The real path to peace in the Middle East, requiring the establishment of a fully sovereign Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, is dependent on Israel's recognition of its responsibility to ensure economic justice in the Palestinian territories.
Since the Israeli onslaught against Palestinians began on December 27th, a true interpretation of the battle inside the Gaza Strip is deeply complicated by the surrounding barrage of vehement words and conflicting analyses.
Certain facts are incontestable; the present siege is the deadliest since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, with the number of Palestinian casualties increasing in their hundreds and already topping several thousand injuries. Gaza faces a "full-blown humanitarian crisis", according to the Red Cross, while at least 20,000 Palestinians have been forced to flee their homes. Overstretched hospitals report that wounded civilians are dying while they wait for treatment, a million people are without electricity, 250,000 are without running water, sewage is now flowing into populated areas following the closure of wastewater pumping stations, and around half of all Gazans are dependent on food hand-outs that are increasingly threatened by the withdrawal of aid agencies.
Beyond this enormous suffering being perpetrated against innocent Palestinians, a clear understanding of the Israeli siege in its accurate context as a ‘crime against humanity' is obfuscated by a widely biased and pro-Israeli media, especially in the United States, alongside a complicity with Israel's opposition to Hamas by the Quartet on the Middle East (the US, EU, Russia and the United Nations). For this reason, the responsibility for condemning the shameful hallmarks of both colonialism and apartheid in Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories rests with civil society, and demands a constant repetition of the basic facts which lie behind the screen of false propaganda and distorted mainstream reportage.
The immediate origins of the current siege stems not only from the 5th November when the six-month ceasefire was reportedly violated by Hamas, but from 2005 when Israel falsely declared an end to its military occupation and dismantled its settlements. Since then, Israel repeatedly asserted its military control of Gaza by engaging in violent incursions, killing more than 300 Gazan civilians through various assassination missions and missile attacks. The question of who broke the ceasefire is now clear: it was not Hamas, as hotly stated by most media outlets, but the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) through a raid in Gaza on the 4th November that killed six Hamas men. The continuing blockade of Gaza after the truce came into force was also, from the perspective of Hamas, a clear violation of the withdrawal agreement from the outset.
The position of Hamas leaders continues to be misrepresented in order to justify Israel's continuing siege. Ever since they succeeded in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, Hamas has been castigated as a terrorist organization that refuses to recognise Israel as a legitimate political entity. In fact, Hamas has repeatedly stated since its election success that it is willing to recognise Israel if it withdraws from the territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War, even proposing in April 2008 a ten-year truce as an implicit proof of its recognition. It is rather Israel, through its refusal to recognise the existence of Hamas, that has failed to respect the democratic elections in Palestine and worked to systemically reject a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
For Hamas to respond with rocket attacks that cause civilian casualties in Israel is obviously illegal and morally reprehensible, but the comparative facts speak for themselves; home-made Qassam rockets fired indiscriminately at Israeli cities have resulted in 20 Israeli deaths over the past eight years, compared to the US-supplied F-16s, Apache helicopters and high-tech ground assaults that have killed nearly 5,000 Palestinians. In the current war, 700 Palestinian have been killed so far, virtually all of them civilians, compared to 10 Israeli deaths (including four Israeli soldiers mistakenly targeted by their own troops) - a ratio of more than 100 to one.
A statement on the conflict by Richard Falk, the newly-appointed UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, was unequivocal in its assessment of "massive violations of international humanitarian law as defined in the Geneva Conventions". Released on December 27th shortly after the first Israeli airstrikes, the statement outlined the violations as a "disproportionate military response" that was clearly "aimed at civilian areas", what amounted to a "collective punishment" of the entire 1.5 million Gaza residents for the actions of a few militants. In Falk's first report to the UN made in late August, a similarly damning assessment was made of the human rights situation in the Palestinian territories. Denouncing outright Israel's official position that its occupation of the Gaza Strip ended in September 2005, he goes on to document the "dangerous and non-sustainable levels of mental and physical suffering and trauma for the Palestinian people living under occupation". The end to occupation, he stated, is the only path to full restoration of the human rights of the Palestinian people.
That Israel refused entry to Falk in mid-December when he attempted to fulfil his UN mandate of investigating the human rights conditions affecting the Palestinian population, instead locking him up overnight in a Gaza prison, speaks volumes about Israel's attempts to hide the human consequences of the occupation and the escalating settlements in the West Bank. Foreign journalists remain barred from entering Gaza during the ongoing siege, and the beating and intimidation of the few Palestinian reporters who manage to leave the territories and report to the outside world are long documented, as in the case of Mohammed Omer who was presented by John Pilger with the Martha Gellhorn Prize last summer - an award given to journalists who expose establishment propaganda.
