A brilliant and sensational article in Thursday’s Haaretz reveals all — from the Israeli side, at least — about how the Israeli blockade against Gaza operates, and although there is still a lot more to be revealed. The title of the article is: The Gaza Bonanza.
This Haaretz article, co-bylined by Yotam Feldman and Uri Blau, is not perfect, but we are all after all only human, and each of us does what he/she can. It was published on Thursday, and can be read in full here.
This article has appeared just now, as part of the media build-up to the second anniversary of the Hamas rout of Fatah security forces in Gaza in June 2007 — a “military coup”, fumed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), before making his own political coup by dismissing the “National Unity Government” that had been installed just a couple of months earlier, after Saudi intervention to mediate between the Palestinian “factions” in Mecca.
This “military coup” changed everything — and it is still playing out. Among other things, it made it possible for Israel and the Quartet and the major international donor community to divide the Palestinians into the “Good Guys” in Ramallah, against whom all sanctions were suddenly removed and with whom everybody began to do big business, and the “Bad Guys” in Gaza, where Hamas retained some kind of control. Then, the screws were turned, and Israeli sanctions that had been in place against Gaza before were gradually intensified — to the point that Gazans literally survive because of smuggling.
[And, by the way, it is interesting to note that Hamas argued that they carried out their “military coup” in effect as a measure of self-defense. They believed they were preventing an equally if not more bloody attack on them by the Fatah Preventive Security Forces. This view is not so far-fetched — it was sustained by an important article (The Gaza Bombshell, by David Rose) published here in April 2008 issue of the American magazine Vanity Fair, which we have previously written about here and elsewhere.]
“It is obvious that two years into the blockade, the restrictions on civilian goods entering Gaza are only hurting 1.5 million civilians, but providing no solution to regional problems”, the Executive Director of the Israeli human rights organization GISHA, Sari Bashi, commented in a phone interview on Friday. “Almost nothing is allowed into Gaza … and there is no security rationale for that … This is not serving Israel’s security interests. Two years since the closure, none of the declared security or political goals have been achieved”.
GISHA’s Bashi led a grouping that varied between nine and ten Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations that valiantly struggled in the Israeli Supreme Court — but failed — to stop the military-administered sanctions against Gaza on the grounds that it was an illegal act of collective punishment.
Bashi added that “the absolute ban on reconstruction materials entering Gaza has made a cruel joke out of the $4.5 billion dollars in reconstruction aid that was pledged by the international community [n.b., after the years of sanctions and then the devastation wreaked by the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead], and 1.5 million people are being prevented from living any kind of normal life”.
The UNRWA spokesman, Christopher Gunness, said to me Friday that “it’s an interesting article, but it’s a great shame that it ignores the legal and humanitarian context of the blockade — which is a violation of international humanitarian law”.
Until the Haaretz article was published last night, it seemed that the smuggling into Gaza was conducted only through the tunnels that are dug, at great risk to human life, under the border between Gaza and Egypt. Israel regularly bombards these tunnels — which are not at all hidden, see our earlier report here . Since the Israeli bombardments are selective “precision” attacks, it can now be reasonably assumed that they know exactly whose tunnels they are attacking (which family or group of investors is behind any particular tunnel), and exactly what goods they are preventing from entering the Gaza strip, at least temporarily. Over 100 desperate young Palestinian desperados have already lost their lives while trying to earn a living, and to supply their families and their communities via these tunnels.
What makes it worse is the absolute cynicism exhibited by all parties — all of them — to this utterly immoral policy which was unfortunately condoned by the Israeli Supreme Court on 27 January 2008. The only condition that the Supreme Court put on this blockade of Gaza is that it should not lead to a “humanitarian crisis”.
The blockade is based on an Israeli cabinet decision taken on 19 September 2007 that Gaza, under Hamas (whether the civilians in Gaza liked it or not), was an “enemy entity” or “hostile territory”. The Israeli Ministry of Defense unilaterally began, at the end of October 2007, to put this cabinet decision into effect and to administer the tightening sanctions against a population of 1.5 million souls — without any effective government oversight — and, as we now have confirmed by this article, the blockade has been managed to maximize Israeli commercial and other economic interests.
And, while shady entrepreneurs are getting rich off it, the situation in Gaza has clearly become a humanitarian crisis — and has been for many months, although the Israeli Ministry of Defense and some others in the Israeli government still deny it, with a straight face.
