While many throughout the world continue mourning those who were murdered by Israeli commandos/pirates Monday morning, Alan Dershowitz is busy doing what Alan Dershowitz does best, defending the murderers. Writing in The Huffington Post, Dershowtiz argues that “Israel acted within its rights,” the reason for this being that it is legal, or so he claims, to enforce a blockade in international waters “[i]f there is no doubt that the offending ships have made a firm determination to break the blockade” (“Israel’s Actions Were Entirely Lawful Though Probably Unwise,” 1 June 2010).
Now even if we accept Dershowitz’s general claim here about international law, it goes without saying that it is never legal to enforce an illegal blockade, neither in international waters nor anywhere else. Dershowitz, of course, contends that Israel’s blockade of Gaza is perfectly legal. Noting that Hamas continued engaging “in acts of warfare against Israel” after Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza, he writes:
These acts of warfare featured anti-personnel rockets, nearly 10,000 of them, directed at Israeli civilians. This was not only an act of warfare, it was a war crime. Israel responded to the rockets by declaring a blockade, the purpose of which was to assure that no rockets, or other material that could be used for making war against Israeli civilians, was permitted into Gaza. Israel allowed humanitarian aid through its checkpoints. Egypt as well participated in the blockade. There was never a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, merely a shortage of certain goods that would end if the rocket attacks ended.
Now I wouldn’t be surprised if Alan Dershowitz’s nose grew a few inches when he wrote those last few sentences, for there’s absolutely no truth in them. If Israel imposed the blockade to prevent rockets from entering Gaza, then it’s difficult to understand why it has prevented humanitarian items from entering Gaza, items which could not possibly pose a threat to Israeli citizens. For instance, in March 2009, The Independent reported that Israel was preventing Gazans from receiving pasta, chickpeas, hearing aids, paper, school notebooks, cooking gas, freezer appliances, generators, and water pumps (Anne Penketh, “The pasta, paper and hearing aids that could threaten Israeli security,” 2 March 2009). In July 2009, the UN reported that Israel had banned “books, paper for textbooks, crayons, light bulbs, candles, matches, musical instruments, clothing, shoes, mattresses, bed sheets, blankets, tea, coffee, chocolate and nuts” (OPT: Commissioner-General’s speech at the Centre for International Relations, Warsaw, UN Relief and Works Agency, 2 July 2009).
To claim that “[t]here was never a humanitarian crisis in Gaza” is beyond absurd. As a recent report by the World Health Organization stated:
Mrs Karen Abu Zaid, former UNRWA Commissioner General, declared that the system of closures that the Gaza Strip has been subjected to is unprecedented anywhere in the world in terms of its scope and the humanitarian consequences for those living there. Confining one and a half million people within the borders of the Gaza Strip—thus fundamentally restricting their quality of life by reducing food, medicines, fuel supplies and other life-saving essentials—and provoking extreme anger, fear and poverty among Palestinians by means of air raids, incursions, targeted assassinations and other military operations, amount to a sustained war to annihilate the civilian population. Consequently all aspects of life have been compromised, as the majority of Palestinians are forbidden either to leave or to enter the Gaza Strip. (Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan, 14 May 2010)
As a result of the blockade, 55% of Gazans are unemployed, 80% live in poverty, 61% of households suffer from food insecurity, 66% of infants have anemia, and 10% of children under the age of five are “chronically or acutely undersized.” (Food insecurity statistic from Socio-Economic and Food Security Survey Report in the Gaza Strip, World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization, November 2009; other statistics from WHO.) Furthermore:
- Because Gazans lack the parts needed to maintain their water and sanitation plants, many plants have been forced to shut down, which has caused “large quantities of untreated sewage water to be discharged into the sea, thereby polluting sea water, fish and beaches.” Consequently, 12% of the population has “no access to safe drinking-water.”
