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NGOs slam 'disarmament for development' as Gaza lies in ruins

Leading NGOs have heavily criticised attempts to link the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip with its demilitarisation, ahead of a debate about the issue in Westminster today.

Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) will this afternoon urge "disarmament for development", as the Israel lobby group launches a new campaign focusing on the Gaza Strip and Hamas.

In their supporters' briefing, LFI claims: "Reconstruction, lifting the 'blockade' of Gaza by Israel and Egypt and demilitarisation are intimately linked: the first two are dependent on the last."

Yet even before their campaign can get off the ground, key players from the world of development and human rights have explicitly repudiated this central demand.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is working to support Palestinians whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed. Over the weekend, spokesperson Chris Gunness wrote of how promises to rebuild Gaza are going unfulfilled.

He described children killed by hypothermia, and a bereaved grandfather who told him: "The international donor community killed those babies."

When I asked him about the linkage between development and demilitarisation, Gunness was categorical: "The UN has always condemned rocket fire but collective punishment is illegal. You can't punish freezing children because of the actions of armed groups."

He added: "The situation is so desperate in Gaza and what we need right now is money for reconstruction."

Yet despite the excruciatingly slow pace of rebuilding efforts to date, Labour Friends of Israel's message for MPs is "demilitarisation and thus reconstruction."

Already last October, development NGO Oxfam had stressed that "unless donors step up pressure to end the blockade, many children made homeless by the recent conflict will be grandparents by the time their homes and schools are rebuilt."

I asked Alun McDonald, a spokesperson for the charity in Jerusalem, if reconstruction and lifting the blockade really are dependent on demilitarisation.

Oxfam, he told me this week, "believes there must be an immediate and complete end to the blockade of Gaza, which constitutes collective punishment of the civilian population."

Humanitarian assistance and reconstruction must be provided based on need and cannot be contingent upon political developments or demands, including the demilitarization of Palestinian armed groups.

But it's not just aid agencies who are unhappy with the linkage. Amnesty International, on record as calling for an immediate and comprehensive arms embargo on Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, also takes issue with Labour Friends of Israel's position.

"Israel imposes the blockade on Gaza as a form of collective punishment", said Saleh Hijazi an Amnesty researcher. "It is unlawful and should be lifted immediately and unconditionally i.e. it should not be contingent on any other possible processes, including demilitarisation."

Hijazi emphasised that calls for a suspension of arms transfers to Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups "are not and should not be related to lifting the blockade and ending the collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza."

Revealingly, Labour Friends of Israel refer typically refer to the blockade of the Gaza Strip in scare quotes, as if it is a figment of the imagination, or a disputed claim.

In the week of 10-16 February, the quantity of goods entering the Gaza Strip through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing was a mere 38% of the pre-blockade levels. The same week, just one truckload of goods exited Gaza: the average pre-blockade was 240.

In January, Israeli NGO Gisha described the amount of materials that had entered Gaza over the previous four months as representing about 3.9% of the total need. Meanwhile, Israel is still banning Palestinians in Gaza from studying in West Bank universities.

Labour Friends of Israel calls its Gaza campaign 'Stop the War', but they seem more desperate to stop the deterioration in Israel's image. Desperate enough, in fact, to call for the further collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza and to advocate inhumane, illegal policies.

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