Just after the Israeli Supreme Court hearing on 27 January 2008, Kenneth Mann, GISHA’s founder and its legal adviser, said that he thought that the Israeli government’s definition of “humanitarian crisis” would involve human deaths. Now, there have been deaths — among the chronically ill, who were not permitted to leave the Gaza Strip for medical care that is not available (or no longer available) there, due to the closure. There have been deaths among those who are trying to bring the necessities of daily life in through the tunnels. And, of course, there were many deaths during Operation Cast Lead — including an unusual spike in maternal and neo-natal deaths due to lack of care, as the UN has reported.
It is not as if nobody knew. Many experts have stated that this policy of collective punishment against an entire civilian population under a belligerent military occupation is illegal under international law.
The day after his speech in Cairo, U.S. President Barack Obama said in Germany that there was a “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, as we reported here. And this was earlier affirmed by the most recent UN Security Council resolution (1860), adopted in January.
This article makes perfectly clear that the smuggling which sustains life and prevents a complete humanitarian catastrophe is going on not only across the Egyptian-Gazan border, but also across the Israeli operated, and IDF-controlled, crossings, as well, where it offers enormous illegal profits on a scale of magnitude much greater and with virtually no risk at all, by comparison to what is going on in Rafah.
Asked about the smuggling and corruption revealed in this Haaretz article, GISHA’s Sari Bashi (a lawyer) took a deep breath, then replied: “We don’t have any specific information about corruption”, she said. Then she added that “The regulations regarding the entrance of goods to Gaza are arbitrary, unpredictable, and mostly unwritten. That creates a climate not just for deprivation, but also for foreign interests to enter the equation”.
[EDITING NOTE: The alternative word originally posted in the sentence above, (depravation?) , was inserted due to the author’s doubt about exactly which word she had heard in the phone interview, and it has now been removed after clarification that the correct word that was spoken was, indeed, deprivation.]
The Haaretz article reports that: “Three months ago, an acquaintance walked into the shop run by H., an electronics merchant from Gaza City, and started talking about the situation in Gaza and the difficulty of bringing in goods. Then the acquaintance ‘casually mentioned’ a friend of his who could help in obtaining merchandise. ‘After he started dropping hints, he told me that for NIS 60,000-70,000 he might be able to bring in my merchandise’, says H. He says he didn’t go for the offer because of the high price. Other merchants say they’ve received offers to get their goods into Gaza for the exorbitant price of anywhere from NIS 40,000-100,000 per truck (the regular cost is about NIS 3,000). At least one admits that because of the ongoing blockade he did accept one such offer from an Israeli shipper. One Israeli shipper explains how merchandise can be smuggled into Gaza. He says shippers often use permits obtained from aid organizations to bring in products Israel does not allow merchants to receive, such as clothing and shoes. ‘We have no information whatsoever about this’, says a spokesperson for the UN World Food Program. ‘This question does not apply to us since we use only our own trucks and drivers’, says the International Red Cross. ‘All of our aid for Gaza is coordinated with the Israeli authorities’, says a UNRWA spokesperson. ‘We have not encountered the kind of irregularities described. And if we did, we would report them’. How is it possible to do that? ‘Let’s say a merchant receives a turn to bring in sugar. He relays the name of the driver and the truck number to the Israeli side. The shipper who received the turn contacts another merchant, who didn’t receive a turn and is ready to pay a lot of money to bring in his merchandise, which is stuck in Israel. The shipper arranges with the Palestinian shipper and transfers the sugar to the merchant who paid him. He makes up some story to tell the merchant who was supposed to receive the merchandise – that the truck got stuck or that it wasn’t allowed through for some reason.”
UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness told me on Friday that this information is wrong. “I am not aware of shippers obtaining permits from us”, he said. “There is no system by which UNRWA issues permits to Israeli truckers”. He explained that when goods destined for UNRWA arrive, either by sea in Israel’s Ashdod port, or overland from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge crossing administered by Israel (from where they may be taken for temporary storage to UNRWA’s West Bank field office in East Jerusalem), “the items are stuck on a truck, and when the trucks get to Gaza the Israeli authorities take everything all off, and pile it up at the crossings. The lists are checked off at every stage. Then, Palestinians come to the Gaza side of the crossings to pick up the goods for distribution in Gaza”.
There may have been some confusion in the Haaretz article between the international organizations, and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who may have a permit system, or a system of taking “turns”, but this is not totally clear. This needs further research.
