for economic and urban development. A recent study by OCHA reveals that, in Bethlehem governorate, the land available for Palestinian development amounts to only 13% of the territory. The remainder, which is under direct Israeli control, has been allocated for the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements, or declared closed military areas or nature reserves. In East Jerusalem likewise, although 30% of land has been zoned for settlement housing, only 13% has been zoned for the Palestinian population. The extent of the land available for Palestinian development has remained unchanged for decades. As a consequence, about 30% of houses have been built without permits, and between 60,000 and 100,000 people are at risk of displacement.
The Barrier, which Israel began to construct in 2002 following a campaign of suicide bombings, is another component in a system which restricts Palestinian space. Once complete, it will isolate approximately 9.5% of the West Bank, while its attendant permit and gate regime restricts access to agricultural land and obliges Palestinians living between the Barrier and the 1949 Armistice Line (the Green Line) to apply for permanent residence permits just to remain in their own homes. The Barrier, together with access and movement restrictions and policies restricting the use of land, has had devastating economic and humanitarian consequences. In 2005, under the auspices of then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel and the Palestinian Authority reached an Agreement on Access and Movement (AMA), which included an Israeli commitment to reduce the number of obstacles (checkpoints and roadblocks) throughout the West Bank. At the time of the agreement there were some 390 such obstacles; by June 2009 this number had increased to 610, as counted by OCHA and corroborated by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Recently, the Israeli authorities have taken steps to ease the flow of Palestinian traffic into a number of West Bank cities, reducing travel time. Early reports suggest that these measures have had a positive impact on commercial life in some cities. However, this has taken place in conjunction with the entrenchment of some of the mechanisms used to control and restrict Palestinian movement, including the expansion of the alternative (fabric of life) road network designated solely for the use of Palestinians, and the expansion of key permanently-staffed checkpoints. In some cases, these measures have eased access: however, they exact a price from Palestinians in terms of land loss, disruption to traditional routes and the deepening fragmentation of West Bank territory.
A close look at a West Bank map shows that most access restrictions are strategically located to protect Israeli settlements and settlers. The Israeli settler population has reached almost half a million, 190,000 of whom live in East Jerusalem. The Barrier will place 80% of the settler population on the western, Israeli side, with the remainder connected to Israel through a road network restricted to Palestinian use. Settlement is a key concern, not only because it reduces the space available for Palestinian use and movement, but also because the Israeli authorities have systematically failed to protect Palestinians from settler violence. In summer 2008, for example, I met an 82-year-old man in Hebron. His face was bleeding and he was crying, having been humiliated by Israeli children who were preventing him from accessing his land. They put up tents in his olive and almond fields and threw stones at any Palestinians attempting to reach the land or simply pass by. According to the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, over 90% of investigations into settler violence are closed without an indictment filed against the suspect. Many victims do not even file a complaint at police stations because stations are located in settlements.
Restrictions on the humanitarian response
Locked into Gaza, denied space and access in the West Bank, at risk of house demolition in East Jerusalem, their basic rights denied and facing daily humiliation all of these problems provide fertile ground for a prolonged humanitarian crisis. In this protracted and highly politicised conflict, further complicated by the internal Palestinian divide, addressing humanitarian needs in an impartial, neutral manner has become a daily challenge.
This is particularly true in Gaza, where the Israeli authorities have reduced to a bare minimum the list of items considered as humanitarian assistance. Key donors have linked funds to compliance with a strict no contact policy with Hamas; by contrast, the latter is increasingly eager to take an active role in the coordination of aid delivery. To address this dilemma, humanitarian partners, with the support of some UN member states, have developed a framework for the provision of assistance in Gaza. This document spells out the conditions necessary to ensure that basic needs can be addressed in an impartial and neutral way.
There is still much distrust between humanitarian organisations and the Israeli authorities. However, the atmosphere and mindset can change if there is a real commitment to address the fate of the affected population, regardless of any political agenda. It is time for a sincere and substantial dialogue with the Israeli authorities at every level. Humanitarian organisations should avoid being trapped in a hostile, politicised debate. In turn, the Israeli authorities should view criticism as constructive, and designed to improve respect for the rights of the civilian population.
The humanitarian response, however important, is not the solution, as it perpetuates a humiliating feeling of dependency on the part of the Palestinian population towards the international community. Palestinians deserve much more than food parcels: nothing will substitute for a political solution which lays the ground for future peace, stability and prosperity. Unfortunately, time is running out and frustration is high. All the ingredients for a new round of violence are in place. Poverty, isolation and humiliation are recipes for extremism. Unlocking Gaza by opening its crossing points and freeing up space for Palestinian development in the West Bank are the first steps towards averting a future explosion of violence. Most of all, they are critical in restoring the dignity of the population, and the Palestinian peoples ability to hope and dream for a better future.
Philippe Lazzarini is Head of OCHA oPt. Correspondence on this article can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.