Starving in the Dark
Israel's Appalling Bombing in Gaza
June 30, 2006
On the excuse of rescuing one kidnapped soldier, Israeli is now
bombing the Gaza Strip and is poised to re-invade. It has also arrested
a third of the Palestinian parliament, wrecking even its fragile
illusion of capacity and reducing the already-empty vessel of the
Palestinian Authority into broken shards.
In the shambles, Palestinians may be observing one bitter pill
of compensation: vicious angling by Fatah to reclaim control of
Palestinian national politics and its rivalry with Hamas are now
rendered obsolete. Even the dogged international community cannot
maintain its dogged pretense that the PA is actually capable of
any governance at all. The demise of the disastrous Oslo model,
Israel's device to ensure its final dismemberment of Palestinian
land and its fatal cooptation of the Palestinian national movement,
may finally be at hand. Perhaps Palestinian unity again has a chance.
But no one knows what will replace the PA. It is therefore not
surprising that this transformed diplomatic landscape is absorbing
the principal attention of an anxious international community.
Nevertheless, politics should not be the greatest international
concern. For over in Gaza, one appalling act must now eclipse all
thoughts of "road maps" or "mutual gestures":
on Wednesday, Israeli war planes repeatedly bombed and utterly demolished
Gaza's only power plant. About 700,000 of Gaza's 1.3 million people
now have no electricity, and word is that power cannot be restored
for six months.
It is not the immediate human conditions created by this strike
that are monumental. Those conditions are, of course, bad enough.
No lights, no refrigerators, no fans through the suffocating Gaza
summer heat. No going outside for air, due to ongoing bombing and
Israel's impending military assault. In the hot darkness, massive
explosions shake the cities, close and far, while repeated sonic
booms are doubtless wreaking the havoc they have wrought before:
smashing windows, sending children screaming into the arms of terrified
adults, old people collapsing with heart failure, pregnant women
collapsing with spontaneous abortions. Mass terror, despair, desperate
hoarding of food and water. And no radios, television, cell phones,
or laptops (for the few who have them), and so no way to get news
of how long this nightmare might go on.
But this time, the situation is worse than that. As food in the
refrigerators spoils, the only remaining food is grains. Most people
cook with gas, but with the borders sealed, soon there will be no
gas. When family-kitchen propane tanks run out, there will be no
cooking. No cooked lentils or beans, no humus, no bread the
staples Palestinian foods, the only food for the poor. (And there
is no firewood or coal in dry, overcrowded Gaza.)
And yet, even all this misery is overshadowed by a grimmer fact:
no water. Gaza's public water supply is pumped by electricity. The
taps, too, are dry. No sewage system. And again, word is that the
electricity is out for at least six months.
The Gaza aquifer is already contaminated with sea water and sewage,
due to over-pumping (partly by those now-abandoned Israeli settlements)
and the grossly inadequate sewage system. To be drinkable, well
water is purified through machinery run by electricity. Otherwise,
the brackish water must at least be boiled before it can be consumed,
but this requires electricity or gas. And people will soon have
Drinking unpurified water means sickness, even cholera. If cholera
breaks out, it will spread like wildfire in a population so densely
packed and lacking fuel or water for sanitation. And the hospitals
and clinics aren't functioning, either, because there is no electricity.
Finally, people can't leave. None of the neighboring countries
have resources to absorb a million desperate and impoverished refugees:
logistically and politically, the flood would entirely destabilize
Egypt, for example. But Palestinians in Gaza can't seek sanctuary
with their relatives in the West Bank, either, because they can't
get out of Gaza to get there. They can't even go over the border
into Egypt and around through Jordan, because Israel will no longer
allow people with Gaza identification cards to enter the West Bank.
In any case, a cordon of Palestinian police are blocking people
from trying to scramble over the Egyptian border--and war refugees
have tried, through a hole blown open by militants, clutching packages
In short, over a million civilians are now trapped, hunkered in
their homes listening to Israeli shells, while facing the awful
prospect, within days or weeks, of having to give toxic water to
their children that may consign them to quick but agonizing deaths.
One woman near the Rafah border, taking care of her nephews, spoke
to BBC: "If I am frightened in front of them I think they will
die of fear." If the international community does nothing,
her children may soon die anyway.
The astonishing scale of this humanitarian situation is indeed
matched only by the deafening drizzle of international reaction.
"Of course it is understandable that [the Israelis] would want
to go after those who kidnapped their soldier," says Kofi Anan
(while the Palestinian population cowers in the dark listening to
thundering explosions demolish their society), "but it has
to be done in such a way that civilian populations are not made
to suffer." Even as Israel bombs smash Gaza's roadways, the
G-8 stands up on its hind-legs to intone, "We call on Israel
to exercise utmost restraint in the current crisis." How about
the Russians, now angling for position in the new "Great Game"
of the Middle East? "The right and duty of the government of
Israel to defend the lives and security of its citizens are beyond
doubt," says Russia's foreign ministry, as though poor Corporal
Shalit warrants any of this mayhem, "But this should not be
done at the cost of many lives and the lives of many Palestinian
civilians, by massive military strikes with heavy consequences for
the civilian population."
And what says noble Europe, proud font of human rights conventions,
architects of the misión civilizatrice? "The EU remains
deeply concerned," mumbles the mighty defenders of humanitarian
law, "about the worsening security and humanitarian developments."
Seemingly soggy phrases like "deeply concerned" are diplomatic
code for "We are seriously unhappy." But under these circumstances,
"remains deeply concerned" suggests that this staggering
crime is just one more sobering moment in the failed "road
Diplomatic bubbles of unreality in the Middle East are the norm
rather than the exception, but at some point the international community
must face the very unwelcome fact that it needs to change gear.
A country that claims kinship among the western democracies of Europe
is behaving like a murderous rogue regime, using any excuse to reduce
over a million people to utter human misery and even mass death.
Plastering Corporal Shalit's face over this policy is no more convincing
that South African newspapers emblazoning the picture of one poor
murdered white doctor over their coverage of the 1976 Soweto uprising.
Israel has done many things argued to be war crimes: mass house
demolitions, closing whole cities for weeks, indefinite "preventative"
detentions, massive land confiscation, the razing of thousands of
square miles of Palestinian olive groves and agriculture, systematic
physical and mental torture of prisoners, extrajudicial killings,
aerial bombardment of civilian areas, collective punishment of every
description in defiance of the Geneva Conventions--not to mention
the general humiliation and ruin of the indigenous people under
its military control. But destroying the only power source for a
trapped and defenseless civilian population is an unprecedented
step toward barbarity. It reeks, ironically, of the Warsaw Ghetto.
As we flutter our hands about tectonic political change, we must
take pause: in the eyes of history, what is happening in Gaza may
come to eclipse them all.
Dr. Virginia Tilley is a professor of political science, currently
working in South Africa.
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