A perspective based on human rights and international law is the only lens that can help determine the basis of justice in the Israel/Palestine conflict. The Gaza Strip, where more than half of residents live in miserable refugee camps, is considered one of the most overcrowded and destitute places on earth. For almost two years, the Israeli government has prevented imports of critical medicines, food, water, fuel, electricity and essential equipment with varying intensity, deemed an illegal blockade by the UN.
The term "humanitarian crisis" is no longer strong enough to describe the conditions of daily life in Gaza. In a report released by Amnesty International in March 2008, already 80 percent of families in Gaza were relying on humanitarian aid, up from 63 percent in 2006. Unemployment was close to 40 percent, the highest rate in the world, soon expected to reach 50 percent. Between 2005 and 2008, following Israel's supposed withdrawal from the Palestinian territories, the number of factories in Gaza reduced from 3,900 to just 195. Israel's economic blockade, said the report, has "effectively dismantled the economy and impoverished the population of Gaza", while a separate UN report deemed the basic health system as "faced with complete collapse".
By the beginning of December, even the World Bank and IMF sounded the alarm over a potential banking collapse in the impoverished Palestinian territory, making no secret of the fact that Israeli restrictions were largely to blame. The breakdown of an entire society was already set in motion before tanks rolled in to Gaza on January 3rd 2009, yet the government of Israel, in claiming to be no longer the occupying power since 2005, denies any responsibility for Gaza's economic and social situation. An understanding of the Palestinian cause for an independent homeland needs to be judged in such a light: as equally a struggle for socio-economic justice that relates the abject poverty of most Gazans to the more than three billion people throughout the world who also survive on less than $2.50 a day. Israel's refusal to perceive the poverty and suffering of their largely innocent neighbours as their own responsibility is not dissimilar to all the wealthy nations who shirk responsibility for the existence of a billion hungry people worldwide.
The deeper motives for Israel's oppression of the Palestinians are endlessly speculated, from party politics preceding the Israeli elections in February to a desire for peace only on Israel's terms, meaning a divided Palestine and Israeli control of the largest settlements with responsibility for Gaza handed over to Egypt. The path of diplomacy and compromise, in this view, is no option for hardline Israeli politicians in a competition for power like Tsipi Livni and Benyamin Netanyahu. Such a path can only lead to the creation of an Israeli-dominated mini-state, involving the continuance of an ‘apartheid wall' to imprison Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza which is guarded by Israeli army checkpoints, and which will do nothing to address the general conditions of poverty and repression that dominate Palestinian life.
The real path to peace, which is widely recognised to require the establishment of a fully sovereign Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as capital, is dependent on a development strategy that can overhaul the economies of all Palestinian territories. There can be no peace between Israel and Palestine - and no security for Israeli civilians - until the needless poverty, inhumanity and economic injustice is addressed in the region, requiring recognition of the inextricable interdependence of both sides. Israel has worked against the economic empowerment of the Palestinian people for more than 40 years, instead encouraging the plight of the Gazans to be seen as solely a humanitarian problem in need of international charity. The Palestinian struggle for statehood and independence is now coupled with its struggle for sustainable economic development and the securing of universally-agreed basic human rights. In the face of propaganda, prejudice and distorted narratives this simple truth must be constantly restated: that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that peace in the Middle East is dependent upon an equitable sharing of capital, cultures, land and resources.
As the siege of Gaza intensifies in horror, such an outcome may seem more remote than ever before. US complicity in Israel's war crimes, without even considering the $19 billion of direct military aid provided during the Bush administration, was underlined when only the White House abstained from the latest UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. Barack Obama's long silence was widely viewed as a tacit show of loyalty to Israel, while the UK and other European governments have lent their weight to Israel's efforts to crush Hamas as a Palestinian political force ever since its inception in 2006. The burden of responsibility for opposing Israel's atrocities in the Gaza Strip therefore rests with the emergency mobilisations, global public outrage and the enormous groundswell of popular solidarity with Gaza. Although peaceful protests by civil society may seem ineffectual next to the shameless inaction of the international community, it is the surest step towards laying the groundwork for a genuinely democratic and peaceful solution to the Gaza crisis.