- Israel has restricted the Strip’s electricity supply so severely that families and health facilities “suffer from power cuts for eight to 12 hours a day or more.” This “puts immense pressure on the already crumbling electricity system in the Gaza Strip, affecting the infrastructure for drinking-water and the sewage system, and disrupting the provision of health care for civilians in the Gaza Strip.”
- This electricity shortage, along with Israel’s refusal to allow an adequate amount of fuel into the Strip, has forced doctors to stop performing certain types of surgeries and has forced them to shut down several “oxygen-generating stations.” X-ray machines are now “running at 50% capacity,” and kidney patients have experienced increased suffering “owing to disruption and stoppage of dialysis units because of power outages.” There’s also been a “compromised validity and viability of blood and plasma supplies, which can be damaged when power outages last more than two hours.”
- All of this has “created an ever-increasing need for treatment abroad, mainly in Egypt, Israel and the West Bank. However, authorizations to cross the border for medical treatment are occasioning increased hardship. The Israeli authorities either refuse to issue such authorizations ‘for security reasons’ or issue them after long delays. This attitude has exacerbated health conditions and led to many avoidable deaths among Palestinian patients.”
Equally absurd is Dershowitz’s claim that Israel would end the blockade if Hamas just stopped firing rockets. In the past, Israel has continued the blockade even during times when Hamas has stopped rocket attacks. In June 2008, for instance, Egypt brokered a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. “According to Egyptian sources involved in the process,” the ceasefire “provided for an immediate cessation of hostile activities; a limited increase in the amount of goods entering Gaza after three days; and, after ten days, the opening of the crossings for all products except materials used in the manufacture of projectiles and explosives” (Ending the Gaza War, International Crisis Group, 5 January 2009).
The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a decidedly right-winged group with close ties to the Israeli government, notes that “Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire and its operatives were not involved in rocket attacks. At the same time, the movement tried to enforce the terms of the arrangement on the other terrorist organizations and to prevent them from violating it.” Consequently, the number of rockets fired into Israel drastically fell: before the ceasefire, militants were firing an average of 49 rockets per week (January 1-June 18); once the ceasefire went into effect, this number fell to less than 1 per week (June 19-October 31) (The Six Months of the Lull Arrangement, December 2008; Escalation in the Gaza Strip: the IDF operated inside the Gaza Strip near the security fence to prevent the abduction of soldiers, 5 November 2008). Rocket attacks continued on November 4, when Israeli forces renewed hostilities by entering Gaza and killing six Hamas militants (James Hider, “Six die in Israeli attack over Hamas ‘tunnel under border to kidnap soldier’,” Times, 6 November 2008).
And yet Israel failed to honor the ceasefire agreement, refusing to open “the crossings for all products except materials used in the manufacture of projectiles and explosives.” Although it slightly eased the blockade, allowing the daily number of truckloads of goods entering Gaza to rise from 62 (January-May) to 116 (July-October), this still fell far short of the nearly 600 daily truckloads entering Gaza before the blockade began (Gaza Crossings Online Database, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory; Locked In: The Humanitarian Impact of Two Years of Blockade on the Gaza Strip,” OCHA, August 2009).
So, in conclusion, Israel’s blockade of Gaza has nothing to do with protecting Israeli citizens. Rather, Israel, in violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, is inflicting collective punishment on the Gazan people. As Amnesty International noted in a January report, although Israel claims that the blockade is “a response to attacks from Palestinian armed groups, in particular the indiscriminate rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel,” “by restricting the food, medical supplies, educational equipment, and building materials allowed into Gaza, the Israeli authorities are collectively punishing the entire population of Gaza, the majority of whom are children, rather than targeting those responsible for carrying out rocket or other attacks” (Suffocating: The Gaza Strip Under Israeli Blockade, January 2010).
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Correction: I originally wrote that 34% of Palestinians living in Gaza are food insecure. It turns out that this is the percentage of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank combined who are food insecure. According to the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization, 61% of households in Gaza suffer from food insecurity.