Writing in National Review, Clifford May suggests that there isn’t a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, his evidence for this being:
Palestinians already are the largest per capita recipients of foreign aid in the world. Israel itself delivers as much as 15,000 tons of aid to Gazans every week. More comes from the U.S. and Europe via the United Nations, which has a massive relief operation in Gaza…
A Washington Post reporter in Gaza last week noted that “grocery stores are stocked wall-to-wall with everything from fresh Israeli yogurts and hummus to Cocoa Puffs. Pharmacies look as well-supplied as a typical Rite Aid in the United States.” (“Beyond Bigotry,” National Review, 10 June 2010)
Of course, the availability of Cocoa Puffs notwithstanding, it’s undeniable that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. According to the World Health Organization, 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” (Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan, 14 May 2010; Socio-Economic and Food Security Survey Report in the Gaza Strip, World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization, November 2009).
Part of the problem, as the Post’s Janine Zacharia points out, is not that grocery stores in Gaza are barren but that Palestinians there have no means by which to rebuild their infrastructure (“In Gaza, a complex, dysfunctional way of life,” 3 June 2010). According to a recent UN report, “restrictions on the import of cement make impossible the reconstruction of some 12,000 Palestinian homes damaged or destroyed by Israeli military operations in recent years, as well as a further 20,000 homes needed to accommodate natural population growth in the Gaza Strip.” The report further notes that the UN Relief Works Agency “needs to build 100 schools in Gaza to cope with population growth” (Impending Assistance: Challenges to Meeting the Humanitarian Needs of Palestinians, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory, May 2010).
According to the World Health Organization, Palestinians have been unable to rebuild the 15 hospitals and 41 primary health care facilities that were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead. “The continuing Israeli blockade, ” WHO notes, “combined with the restrictions imposed on the imports of building materials and the rationing of medicines and medical appliances and equipment have led to a deterioration in the living conditions and the health situation of all segments of society in the Gaza Strip.” Restrictions on fuel, electricity, and spare parts needed to maintain water and sanitation facilities have led to a host of other problems.
(Although Israeli officials have claimed that they ban cement from entering Gaza to prevent Hamas from building bunkers, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness claims that UNRWA has previously “shown that we can get supplies in and ensure the integrity of the aid pipeline. We have shown that we can do that without Hamas stealing it or them building bunkers or using anything or trying to smuggle in weapons” [“Seizing ‘Freedom’,” Cross Talk, Russia Today, 2 June 2010] [h/t Norman Finkelstein.)
Another part of the problem, as Zacharia notes, is that, although “Gaza has long been poor, the economy has completely crumbled over the past three years.” Again, 55% of the population is unemployed, 80% lives in poverty. So while the grocery stores might be jammed full of Cocoa Puffs, many have trouble providing their loved ones with the essentials.
May acknowledges that Gaza has a hurting economy, but he places the blame for this on Hamas:
The reporter [Zacharia] added…that Gaza has become “a mini-welfare state.” That indicates that what is needed is not relief but development—not shiploads of free food but paying jobs. And that, in turn, requires investment in factories, businesses, and agriculture. Gaza lacks such investment because it is ruled by Hamas, which, again, is at war with Israel. Hamas leaders reject any and all steps that might lead to peace.
Now I’m not about to defend Hamas, an oppressive organization that has murdered Israeli civilians, but neither am I going to allow May to absolve Israel from its responsibility here. Even if we accept May’s claim that “Hamas leaders reject any and all steps that might lead to peace,” the fact remains that Israel, not Hamas, has banned nearly all exports from Gaza. As the UN notes:
Even if manufacturers were able to overcome the import restrictions, many sectors’ were dependent on the ability to export their products; for example, previous goods regularly exported from Gaza included 76 percent of all Gaza-manufactured furniture products, 90 percent of garments and 20 percent of all food products. As a result [of the blockade], 95 percent of the industrial establishments, or 3,750 establishments, were forced to shut down and the remaining five percent were forced to reduce their level of activity [emphasis added].
The ban on exports has resulted in saturation of the local market with previously exported items (strawberries, cherry tomatoes green peppers and cut flowers) pushing their prices down and reducing the income of 5,000 farmers and 10,000 farm laborers. As a result of the saturation in the market of previously exported agricultural products some farmers have resorted to feeding their livestock with these products. (Locked In: The Humanitarian Impact of Two Years of Blockade on the Gaza Strip, OCHAoPt, August 2009)
Israel has devastated Gaza’s economy in other ways, as well. For instance, by increasing its “buffer zone,” Israel has cut off farmers and herders from 29% of the Strip’s arable land. Israel has also ravaged Gaza’s fishing industry: since Operation Cast Lead, “Israeli naval forces have restricted the access of Palestinian fishing boats to three nm offshore; in practice, access is often restricted to as little as two nm, which results in dramatically reduced catch (i.e. by 47%) and consequently the opportunity of making any profit” (Farming without Land, Fishing without Water: Gaza Agriculture Sector Struggles to Survive, OCHAoPt, May 2010).
Failing to acknowledge any of this, May tells us that Israel must inspect cargo going into Gaza “in order to reduce the number of missiles, explosives, and other weapons Hamas receives.” But of course very few people object to Israel’s efforts to prevent arms from entering Gaza. What people object to is Israel’s refusal to allow an adequate number of humanitarian goods and rebuilding materials from entering Gaza, as well as its refusal to allow Palestinian businessmen to export goods. It’s really not so complicated.