Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why Chocolate and French Fries Will Not Alleviate Gaza's Agony

Why Chocolate and French Fries Will Not Alleviate Gaza's Agony

by Matt Berkman June 19, 2010 08:03 AM (PT) Topics: Israel/Palestine, Middle East, War and Peace

In addition to nine slain Turkish activists and global ignominy for the Jewish state, last month’s botched raid on the MV Mavi Marmara produced widespread murmurings about the need for Israel to rethink its three-year blockade of the war-ravaged Gaza Strip. The message came not from human rights groups or international organizations — which have long opposed the siege on both humanitarian and strategic grounds — but from erstwhile supporters of Israel’s Gaza policies, including the United States.

“Gaza has become the symbol in the Arab world of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and we have to change that,” a senior American official told the New York Times. “We need to remove the impulse for the flotillas. The Israelis also realize this is not sustainable.”

Now, after three weeks of relentless propagandizing and mutual recriminations between Israel and Turkey, Israel has ostensibly taken action to quell this rising chorus. On Thursday, according to Ha’aretz, Israel’s security cabinet voted to “liberalize” the blockade by expanding the list of permitted imports to include nearly all those quotidian consumer goods — things like coriander, french fries, and tubs of margarine — whose arbitrary prohibition shocked the world’s conscience. “The new Israeli-approved product list included all food items, toys, stationery, kitchen utensils, mattresses and towels,” the newspaper reported. The edict, however, “does not affect Israel's sea blockade of the coastal strip or its ban on the private import of building materials, vital to widescale reconstruction after the December 2008-January 2009 war in the Gaza Strip.”

While any measures to ease the embargo are welcome, it must be said that, given the nature of the humanitarian crisis racking Gaza, Israel’s recent steps are largely cosmetic, aimed more at improving Israel’s image than alleviating the suffering of Gaza’s civilians. Nor are the measures likely to be effective in “remov[ing] the impulse for the flotillas,” a number of which are en route to fresh confrontation with the Israeli navy as I type. And here’s why.

Israel’s blockade of Gaza was conceived with two purposes in mind. The first, a theoretically legitimate objective, is to prevent the importation by Hamas of rockets and other weapons that might be used to target Israeli civilians, as well as to impede the reconstruction of Hamas’s military infrastructure. To this end, Israel interdicted the flow of “dual use” materials — concrete, glass, steel — that could be used to forge crude armaments or rebuild underground war bunkers destroyed by Israel during Operation Cast Lead. The second objective, both illegitimate and morally unconscionable, is to inflict such extreme material deprivation on Gaza’s 1.5 million civilians as to motivate them to rise up and depose the de facto Hamas government. There is no other explanation for Israel’s decision to deprive ordinary Gazans of chocolate, sage, school books and flowerpots, among other items, and to ban nearly all of Gaza’s agricultural exports, leaving its economy completely a shambles.

But neither goal has panned out. Hamas, as it happened, was still able to import weapons through an elaborate system of underground tunnels linking Egypt and Gaza, and the only challenges mounted to Hamas’s hegemony over the Gaza Strip in the three-year period of the blockade’s duration have been from radical, al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups whose victory would have posed far greater challenges to Israel and the United States than does Hamas (luckily, these upstarts were summarily crushed by Hamas’s paramilitary brigades). After three years, the only perceptible outcome of the blockade has been the de-development of Gaza’s economy, the impoverishment of the vast majority of its civilians, and the enrichment of a handful of tunnel-operators whose revenues are taxed by Hamas to fund its continued operations.

In light of these facts, Israel’s “liberalization” of the blockade — its elimination of restrictions on the importation of food and other harmless commodities — is clearly intended to tamp down on global perceptions of arbitrary cruelty associated with its objective of collectively punishing Gazans. But Gaza’s agony is less the product of a chronic coriander deficit than of the prohibitions on “dual use” materials imposed in the service of Israel’s more “legitimate” goal of preventing Hamas from rearming.

Most nuanced reportage on Gaza illustrates a paradox: on one hand, Gaza’s markets are flush with foodstuffs and consumer durables; on the other hand, over 80 percent of the population is dependent on international aid organizations to satisfy its daily needs. The problem in Gaza is not the unavailability of this or that product — most necessities, and many luxuries, are routinely smuggled in through the tunnels. “But the piles of food in the markets — fruit, vegetables, nuts, sweets even live rabbits — are unaffordable to most in the strip,” The Guardian reports, “and obscure a complex picture of rising poverty, a parallel economy, and brewing anger among Gazans at the micro-control that Israel exerts over their daily lives.” Far more devastating than Israel's whimsical embargo on, say, coffee beans, is its ban on concrete, glass and other industrial materials, which has long precluded, among other things, the reconstruction of factories and physical infrastructure required for normal economic activity.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

Since the blockade began, Gaza's already weak economy has sunk even further. Two-thirds of Gazans live in poverty and about 40 percent are unemployed.

More than 95 percent of Gaza's factories and industries have shut down, a recent report says. The once-thriving fishing industry is so crippled by the naval blockade that the coastal enclave must import seafood…

For construction worker Fawzi abu Jarad, 42, business should be booming, given that thousands of homes were destroyed during the late 2008-early 2009 Israeli offensive. But the restrictions on the importation of cement have left him out of work.

In 2007, his $160-a-month paycheck, though meager, enabled him to put food on the table…

Now the family of eight lives in one small room. They survive off three-month supplies of flour and other basic food items distributed by the United Nations.

"I can't even feed my family anymore," Abu Jarad said. "I appreciate the aid, but I don't want aid. I want to work. It's a miserable situation. There is no dignity."

Abu Jarad’s plight has become the quotidian reality for most Gazans, and it’s a plight that further imports of snack food are unlikely to remedy. The only humane solution for Gaza is the complete lifting of the blockade. But the ramifications of this course — for Israel, for the United States, and for the Palestinian Authority — run counter to longstanding political calculations. While officially calling for the blockade's removal, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his associates have privately expressed dismay at the prospect, which they believe would bolster Hamas’s credibility at the expense of their own and strengthen its hand in the ongoing negotiations over intra-Palestinian reconciliation. Israel and the U.S., for their part, share these calculations and have expended considerable resources engineering a contrast between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the relative prosperity of the West Bank under Abbas and Salam Fayyad. To lift the embargo, in their view, would undercut this contrast and communicate to Palestinians that "resistance" achieves as much, if not more, than "moderation."

Until President Obama reassesses these basic calculations, we can expect no respite for Gaza’s downtrodden masses. And with new flotillas en route from — among other places — Iran and Lebanon, the problem of Gaza could end up sparking a broader conflagration that consumes the entire region.

Matt Berkman is a researcher for a Middle East policy institute in New York. He holds a master's degree from New York University in Near Eastern Studies.

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