In an article in The Guardian on the 22nd December Nick Clegg, the leader of the UK's Liberal Democrat Party, called for an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip. He described the situation in Gaza as a "living nightmare for one and a half million Palestinians" and said that the British government and the international community had done "next to nothing" to lift the blockade. In his view, European governments fear the negative reaction of the Israelis to any pressure they might exert to try to end the blockade and fear that this pressure would complicate the peace process. However, he says that the consequences of keeping the blockade in place are far more serious than the consequences of exerting this pressure, asking "How is the peace process served by sickness, mortality rates, mental trauma and malnutrition increasing in Gaza?"
In his article, Clegg cites a report released on the same day by sixteen NGOs including Amnesty International and Oxfam to illustrate the effects of the blockade. This report focuses on Israel's embargo on the import of construction materials and its effects on the people of Gaza. Israel's war on Gaza, which ended in January 2009 destroyed thousands of homes and none of these have been rebuilt. Hospitals and clinics lie in ruins, and the lack of materials to rebuild the water supply system means that the water in Gaza is now unsafe for human consumption. Amnesty International's UK director, Kate Allen, says, "The wretched reality endured by 1.5 million people in Gaza should appal anybody with an ounce of humanity. Sick, traumatised and impoverished people are being collectively punished by a cruel, illegal policy imposed by the Israeli authorities," while Jeremy Hoobs, Oxfam's executive director says, "It is not only Israel that has failed the people of Gaza with a blockade that punishes everybody living there for the acts of a few. World powers have also failed and even betrayed Gaza's ordinary citizens. They have wrung their hands and issued statements, but have taken little meaningful action to attempt to change the damaging policy that prevents reconstruction, personal recovery and economic recuperation". The report recommends that the European Union should put its relations with Israel on hold and Nick Clegg believes that existing agreements between the EU and Israel should be reconsidered if it does not ease the blockade.
While European nations (as well as the United States) shoulder much of the blame for the blockade of Gaza and the continued suffering of its people with their failure to pressure Israel, Gaza's other neighbour, Egypt, is colluding with Israel in the blockade. Nick Clegg places equal blame on Egypt and Israel for the blockade and says that the US, as the largest donor of aid to Egypt, should compel it to allow humanitarian aid and reconstruction materials into Gaza through its border with the territory. Unfortunately, the blockade is being reinforced, not alleviated. This month, news came out that Egypt was building a steel wall along the border with US assistance. This wall will extend 25 metres underground with the aim of blocking the smuggling tunnels under the border which the people of Gaza now depend on for their most basic needs. No country has spoken out against this US-backed Egyptian project and even Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority has given his backing to it, saying that it was "a matter of Egyptian sovereignty". Abbas claims to be the president of all Palestinians, including those of the Gaza Strip (even though he now has no control over the territory) and thus the people of Gaza are in an unenviable position where both the international community and the man who says he is their leader are actively or passively supporting the siege against them and their continued suffering.
Nick Clegg's article is a welcome departure from the silence of the British political establishment on the blockade of Gaza and his proposals for the European Union to take concrete steps to pressure Israel to end it are both practical and courageous. It remains to be seen whether other party leaders will follow his lead. Their continued silence does not mean that the issue will go away. As long as the blockade continues, it will continue to be an issue of concern to a wide section of the British public. The upcoming election in Britain will largely be fought over domestic issues but the suffering of the people of Gaza resonates deeply with the British Muslim community and with those in the wider community who know of its details.