The revolutions taking place across the Arab world have taken the spotlight away from an ongoing issue which Israel would like the world to forget: the siege of Gaza, which has now been in place for four years. In May last year, Israel’s murderous attack on the Freedom Flotilla caused worldwide outrage and it was forced to announce that it would “ease” the siege; a year later it is still in place and continues to affect the lives of 1.5 million Gazans.
Most inhabitants of Gaza have seen little or no improvement in their lives as a result of Israel’s “easing” measures, which have been largely cosmetic. Exports from the Gaza Strip remain almost totally prohibited. Gaza’s factories, most of which were forced to shut down because of the Israeli siege, have been unable to resume operations because Israel blocks the import of the raw materials they need. These two measures together have crippled the economy. Today, poverty in Gaza is widespread and it has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, at 39%; according to the UN, 80% of its population is dependent on food aid.
While it is true that more basic goods, including food items and consumer durables, are entering Gaza, many are still prohibited; the cost of those that are allowed in is prohibitive because of the poverty. Although Israel said that it would let building materials into Gaza following the “easing” of the blockade, in practice only a small amount has been allowed in. The UN has estimated that Gaza needs 670,000 truckloads of building materials in order to rebuild the homes destroyed by Israel in its 2008-2009 assault on the territory (never mind any new developments). Since the blockade has been “eased”, only 715 trucks of building materials have been allowed in every month. Israel has instituted bureaucratic procedures designed to ensure that only a small amount of material actually gets through. It also has restricted the operation of crossing points such as the Karni Crossing – today less material is getting through than before the “easing”.
Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza makes sure that life there cannot continue as normal and that the inhabitants of the territory still suffer. The lack of building materials means that existing schools cannot be repaired and new ones cannot be built. As a result, in some schools shipping containers are being used as classrooms. The fishing industry has been decimated because Israel refuses to allow fishermen to operate more than three miles from the shore. Even when fishermen stay within this limit, they risk being fired on by the Israeli navy. The total catch fell 47% between 2008 and 2009. Today 90% of Gaza’s fishermen live in poverty and most of them are unable to work.
Gaza’s water supply is still dangerously polluted; Israel continues to stop all water treatment equipment from entering the Strip and 90% of the water supplied to homes unfit for human consumption. Before the “easing” there were reports of babies being born with a blue tinge; they were suffering from a blood disorder known as methemoglobinemia which is caused by exposure to water with a high concentration of nitrates. The UN warned that Gaza’s damaged water supply system was on the verge of collapse, and if this happens, the additional damage will take centuries to fix. Because of Israel’s refusal to allow in the necessary equipment, this problem is ongoing and hasn’t improved in any way.
Gaza is still effectively a prison camp for its people. They are allowed to leave the territory only in the most exceptional cases. Following the “easing” of the blockade some business people have been granted exceptional leave to travel to the West Bank through Israel, but the rest of the inhabitants cannot travel abroad for work, study or to visit relatives. Many patients have died because of Israel’s refusal to grant permission for them to travel for medical treatment.
The ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza is the reason why the latest initiative to break the siege – Freedom Flotilla 2 – is so important. While the world focuses on the protests and revolutions rocking the Arab world, Israel believes it can get away not only with the continuation of the siege but also with an escalation of its air-raids and attacks on the territory, which killed more than 20 people at the beginning of April.
A coalition of non-governmental organizations is putting together the new flotilla of 15 ships which will sail to Gaza from ports around the world next month. Freedom Flotilla Two will arrive in Gaza nearly one year after the its predecessor was attacked by Israeli commandos, resulting in the deaths of nine activists and serious injuries to dozens more. The activists taking part wish to send a message to Israel that the people of the world will continue to support the people of Gaza. While the governments of the world and the mainstream media remain silent about the siege, people across the world have understood what is happening and won’t allow Israel to get away with the continued imprisonment and strangulation of Gaza’s people.
Israel is now doing anything it can to stop the flotilla, from issuing crude threats that it will meet the same fate as the last one to a diplomatic offensive undertaken by President Shimon Peres to get European countries to prevent their citizens from participating. That last strategy has failed and European governments have snubbed Peres.
The activism that led to the organisation of Freedom Flotilla Two and its predecessor suggests that Israel is in the middle of a new reality, one where news of its actions spreads around the world through new media and social activism, and where ordinary people will act to stop its crimes against the Palestinian people even when their governments won’t.
Israel is deeply mistaken if it believes that it can use the revolutions in the Arab world to cover up its crimes against the Palestinians. The revolutions have taught Arab leaders one thing – that they will be held accountable for what they do by their people, and that their abuses of power will come back to haunt them.
The age of impunity in the Middle East is thus drawing to a close, and Israel is not immune from this development. Making cosmetic changes and conducting a public relations campaign will not fool the world into believing that the siege of Gaza has been lifted.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.