Meanwhile, the article reveals, “COGAT [Coordinator of (Israeli) Government Activities in the Territories, an office in the Israeli Ministry of Defense] officers are in regular contact with international organizations, listen to their complaints and examine their requests to bring in various goods, in both official and unofficial meetings. For example, Amos Gilad has dinner from time to time with an official from the UNRWA delegation in Israel. [n.b., This too is wrong. UNRWA has its West Bank headquarters in East Jerusalem. But it has no delegation to Israel.] The Israeli officers repeat the following phrase in their meetings with organization officials: ‘No prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis’“.
So, while Brigadier-General Amos Gilad is having a working dinner with an UNRWA official, the population of Gaza continues to eat … well, garbage in many cases, because some families have had to consume feed that was intended for animals, while it has been publicly known for at least two years, following earlier reports in the Israeli media, that a great deal if not all of the fruits and vegetables that Israel has been sending into Gaza for years are blemished, under-sized, or in other ways unsuitable for sale in Israeli supermarkets. Some families have gone for extended periods of time without being able to cook at all, due to a shortage of cooking gas in Gaza resulting from the Israeli miliary-imposed sanctions.
UPDATE: I have been advised that Brigadier-General Amos Gilad pays the bill for these dinners, and his guest is the UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd.
The article continues: “A senior COGAT officer explains to Haaretz that it’s not a siege policy, but rather the restriction of entry of luxury products. The decision as to which products qualify as ‘luxury’ changes from week to week, and sometimes from day to day. Some of these changes are the result of international pressure exerted upon Israel. For example, when he visited Gaza last February, U.S. Senator John Kerry was stunned to discover that Israel was not allowing Palestinians to bring in trucks loaded with pasta. Following American pressure, on March 20 the cabinet decided to permit the unrestricted transfer of food products into Gaza. Incredibly, the COGAT personnel do not see any contradiction between this decision and the serious restrictions that are nevertheless imposed on the entry of various food items“.
This Haaretz story reports that “COGAT’s ‘Red Lines’ document, which defines the minimum necessary for the sustenance of Gaza residents, also finds that 300 calves a week are needed to feed Gazans – That’s at least 200 fewer than the number brought in when the crossing was open for trade. Nevertheless, in the six months since Cast Lead, Israel has not permitted the entry of any live calves into Gaza, allowing only frozen meat and fish. In the period prior to the war, when Gaza residents were able to obtain permits to import calves, this was limited to calves from Israel, not from other countries as in the past … One way the Palestinians make up for the shortage of beef is by bringing in a large number of sheep via the Rafah tunnels. Unlike other animals, lambs will walk on their own to the other end of the tunnel, so they are easier to smuggle. Veterinary services in Israel estimate that since the start of the blockade, the Palestinians have smuggled in about 40,000 lambs through the tunnels, without any veterinary oversight. The Agriculture Ministry is concerned that these animals could spread epidemics that would eventually reach Israel … Uri Madar, of the agriculture department of the DCO, voiced his concern that the prohibition on importing beef to Gaza was adversely affecting the residents’ nutrition. Colonel Alex Rosenzweig, head of the civilian division of COGAT, argued the opposite, saying there was no shortage of meat in Gaza and the ban on importation of cattle was not endangering the Palestinians’ nutrition … A Justice Ministry spokesperson, responding on behalf of the High Court Petition department, confirms this, adding, ‘Not only that, the state’s position was never that the weekly quota of 300 calves, which applied for a certain period of time, was defined as a minimal humanitarian need. The position of the COGAT officials charged with assessing the humanitarian situation in Gaza was presented to the court, stipulating that the entire ‘food basket’ that is brought into Gaza, which includes frozen meat products, meets the humanitarian needs there. This position was supported by data presented to the State Prosecutor. These officials also stated that they were informed that this was the case by Palestinian officials with whom they are in contact’.”
The Haaretz article notes that “The policy is not fixed, but continually subject to change, explains a COGAT official … Sources involved in COGAT’s work say that those at the highest levels, including acting coordinator Amos Gilad, monitor the food brought into Gaza on a daily basis and personally approve the entry of any kind of fruit, vegetable or processed food product requested by the Palestinians. At one of the unit’s meetings, Colonel Oded Iterman, a COGAT officer, explained the policy as follows: ‘We don’t want Gilad Shalit’s captors to be munching Bamba [a popular Israeli snack food] right over his head‘.”
