By Yanis Iqbal
On August 31, 2020, Hamas announced that it had reached a ceasefire with Israel that would end the recent hostilities in Gaza. Since 6 August, the besieged Palestinian enclave was being bombed daily by the Israeli forces. In order to bomb Gaza, the “terror balloon” narrative has been used by the Zionist state. These so-called “terror balloons” are contraptions made from everyday materials, gas-soaked rags, home-made explosives and are used by Gazans as symbols of resistance against Israel. While Israel has dubbed the launching of balloons as “arson attacks”, they are merely indicators of the existential oppression suffered by Palestinians. Till date, no one has ever been killed or injured by these incendiary balloons.
Nevertheless, at the end of a meeting held on 9 August, 2020, commanders of Israel’s security services had concluded that “the continued launching of balloons will lead to a violent response even if this leads to a comprehensive escalation.” True to the statement, Israel’s response to symbolic acts of resistance has been particularly violent: On 13 August, 2020, an Israeli war drone launched a missile at Al Shate’ Elementary School for Boys in the West of Gaza, run by the UN Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA); On 15 August, 2020, – the fifth night of Israeli bombings on Gaza- four Palestinian children were wounded. Defense Minister Benny Gantz has termed this destruction of civilian life as a change in the “equation of response” where he took “the balloon issue seriously”.
Reflecting on the sheer absurdity of Israel’s policy of disproportionate response, Ahmed Abu Artema, a writer living in Gaza and a researcher at the Center for Political and Development Studies, says: “Israel has tried to portray these balloons as akin to a military threat. By doing so, it has tried to devise new “rules.” Under those “rules,” Israel thinks it may respond to crude balloons with missiles launched from F-16 warplanes.”
The near-nightly reprisal raids conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on Gaza have gone unreported by the Western Media which is fixated on the Israel-UAE peace agreement. In this respect, a poem written by the Tunisian English teacher Olfa Drid serves as a painful reminder to our present-day world where every effort are made to erase the Palestinian struggle from the socio-political imaginary:
In addition to a 4-week long bombing, Israel barred the entry of construction materials to Gaza on 11 August; closed the region’s offshore fishing zone on 16 August; limited entry of goods to food and medicine only on 23 August ; and lastly, it banned fuel shipments to Gaza through the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing on 13 August, leading to the closure of the only electricity plant in the region five days later. With the closing of the power station, electricity supply was limited to three of four hours per day, causing serious disruptions of basic services. This disruption has proved to be fatal for some. On 1 September, 2020, 3 Gazan children passed away as a fire broke out because of a candle lit in their room. They were deprived of electricity due to the power outage and were forced to use candles.
Sami al-Amassi, president of the General Federation of the Palestinian Trade Union, said that fuel shortage in Gaza had the potential to destroy 90% of the local factories, which would lead to the unemployment of nearly 50,000 Palestinian workers. 500 factories would have shrunk to 20% of their production capacity if the ban on the entry of fuel was prolonged any longer. In addition to economic devastation, the power outage crisis had the capacity to jeopardize the lives of 120 newborns who needed neonatal care to survive.
Now, under the ceasefire agreement, Israel has opened its border with Gaza to allow for fuel shipments. The re-entering of fuel supplies has improved Gaza’s electricity supply from four to eight hours. Israel will also remove its maritime blockade and allow Palestinian fishermen to fish in the waters up to 25 kilometers off the Gaza coast. As part of the agreement, Qatar – whose envoy to Gaza al-Emadi helped to broker the ceasefire – will increase its monthly aid by $30 million. On its part, Hamas has to prevent the launching of incendiary of balloons and suspend its operations at the Israel-Gaza border.
The Brutal Blockade
While the ceasefire agreement has stopped significant escalation, the brutal blockade of Gaza continues. In the words of Michael Lynk, special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, “Gaza has been reduced to a humanitarian whisper,”; “Behind the current hostilities – the launching of rockets and incendiary balloons by Palestinian armed groups and the disproportionate use of targeted missile strikes by Israel – is the long-term impoverishment of Gaza by Israel’s 13-year-old comprehensive blockade. This amounts to collective punishment of the entire civilian population in Gaza, which adds immeasurably to the suffering of Gazans and wider tensions in the region.” Echoing Lynk’s views, Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masry – on 30 August, 2020 – stated: “Palestinian factions do not accept that the residents of the Gaza Strip be subjected to gradual death as a result of the continued [Israeli] siege and aggression.”; “We have nothing to lose, and the enemy’s effort to exploit the humanitarian situation [in Gaza] and the coronavirus pandemic to advance its own policies and extend the blockade imposed on our Palestinian nation will not succeed,”.
