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Israel's War Crimes In The Gaza Strip

By Ida Audeh

21 January, 2008

Gaza is plunged in darkness, its power plant shut down because Israel denies it fuel.

Israel is systematically destroying the Gaza Strip and the lives of the 1.5 million Palestinians who live there, but never is Israel's collective ravaging of a civilian population denounced for what it is: a war crime.(1)

International Middle East Media Center ( reports the startling body counts for a 4-day period. On Tuesday, January 15, the Israeli army killed 17 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in less than 4 hours and wounded 45, at least 12 of them critically. A handful of the casualties were fighters who were resisting an Israeli onslaught; the rest were civilians. The next day, three members of the Yazji family-a man, his brother, and his 5-year-old son--were killed by an Israeli missile fired at their car. On Thursday, a woman and two of her sons were killed in Bayt Lahiya, in another incident, a husband and wife were killed in their car. By Friday, the death toll for the 4-day period had risen to 37, a high casualty rate even by the permissive standards Israel allows its army in the Gaza Strip. At this rate, Israel will easily surpass in 6 weeks the entire 2007 toll (200 Palestinians killed). The Web site does not mention the number of children orphaned during this killing spree.

The 45 km long, 5-12 km wide Gaza Strip is probably the largest open-air prison in the world today. Here's how Israeli journalist Amira Hass described it: On three sides, it is enclosed by a barbed wire fences, concrete walls, and military lookout towers; Israeli navy ships seal off the coast. Israel has imposed a near-total blockade since 2006. Seven gates connect the Gaza Strip to the world beyond it, but the gates are sealed. In the sky, unmanned aircraft and hot-air balloons photograph everything that happens in the cage below.(2)

Israel's total control of entry points, coastline, and airspace and its refusal to permit normal movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip make a mockery of its "disengagement" from Gaza. It is now more firmly in control of Gaza than it was when Israeli settlers still lived there, and residents are convinced that the removal of the settlers in fact gave the military a freer hand to wreak havoc. Today, Israel imposes what Karen Koning AbuZayd, commissioner-general of UNWRA, describes as a "feudal siege."

The Palestinian economy, steadily undermined since Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967, is in tatters. Since September 2000, Israel has leveled about 9,112 acres of land, including approximately 13% of Gaza's agricultural land. Israel prevents Gazan products from reaching markets, and it prohibits the entry of raw materials or means of production, resulting in the closure of 95% of factories, according to a November 2007 report from the Palestinian Federation of Industries.(3) Because the borders with Israel are sealed, laborers are unable to secure work in Israel. A 2008 UNRWA report puts Gaza's unemployment rate at just above 37%; the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics puts it at nearly 40%.(4)

When Israel decided in September 2007 to label Gaza a "hostile entity," it greatly reduced the amount of electricity and fuel it allows to reach Gaza, thereby plunging residents into darkness and cold for hours each day, and now they are dealing with these shortages during an unusually cold winter. The lack of electricity means that water pumps won't work, so households will have limited access to water; refrigeration is sporadic. Many food items are unaffordable to residents; high percentages of the population rely on rations from relief organizations.

The impact of the siege on health care is disastrous. The World Health Organization has reported that chronic malnutrition and dietary-related diseases are slowly increasing: low birth weights, anemia in 68% of children age 1 year and younger, and stunted growth in 13.2% of children under age 5. Other health problems include preventable diseases caused by unclean water and inadequate sewage processing, and lack of chemotherapy for cancer patients and medicines used to control chronic cardiac and other conditions. Permission to leave the area for medical treatment is typically denied.

The U.N. World Food Program initiative called Emergency Food Needs Assessment reported that 1.1 million Gaza residents depend on outside food assistance. As much as 70% of Gaza residents are food insecure, which means they can't be sure of getting access to adequate supplies of nutritious and safe food.(5)

Think of what Israel's siege means for the group most profoundly affected: the 61% of the population under age 19. Their world consists of 365 square kilometers. They can tell the difference between fighter plane types simply by sound, and chances are they have experienced hunger; for some, the cognitive damage caused by malnourishment during their formative years is irreparable. They may or may not know that the sleep deprivation they experience night after night when Israeli planes breaking the sound barrier is itself a form of torture. Many suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder; Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad El Sarraj reported in 2004 that he sees "severely disturbed children every day, incontinent 12-year-olds, children who cannot stop shaking... terrible cases."(6) They cannot fail to have noticed that their parents are often afraid and that they are powerless to protect them.

Between September 2000 and November 2007, about 1,804 Palestinian civilians in Gaza were killed by the Israeli army and 11,300 were wounded; 2,931 homes were completely destroyed, and 2,848 homes were partially destroyed. Because 71% of the population is refugees, the probability is high that those made homeless by Israel's periodic rampages were losing their homes for the second or third time. Gazan households typically consist of 6-7 people, and so the number of people affected by a single death, an injury, or a house demolition is huge.(7)

Israel claims that its criminal siege is necessitated by the crude home-made missiles fired by Palestinian militants on the Israeli town Sderot, which have killed 12 Israelis in 6 years. The provocation to Sderot (in itself a response to Israel's ongoing assassination policy and sustained assault on the Gaza Strip) does not justify Israel's policy of entrapment and enforced pauperization of an entire population. (If the killing of 12 Israelis over several years justifies the havoc wreaked on more than a million people, what would be an appropriate retribution for Gazans to seek from Israelis?)

Israel knows that its repressive tactics will not halt the missiles lobbed at Sderot, and anyway that is not really its primary objective. Israel's siege is a barbaric way of making 1.5 million Palestinians pay for the existence and popularity of Hamas. (US President George W Bush apparently agrees with the Israeli argument that power confers privileges that supercede international law and human rights, including the right to kill; during a January 10, 2008 press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he in effect gave Israel a green light to do as it pleases in Gaza by foolishly stating: "Hamas, which I felt ran on a campaign of, we're going to improve your lives through better education and better health, have delivered nothing but misery."(8)

Collective punishment of a civilian population is a war crime. Unfortunately, war crimes have become so commonplace in the Gaza Strip that the international community doesn't bother to raise even formal objections.

A population is being suffocated as the world pretends not to notice.

1. Alain Gresh, "War crimes," Le Monde Diplomatic, June 2006; accessed 20 January 2008 at

2. Amira Hass, "The Forty-first kilometer," Ha'aretz,
15 October 2007.

3. Cited at
Because the borders with Israel are sealed, laborers are unable to secure work in Israel. Unemployment exceeds 37%

4. The Middle East Times article cites the 40% unemployment rate. See also UNRWA Emergency Appeal 2008, which gives the 37% figure; accessed at

5. For the health impact of the siege, see Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Special Report on Palestinian Demography, Ramallah, 14 May 2007; and also this January 4, 2008 Middle East Times article, accessed at

6. Johann Hari, "How will Gaza survive Sharon's plans without a leader to hold it together?" October 31, 2004; accessed at

7. For these and other relevant statistics about the Gaza Strip, see the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights Web site at

8. The text of the press conference is available at
press conference, Jan 10 2008

Ida Audeh is a Palestinian who grew up in the West Bank and now works as an editor in Boulder, CO. She can be reached at

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