This, of course, will probably not do Gilad Shalit any good. Shalit, a then-19-year-old IDF Corporal, was seized by Palestinians in what reportedly was a cross-border raid at what should have been a heavily-fortified Kerem Shalom Crossing (at the tri-point where the borders of Israel, Egypt, and the south-eastern Gaza Strip meet). In retaliation for his capture, Israel — among other things — bombed the only Gaza Power Plant, knocking out electricity supplies for the six summer months to at least half a million Gazan residents. Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said at the time that knocking out the Gaza Power Plant would make it difficult for Gilad Shalit’s captors to move him around in the dark…
The Israeli government’s security cabinet met on Wednesday and confirmed the post-Operation Cast Lead decision of the previous government (led by Ehud Olmert) not to lift the sanctions against Gaza until Gilad Shalit is free — notwithstanding big pressure from the United States and other major donor countries. The UN Security Council resolution (1860) adopted on 8 January, during the unprecedented Israeli military operation in Gaza (27 December – 18 January), calls for “unimpeded provision” and “sustained delivery” of humanitarian aid, as well as for the “sustained reopening of the crossing points”. It also calls on UN member states to support “international efforts to alleviate the humanitarian and economic situation in Gaza”.
[Thursday evening, I was driving around in a massive traffic jam in West Jerusalem, and passed by the protest tent still in place outside the Prime Minister’s office, where a lone volunteer, a young woman was speaking to a couple of inquiring passers-by, in the dark, under a sign that indicated it was Shalit’s 1082nd day in captivity. Today, former President Jimmy Carter is meeting Shalit’s parents at the American Colony Hotel here in Jerusalem. The media have been notified, and there will be a photo-op at the beginning of the meeting. Last year, though vilified as usual in some of the Israeli press, Carter did manage to pass a letter from Shalit’s family to Hamas in Gaza, and did pass on some kind of reply, apparently from Shalit, in return.]
Once the Gaza Power Plant was repaired, months later, the European Union began to pay for the special industrial diesel fuel needed to operate it, to the tune of some $10 million dollars a month — before the Israeli-military-administered sanctions kicked in, reducing the fuel supplies to such an extent that the plant has had to completely power-down and cease generating, not just once, but several times. The industrial diesel fuel for the Gaza Power Plant, as well as the regular diesel fuel for cars and trucks, and for generators that are needed whenever there is an electricity black-out (this happens on a daily basis), and even cooking gas, have all been previously pumped in through a complex underground installation of pipes at the Nahal Oz crossing.
Asked, last year, if the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah was dissatisfied with the behavior of Dor Alon, the private Israeli commercial entity that was contracted by the Palestinians to supply all this fuel to Gaza — and which cut off supplies whenever the Israeli military told them to — the official then in charge of this business at the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Finance told me in a personal interview in his office that Dor Alon had paid an enormous sum of money to install the pipeline transfer complex at the Israeli side of Nahal Oz, and underground in Gaza, while the Palestinian Authority had paid for the receiving installation on the Gaza side: “And it would be too expensive to buy out Dor Alon, in order to transfer the contract to another company”, this Palestinian official explained.
Now, it is presumably not sheer coincidence that at 23h00 last night, this IDF spokespersons announcement was sent out by email: Today, June 11th, 2009, an Israeli construction team has finished its work on a new pipeline for the transfer of fuel and natural gas from Israel to the Gaza Strip. The decision to build the pipeline was made in accordance with decisions made by the Israeli Government, following security assessments and as a result of the coordination between the Civil Administration and the Palestinian side. The construction was performed by both Israeli and Palestinian construction crews. The IDF will continue to work in order to improve the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. The full implications are unclear.
When, over a year ago, I called the IDF to coordinate to visit the Nahal Oz installation from the Israeli side, over a year ago, I was told at the time that (1) the IDF did not control the crossing, but a private company did [I asked, but was told the IDF could not tell me, which private company that was], and I was also told (2) that I could not go down unless I were accompanied by a bodyguard who would carry a “personal weapon”. I asked the IDF Desk Officer who I should instruct such a body guard to shoot at, but was given no guidance on this point. Then, I asked my colleagues, at the 2008 annual meeting of the Foreign Press Association, about their experiences and what they would do in response to this requirement. This question was greeted with disbelief. Then, a second reaction was off-point: “Who coordinates with the IDF? They are not helpful, and often never answer anyway”.
