7 Questions for Defenders of Israel's Inhumane Siege of Gaza
Apologists for the brutal siege of Gaza base their defense largely on a single, spectacularly dishonest argument: that Israel is only trying to keep arms out of Gaza -- arms that Hamas might use against Israeli civilians.
It’s a red herring of monstrous proportions, made more pernicious by the brutal effects of the blockade it supports. It’s dishonest because people around the world are not outraged by the idea of Israel keeping weapons out of the hands of Hamas. The entire world (perhaps aside from the United States and Israel) is appalled by the gradual strangulation of the people of Gaza -- young and old, innocent and guilty-- under an intentional man-made humanitarian crisis.
It’s imperative that people of good conscience not let Israel’s defenders get away with this bait-and switch. Israel’s “right to defend itself” has nothing to do with the moral outrage caused by the blockade. But it is nonetheless becoming the center of the debate.
In order to keep the focus on the real issue, here are seven questions for those who continue to claim the siege is about Israel’s security. If you encounter such an argument, just concede the point that Israel has every right in the world to check incoming containers for weapons, at least for the sake of argument, and then launch right into these Columbo-style questions. They’re impossible to answer. (Unless otherwise noted, this is the source for the following info).
Impossible-to-Answer Question #1: What’s the connection between a hungry Palestinian population and keeping weapons out of the hands of Hamas? I know Israel says it’s letting in enough food in to prevent a humanitarian crisis, but UN officials have called the situation "grim," "deteriorating" and a "medieval siege." A bare minimum of 400 truckloads of goods needs to enter Gaza per week, and an average of 171 get in. According to the World Health Organization, one in 10 Gazans suffer from “chronic malnutrition,” and the UN says six in 10 Gaza households are "food insecure."
Question #2: What changed? I mean, the Gaza strip has been under Israeli occupation since 1978, and in that time Israel has always prohibited the importation of weapons. Hamas has been around since 1978, and has always been an armed enemy. So if it’s all about security, why is it that Israel started preventing 75 percent of all manner of imported goods coming into Gaza only after the election of Hamas, a result rejected by Israel and the international community?
Question #3: Is Israel afraid of some sort of deadly sweet-and-savory weapon? Because I know it has, at various times, prevented chocolate, jam, sage and coriander from coming into Gaza. Just wondering what Israel’s security has to do with Gazans’ flavoring options, you know? Or are you saying that people who don’t have access to French fries, dried fruit -- or fabric, notebooks or toys for that matter -- are less likely to become terrorists?
Question #4: Israel attacked Gaza’s main power plant in 2006, and it won’t let the Gazans bring in the parts needed to restore its output to the previous levels. The majority of houses in Gaza experience power outages of at least eight hours per day, but some have no juice for as much as 12 hours a day. So, you know: Is Israel worried about rechargeable weapons of some sort?
Question #5: So, Israel “has not permitted supplies into the Gaza Strip to rebuild the sewage system,” and Amnesty International says that up to 95 percent of the water in Gaza isn’t healthy for human consumption. There isn’t enough power to run the desalination and sewage facilities, so significant amounts of sewage are seeping into Gaza's coastal aquifer, the population’s main source of water. Help me understand what Israel is defending against, here? Some sort of frozen ice-missile technology?
Question #6: How does barring the export of all goods from Gaza keep weapons out of Gaza? Am I not getting what the words “out” and “in” mean? The World Health Organization says, "In the Gaza Strip, private enterprise is practically at a standstill as a consequence of the blockade. 98 percent of industrial operations have been shut down.” Not sure how further impoverishing Gaza’s already poor population makes Israel more secure -- help me understand?
Question #7: If it’s about keeping weapons out of Gaza, then why won’t Israel allow in medical equipment, spare parts and the building materials necessary to rebuild the health-care infrastructure that was devastated in the 2008 war? The World Health Organization says the blockade has "accelerated the degeneration" of Gaza’s health system. Is the idea that keeping the health-care system down will make people too weak and infirm to pick up a weapon?
These questions are unanswerable because the blockade of Gaza is about keeping goods from flowing in and out of Gaza. Push them on their answers. Are they saying it enhances Israel’s security because people who are jobless, hungry, poor and in bad health may have less will to resist? That’s the definition of collective punishment, a serious crime since World War II, when the world reacted with revulsion to the collective punishments meted out by the Axis powers to the populations of the territories they occupied.
The argument that Israel is only keeping weapons out of the hands of terrorists is not a minor distraction. As I wrote last week, the Israeli government is an occupying power that exercises “effective control” over Gaza. Some have argued that Gaza is an independent entity at war with Israel, and the Israeli Supreme Court agreed, ruling that Israel “had no commitment 'to deal with the welfare of the residents of the Gaza Strip or to allow unlimited amounts of goods and merchandise' to pass through, but only vital and humanitarian goods."
But outside of Israel it’s not a serious claim. According to the United Nations, “Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem [are designated] as Occupied Palestinian Territory… that definition hasn't changed." The United States government, Israel’s closest ally, says unambiguously: “West Bank and Gaza Strip are Israeli-occupied with current status subject to the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement… permanent status to be determined through further negotiation; Israel removed settlers and military personnel from the Gaza Strip in August 2005.”
As an occupying power, Israel does have the right to keep weapons out of Gaza. But it also has a legal responsibility to safeguard the well-being of the civilian population. This is why the whole narrative of keeping rockets out is such a insidious lie.
The suffering in Gaza doesn't make Israel any safer. As the progressive pro-Israel group J Street noted, “Israel is a world leader in the monitoring and border control technology necessary to ensure weapons are not moved across the border into Gaza.” It added: “with fewer soldiers and resources assigned to enforcing the current blockade on non-military items, Israel could more effectively devote its energies to detecting and closing the tunnels through which Hamas is currently shipping arms.” Israel claims that just about any aid could be "diverted" to Hamas, but as the BBC notes, aid groups working in Gaza "have stringent monitoring systems in place."
For supporters of the siege, the value of the defense argument is simple to grasp. Intercepting weapons is a military objective. In international law, an occupying power has broad leeway in the use of force to accomplish military objectives. The siege of Gaza is, and always was, meant to crush Gaza’s economy, impose severe suffering on the population and ultimately make it impossible for Hamas to govern. The Israeli government has not hidden this fact. As J Street put it, "Israeli officials have repeatedly characterized their blockade policy in the following terms: ‘No prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.’" When the siege was first imposed, Dov Weisglass, an adviser to then Prime-Minister Ehud Olmert, explained, "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."
The blockade’s objective is political, not military. It’s a collective punishment of the entire population of Gaza (approximately half of whom are under 18 years of age). It is a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention. It’s a serious crime. And the world is calling for Israel to bring it to an end, not to stop intercepting weapons.
People who know what has happened to Gaza over the past 3.5 years consider the weapons argument a kind of tragic joke. As Lindsey Hilsum, the international editor for Britain’s Channel 4 put it, “Somewhere in Gaza, someone may once have tried to fashion a missile from a chicken hatchery, a goat, a bunch of coriander and a fishing rod stuck together with jam.” Israel’s kept all of those goods out of Gaza, with the intended result of making the people miserable. Strangling the Gazan economy, making eight out of 10 people dependent on international aid groups and making sure the residents can’t get their hands on tea and coffee isn’t making Israel one bit more secure.