As Trump's 'Tolerance Tour' Begins, Israel's Siege of Gaza Slammed by Rights Groups

The Red Cross has warned that Gaza faces "a systemic collapse of an already battered infrastructure and economy," just days ahead of President Donald Trump’s arrival in Israel for the first stop on his so-called “tolerance tour.”

This June marks the 10-year anniversary of Israel's siege of Gaza, which rights groups say is illegal. Israel's blockade and periodic wars have forced the nearly 2 million Palestinians who live there into lives of bitter poverty.

The International Committee of the Red Cross released a statement May 15 addressing the adverse effects of electricity shortages on life in the strip.

"Severe power and fuel shortage has reached a critical point in Gaza, endangering essential services including healthcare, wastewater treatment and water provision," the humanitarian organization wrote.

"Without immediate intervention, a public health and environment crisis is looming," it added.

Residents of Gaza enjoy electricity for just six hours a day on average. The strip has only one power plant, which was bombed by the Israeli military in 2014.

"All aspects of life in Gaza have been affected," the Red Cross noted in its statement. "As a result, a systemic collapse of an already battered infrastructure and economy is impending."

Illegal Blockade

Israel has imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza since 2007. In 2011, a United Nations panel of human rights experts stated that Israel's blockade is in "flagrant contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law" and amounts to collective punishment of Palestinians.

Despite its illegality, the blockade has largely been normalized, rarely even acknowledged in Western media reports on Gaza. While the Israeli government officially ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005, the close U.S. ally continues its de facto occupation. Israel controls Gaza's waters, airspace, electromagnetic field and population registry. The Israeli government oversees virtually everything that enters and leaves the strip.

The Red Cross warnings are consistent with a 2015 U.N. report that warned Gaza would become "uninhabitable" by 2020 if the political situation does not radically change. The blockade and the wars waged by Israel have accelerated the "de-development" of the Palestinian territories, the study noted.

Another U.N. report, published in September 2016, concluded that the Palestinian economy would double in size, were it not for Israel's illegal occupation.

Israel's blockade has taken a massive humanitarian toll. A staggering 80 percent of Gazan households live below the poverty line, according to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. Eighty percent of families in Gaza would starve without international food aid.

'Encumbering the Most Basic Elements of Everyday Life'

AlterNet spoke with Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.

"Israel's de facto closure of Gaza, particularly its crippling restrictions on the movement of people and goods, separates families, blocks access to medical care and educational and economic opportunities, perpetuates unemployment and poverty — with approximately 70 percent of Gaza's 1.9 million people reliant on humanitarian assistance — and contributes to severe shortages in the supply of electricity and water," Shakir said.

"As the occupying power, Israel is responsible for facilitating normal life for people under its control, but its policies encumber the most basic elements of everyday life in Gaza today," he stressed.

Shakir also called on President Trump to pressure the Israeli government to abide by international law.

"Arriving days before the 50th anniversary of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza, President Trump's words and actions will be carefully scrutinized," he said. "Trump should in particular consider whether he wants his imprimatur on Israeli policy that seeks to alter the demographic balance in Jerusalem by lowering the number of the city’s Palestinian residents."

Trump "should also press Netanyahu to oppose settlement expansion in no uncertain terms and reaffirm the longstanding US position that they are grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Convention," Shakir said. "While he will not visit Gaza, he should raise publicly the need for Israeli authorities to allow more access of people and goods into and out of Gaza."

'Disproportionate Force'

Even more destructive are the wars the Israeli military wages on the Gaza Strip every few years. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed in military campaigns in 2008 to 2009, 2011 and 2014. Bombing by the Israel Defense Forces has ravaged the infrastructure and health care system, destroying or damaging myriad civilian homes, hospitals and schools in Gaza.

Israel's 51-day war in 2014 killed 2,251 Palestinians, approximately two-thirds of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Human rights organizations said Israel likely committed war crimes during the conflict.

Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders faced intense criticism in April 2016 simply for observing that the Israeli military's bombing of Gaza was disproportionate and indiscriminate.

In March of this year, the Israeli military's chief of staff openly admitted that this is true.

"The Israel Defense Force employs a policy of using aggressive and disproportionate force in order to prevent situations in which they fire rockets at us and we return shells," Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot told a parliamentary panel. "For us, there is one address in the Strip: Hamas."

The Trump administration has continued to ramp up support for Israel, despite the country's violations of international law and its illegal military occupation, which will mark its 50th year this June. President Trump will meet with Israeli government officials on May 22, two weeks before the anniversary of the occupation.

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