One of the reasons this Haaretz article is so compelling is that its authors have done a great job of getting the Army to talk, as one observer noted this morning. The Israeli Army, and many parts of the Government, regard the “foreign” press with contempt and hostility — unless, of course, it might be the NYTimes, or any media that the military might think is totally 1000 percent favorable to their view of themselves and the world. Otherwise, if they bother to answer queries at all, it is with rote responses. These Haaretz journalists were given access precisely because they are Israeli, and they’ve done a great job with it.
[Here I should like to note that Colonel Nir Press, the former head of COGAT at the time the tightened Gaza sanctions were put into place and tightened even more from late 2007 on, refused to answer specifically and only my questions, at a briefing (I think it was held in the Nahal Oz kibbutz community hall) arranged by Media Central during a tour of some of the Gaza perimeter crossings last year…]
Now, this Haaretz article also reports that “The ‘Red Lines’ document explains: ‘In order to make basic living in Gaza possible, the deputy defense minister approved the entry into the Gaza Strip of 106 trucks with humanitarian products, 77 of which are basic food products. The entry of wheat and animal feed was also permitted via the aggregates conveyor belt outside the Karni terminal. After four pages filled with detailed charts of the number of grams and calories of every type of food to be permitted for consumption [by] Gaza residents (broken down by gender and age), comes this recommendation: ‘It is necessary to deal with the international community and the Palestinian Health Ministry to provide nutritional supplements (only some of the flour in Gaza is enriched) and to provide education about proper nutrition’. Printed in large letters at the end of the document is this admonition: ‘The stability of the humanitarian effort is critical for the prevention of the development of malnutrition’. These quantities allow a very slim margin for error or mishaps … ‘This analysis does not take distribution in the field into consideration’,” says the ‘Red Lines’ document. A COGAT official says that he assumes that food distribution within Gaza is not equal. If some are receiving more, others are necessarily receiving less than the required minimum. So it is hard to reconcile this information with the claims of the defense minister and COGAT officers that there is no real food shortage in Gaza“.
It is not easy, without a large and devoted-to-detail staff, to keep up with COGAT’s announcements of what gets into Gaza, via what crossing, and when. Since the end of Operation Cast Lead, I have looked at the figures, and noted that on some days the deliveries into Gaza were reaching nearly the 150 truckloads a day minimum that humanitarian NGOs said must get into the Gaza Strip daily. This is of course nowhere near the 400-600 truckloads a day that were getting in before the sanctions against Gaza were tightened by the Israeli military. But it is more than were getting in from late 2007 until Operation Cast Lead was over. But, over the last week or so, the figures have dropped again to the 44-75 truckloads per day range.
The Haaretz article also reports that an unnamed “senior officer who was serving in COGAT when the blockade was imposed” said: “If you go back two years, you see that it was utter foolishness … There was a vague, unclear policy, influenced by the interests of certain groups, by this or that lobby, without any policy that derived from the needs of the population. [n.b., as I have written before, it is also important to add that this policy was also administered by the military without any other effective governmental oversight] For example, the fruit growers have a powerful lobby, and this lobby saw to it that on certain days, from 20-25 trucks full of fruit were brought into Gaza. It’s not that it arrived there and was thrown out, but if you were to ask a Gazan who lives there, it’s not exactly what he needs. What happened was that the Israeli interest took precedence over the needs of the populace.”
And the Israeli interest appears to involve the complete subjugation of the Gazan economy. The figures are numbing: somer 90% of the population is now said to be dependent on humanitarian aid, and almost all of Gaza’s own factories and small enterprises have now been destroyed or run out of business.
GISHA’s Bashi noted that “Israel is also not allowing new materials needed for production into Gaza, but rather — on a limited basis — is only allowing Gaza’s residents to buy goods from Israel. One example: we’re in touch with an importer from Gaza who purchased several dunams of tomato fields (in Gaza) with the aim of making tomato paste. But the tin cans he needs to package the tomato paste are not locally available, so he purchased them from Israel. And, he cannot now get these tin cans delivered into Gaza (they are not on the list of items permitted), so, the tomato he invested in are rotting. This means that Gazan residents can purchase Israeli-made tomato paste, but they are prevented from packaging their own. People in Gaza have a right not just to consume but also to produce — and to earn a livelihood”, Bashi said.
“My hope is that responsible decision-makers will put an end to this drastic and foolish policy”, she added.
This Haaretz article is, I have been advised, published in much fuller length in English than in Hebrew, and on the web rather than in the printed newspaper, and can be read in full here.