Creating a Food Crisis in Gaza
In the Beach Refugee Camp in Gaza, fish is sold in the market. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Response, the magazine of United Methodist Women.
by DAVID WILDMAN*
Hungry children and parents with no way to earn money to buy food are but two of the bitter fruits for the 1.5 million people in Gaza, half of whom are children. Decades of Israeli military occupation and nearly three years of harsh economic siege on the whole population has created widespread food insecurity in Gaza.
When Hamas won a majority in January 2006 elections, Israel, with U.S. support, European and other governments, imposed further sanctions because they considered Hamas a terrorist organization. Yet the economic restrictions were imposed not simply on armed members of Hamas but on all Palestinians — most of whom are children.
Restricting trade and aid
In 2006, sanctions meant thousands of Palestinian teachers, health care providers, security guards and other government employees faced months of unpaid salaries. By mid 2007 Israel tightened its blockade to stop almost all exports from leaving Gaza thus forcing many businesses to close. Strawberry farmers were blocked from exporting their produce and locally few had income to buy them. By 2008, before the recent Israeli attacks, the World Health Organization reported the proportion of food insecure households in Gaza reached 56 percent and the rate of stunted growth among children increased.
Regardless of intent, the strict Israeli, U.S. and European restrictions imposed on all Gaza amounted to collective punishment that has transformed a food-exporting, agricultural society into a population increasingly impoverished, unemployed and dependent on food aid.
Under the Geneva Conventions, collective punishment is prohibited, and an occupying military power, like Israel, bears responsibility for providing and protecting the civilian population. Article 55 of the Geneva Conventions states, “the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs.” Article 59 declares, “the Occupying Power shall agree to relief schemes on behalf of the said population, and shall facilitate them by all the means at its disposal.”
By contrast, Israel has been brutally candid of its intent. In 2006 Dov Weisglass, a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated the goal of the sanctions: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not make them die of hunger.”
Israel seeks to justify such restrictions in the name of security, but when is denying food to children ever a way to protect against rockets? Tragically, these sanctions are in addition to repeated military strikes and other practices that have destroyed and restricted
food and water for all Palestinians.
Destroying farmland: Israel repeatedly uses U.S.-supplied D9 Caterpillar bulldozers to raze farmland. More than 100,000 olive and fruit trees (many of them hundreds of years old) have been uprooted or leveled, which greatly reduces the capacity for local food production. In addition, many bypass roads, settlements and much of the hafrada(separationor apartheidin Hebrew) wall — all illegal under international law — are constructed on Palestinian farmland. Around all of these a 300-meter (.2-mile) wide swath of land is declared a closed military zone. Palestinian farmers can see their trees and ﬁelds but cannot tend them.
Roughly 43 percent of all farmland in Gaza now lies in an Israeli imposed “buffer zone” that is off limits to Palestinians.
Tightening the net on ﬁshing: Gaza lies on the Mediterranean Sea, and ﬁshing has provided plentiful food and income for centuries. Saber Al-Hissie is one of 3,500 ﬁshermen whose 20-meter (60-feet) boat is marred with bullet holes. “Every day we face problems from the Israeli gunboats; they follow us, and then they start shooting at us because they want to force us to stop working,” he said.
The Oslo Peace Accords gave Gazans ﬁshing rights up to 20 miles from the coast. In 2002 the United Nations and Israel allowed ﬁshing rights up to 12 miles. In 2006 Israel limited it to six miles, and when Israel allowed ﬁshing again after their January assault, the limit is three miles. Both the amount of ﬁsh and income has dropped precipitously forcing many Gazans to import ﬁsh from Israel at a much higher price.
Muddying the waters: In 2003, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, reported that from September 2000 to May 2003 Israeli occupying forces destroyed 806 wells. In late 2002, 42 water tankers and 9,128 roof-top water tanks were damaged or destroyed.
The destruction of Gaza’s only power plant in June 2006 combined with restrictions on fuel and repeated military strikes make access to clean drinking water more and more difﬁcult. A signiﬁcant portion of water from the aquifer under Gaza is also diverted by Israel for its own use. Recent Israeli attacks badly damaged irrigation systems and piping infrastructure. When a Palestinian businessman from the West Bank sought to provide a truckload of bottled water for use with infant formula, it was blocked.
War deepens a food crisis: The devastating three- week Israeli assault that began Dec. 27, 2008, destroyed between 35-60 percent of the agriculture industry, U.N. estimates reported. Hundreds of greenhouses were leveled and hundreds of wells damaged. More than 6,200 livestock were killed, stores and food warehouses bombed, and tens of thousands of acres of farmland were rendered unusable.
In the weeks following the assault, the United Nations and other international relief agencies sought to deliver critically needed food aid to the people of Gaza. Israeli authorities continue to maintain tight control on the ﬂow of goods into Gaza. Many food-stuffs and other humanitarian goods continue to be blocked from entry by Israel.
Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Brian Baird, D-Wash., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., visited Gaza in early February and were appalled at the devastation they saw. In a joint press release, Feb. 19, they observed, “An example of aid that has been banned by the Israeli Government includes lentils, macaroni, tomato paste and other common food products.”
They praised U.S. intention to provide humanitarian funding, yet also declared, “The arbitrary and unreasonable Israeli limitations on food, and repair and reconstruction materials are unacceptable and indefensible. People; innocent children, women and non-combatants are going without water, food and sanitation, while the things they so desperately need are sitting in trucks at the border, being denied permission to go in.”
Stop blockading food!
Palestinians in Gaza are not asking for charity. They want justice: an end to the blockade, an end to military occupation. In January 2008, Palestinians did not wait for help from the international community, but knocked a hole in the wall and went to Egypt to shop.
As Israel, the United States and other governments restrict humanitarian access and commerce, Palestinians in Gaza must turn to tunnels to get food, cooking gas, livestock and other necessities to provide for their families. Israeli civilians, like Palestinians, worry about rocket attacks, but no Israelis worry about where they will get food for their children.
On a recent trip to Gaza, Bishop Desmond Tutu commented on the situation facing Palestinians and Israelis saying, “There can be no peace, there can be no security, there can be no freedom in isolation. Israelis and Palestinians will be free, will be secure, will prosper only together. My message to the international community is that our silence and complicity — especially on the situation in Gaza — shames us all. It is almost like the behavior of the military junta in
Burma. Gaza needs the engagement of the outside world, especially of its peacemakers.”
*David Wildman is an executive with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.