In the current Coronavirus conjuncture, Gaza is being subjected to slow death as the impact of Israeli blockade manifests itself in the form of an epidemiological-economic crisis. With more than 500 confirmed Covid-19 cases, Gaza’s woefully underequipped healthcare is rapidly reaching it limits. In the besieged enclave, there are only 3.5 doctors for every 100,000 people and only 1.4 beds for 1,000 persons. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), hospitals in Gaza “have shortages of specialized staff in intensive care units and the laboratory infrastructure urgently requires upgrade to conform with strict biosafety standards”. This inadequate healthcare system, too, is systematically destroyed by Israel which – between 30 March 2018 and 31 December 2019 – killed 3 health workers, injured 845 health professionals and damaged 112 ambulances and 7 health facilities. Israeli blockade of Gaza has pushed up medicinal shortages dramatically, reaching more than 52% by January 2020. Furthermore, 71% of the needed medications that are vital for children and their mothers are not available.
In addition to a largely crumbling healthcare, Gaza has a severe water crisis, reducing access to clean water and making it difficult for families to wash their hands – a crucial step in halting the spread of Coronavirus. The coastal aquifer of the region – which provides 98% of water supply – has been polluted by over-pumping and wastewater contamination. As a result, 96.2% of water from the aquifer is undrinkable. 40% of the domestic water supply is lost on the way to consumers because of Gaza’s outdated infrastructure. Due to the deficiencies of the water supply network, 95% of the population has to rely on desalinated water which costs five times more than network water and is qualitatively unreliable, being prone to faecal contamination.
As a consequence of an inefficient water system, it is estimated that 28% of children’s diseases are due to contaminated water and polluted water is a leading cause of child mortality in Gaza. In spite of that, Israel has restricted the imports of 70% of the technical equipments such as pumps and water purification chemicals which are direly needed to maintain water supply in the region. The siege has allowed only 16% of the materials needed to “construct vital water infrastructure” to reach the Palestinian region.
Water crisis-caused insanitary conditions are compounded by the fact that most Palestinians in Gaza cannot afford sanitizers, gloves and masks. Some families have bought single masks and gloves for repeated use, thereby rendering them ineffective. This is a direct corollary of the Israeli blockade which has initiated a process of immiseration. In 2002, before the blockade, only 10% of Gazans were dependent on aid. In 2018, 11 years after the blockade was first enforced, 80% of Gazans were dependent on aid. The unemployment rate in Gaza is above 50% (one of the highest in the world), the poverty level is 53% and 70% of the population of the Gaza Strip is food insecure.
While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread in Gaza, the Israeli permit system is making matters worse for patients in need of medical care. In the Gaza Strip, all Palestinians require Israeli-issued permits to exit via Erez crossing. In the current period, Coronavirus-caused movement restrictions, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) halt in coordination due to Israel’s annexation plan and the latter’s refusal to process permit applications besides urgent medical cases, have resulted in a 98.5% drop in the number of exits from Gaza via the Erez Crossing in June 2020. Commenting on this pressing issue, the NGOs Al-Haq, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies submitted an urgent appeal to the UN Special Procedures in June 2020 wherein they stated: “The current situation is a desperate one for Gaza patients, who face no avenue to access health services needed outside the Gaza Strip. Israel’s permit system, an integral part of the illegal closure of Gaza, is an arbitrary and unnecessary measure that unlawfully preconditions urgent and lifesaving care for thousands of Palestinians.”
The Israeli permit regime has particularly impacted children who have again got caught in the barbarity of a blockade. Jeremy Stoner, Save the Children’s Regional Director for the Middle East, says that “desperately sick children need to leave Gaza to survive – there is simply no other option. It’s cruel that children are dying or suffering extreme pain when they can receive treatment just beyond the checkpoints. With every day that passes, the window to help these children closes further”.
The implementation of a ceasefire agreement and the perpetuation of blockade is a reflection of Israel’s long-standing policy toward Gaza: maintain the region on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. For Israel, the preferred policy would have been to eliminate Palestinians. This sentiment was expressed by Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who –referring to Gaza – once said, “If only it would just sink into the sea.” Unable to commit a downright genocide, Israel has optimized violence: inflict suffering but avoid its extremes. Currently, we are witnessing the effective implementation of this strategy as Israel bombs and strangulates Gaza during the Covid-19 pandemic yet allows insufficient humanitarian aid to enter the region after the ceasefire agreement. Through this strategy, Israel is engulfing Gaza in a mist of slow violence where oppressive conditions have left the region in a death-like state.
In the contemporary period of Covid-19 pandemic, the Zionist strategy of slow violence against Gazans has accelerated. About 20,000 workers have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic in the Gaza Strip and around 50,000 families in the region are expected to become food insecure after losing their daily income. These economic losses are intimately interconnected with Israel’s Gaza blueprint which consists of destroying the enclaves’ internal productive base through a paradigm of unending siege and de-development.
As the Covid-19 pandemic in Gaza intensifies due to Israel’s policy of institutionalized impoverishment and blockade, the possibility of a change is increasing. An article published by the Institute for Palestine Studies acknowledges that the most powerful challenge to the status quo in Gaza is the region’s “steady and heart-wrenching collapse.” It further states, “A widespread humanitarian catastrophe, in the form of a famine or an outbreak of cholera, would swiftly turn the world’s attention toward Gaza.” Presently, the Covid-19 pandemic has the capacity to turn the world’s attention toward Gaza’s slow death and give an international impetus to the Palestinian liberation movement.