International attitude towards Gaza: management by crisis

The urgent need for a comprehensive action on the disastrous situation in Gaza has largely been ignored.

The shutdown of Gaza's only power plant has led to a humanitarian crisis across the strip [AP]

The cycle is occurring again. The Gaza Strip, and the 1.7 million Palestinians who live there, periodically force their way into international headlines, driven by a crisis so urgent they can no longer be ignored. Politicians wring their hands; activists and relief agencies issue calls for help and organise convoys of supplies and volunteers; and the media practice pack journalism by running a story or two. Then, once conditions are no longer quite so dire, the world’s attention veers on to the next tragedy, or to affairs that more directly affect the superpowers that set the agenda.

Meanwhile, the underlying problems fester on, waiting to burst forth again a few months down the road, in a never-ending cycle of futility and hopelessness.

Fuel is the crisis ‘du jour’

The latest crisis in Gaza was triggered on June 30, when the Egyptian military forced the country’s elected president from office (clearly a coup, albeit with the support of a large swath of the public), imposed martial law, and halted all but a trickle of traffic into and out of the tiny, densely packed strip of land (in retaliation for the alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Hamas government). Added to the already crippling blockade imposed by Israel since 2007, the Egyptian actions have created an acute shortage of fuel, construction materials and a variety of essential medicines within Gaza. On December 1, Amnesty International renewed its call for an end to the Israeli blockade, and demanded that both Israel and Egypt facilitate the delivery of fuel and other vital supplies – a statement that has yet to garner any serious media attention.

This will ultimately deprive 476 kidney failure patients of medical treatment and prevent the operation of 113 incubators, 45 surgical suites and numerous caeserean birth rooms, blood banks and laboratories.

Since 2011, Gaza’s only power plant has relied on inexpensive diesel transported from Egypt through a maze of tunnels running between the Sinai Peninsula and the strip. Some fuel also comes from Israel, but is too expensive for most people and businesses. At their peak, the tunnels numbered between 250 and 500, and accommodated 1 million litres per day.

However, the Egyptian military now has destroyed an estimated 90 percent of the tunnels, causing affordable fuel to plummet to just 20,000 litres per week, in November. On November 1, Gaza’s power plant ran out of fuel and the result was predictable, and oh so preventable.

It caused power outages averaging 16 hours a day, making it difficult for children to study, families to maintain their incomes, and physicians to provide medical care. Hospitals’ back-up generators are reportedly running at full capacity and will soon run out of fuel. “Repeated outages threaten to suspend the work of 88 kidney dialysis machines,” Gaza’s Health Minister Mufid al-Mekhalilati told a press conference.

This will ultimately deprive 476 kidney failure patients of medical treatment, and prevent the operation of 113 incubators, 45 surgical suites and numerous caeserean birth rooms, blood banks and laboratories.

It led to sewage overflows, such as the one that occurred on November 13, when a large pumping station failed south of Gaza City, spewing more than 35,000 cubic metres of filth into the streets. Some 3,000 residents were forced to wade through sewage on the way to work or school.

The power plant shutdown has also resulted in increasingly polluted, unhealthy water. Even before the current crisis, approximately 90 million litres of raw or partially treated sewage were dumped into the sea every day, due to a shortage of fuel needed to run wastewater-treatment facilities. Since the power plant shutdown, however, even more raw sewage is being dumped – putting residents at risk of illnesses such as dysentery and severe diarrhoea.

In general, there have been shortages of water, no matter what the quality. An estimated 65 percent of Gaza’s population receives running water in their homes just once every three or four days.

Clamouring to be heard

For months, Gazans have been clamouring for attention and action – launching a petition to the Egyptian government to permanently and reliably open its Rafah Crossing into the strip (which has to date attracted more than 10,000 signatures), and forming an Intifada Youth Coalition to challenge both the Israeli and Egyptian closure of their sea lanes. On November 30, hundreds of children in Gaza launched their own “mini arks” into the harbour, in a symbolic gesture to call for the freedom to travel and export.

Unfortunately, it was indeed just a day in the sun. The world looked away, as usual, and within three months, the Israeli military had committed more than 800 violations of the ceasefire agreement.

Now, finally, the international community is beginning to shift a bit of its attention from Syria and Iran to Gaza – as if the global conscience is a large pie that can be divvied up into a limited number of pieces. Amnesty International issued its alert; Turkey has pledged $850,000; fuel deliveries by the UN have started; and Qatar is pledging to either pay the Palestinian Authority to buy fuel from Israel and deliver it to Gaza, or ship fuel from Qatar via Israel’s Ashdod port, which the PA would deliver to the coastal enclave. Late last month, an aid convoy carrying medicine, medical equipment and canned food, was reportedly permitted to enter Gaza via the Rafah crossing for the first time since June.

But these actions are letting Israel and Egypt off the hook – particularly Israel, which has a special responsibility as an occupying power. And they are, at best, merely band-aids that will lull the broader world back into complacency and leave the Gazans to continue living in what has come to be known as the “world’s largest prison”.

One year ago this month, I travelled to Gaza in the immediate aftermath of “Operation Pillar of Cloud” – the eight-day assault that killed 171 Palestinians, including 100 civilians, and destroyed or severely damaged 439 homes and 233 public facilities. I wrote then that “finally, Palestinians are feeling as if they are having their day in the sun”.

One day in the sun

First, Egypt intervened to help force Israel to end its attack just eight days after it began, agreeing to a ceasefire that actually offered some significant concessions. Then, a Palestinian state received overwhelming acceptance from the United Nations General Assembly, with the United States, Israel and Canada clearly alone and anachronistic. Meanwhile, Hamas and Fatah – the two warring Palestinian political parties – came together in what seemed like a real spirit of unity. “A huge victory for Palestine, after a big victory for Gaza! We are all one… our time is now!” wrote one young Gazan on his Facebook wall.

Unfortunately, it was indeed just a day in the sun. The world looked away, as usual, and within three months, the Israeli military had committed more than 800 violations of the ceasefire agreement (compared to just two by Palestinians), according to data collected by the UN, the Israeli Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement (GISHA), the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, and Israeli and Palestinian media outlets.

Several months later, a new regime assumed control of Egypt that actually seems worse than former dictator Hosni Mubarak, if that is possible – not only sealing the border still tighter, but removing the one outside party that had been able to bring both Hamas and Fatah to the negotiating table. And while US Secretary of State John Kerry has revived talks designed to bring an end to the decades-old Israeli control of Palestinian land and people, the plight of Gaza has warranted nary a mention.

Yes, the 1.7 million Palestinians of Gaza need immediate relief from the shortage of fuel and other vital supplies. But what they need and want most is sustained international attention and action to bring about a more permanent solution that will free them from their dependence on handouts, allow them to support themselves through exports, and nurture a future generation of talent by enabling them to travel to attend school and form connections.

If the communities of activists and relief workers don’t keep sustained pressure on politicians to require both Israel and Egypt to honour the Geneva Convention’s prohibition against collective punishment, Gaza (and the broader Palestinian Territories) will continue to careen from crisis to crisis – until a catastrophe so massive occurs that it forces us all to say, “How could we let that happen on our watch?”

Pam Bailey is a freelance journalist and activist who has lived and worked in the Gaza Strip.