New Year in the West Bank. Siege in Gaza


A short visit to the Middle East over the New Year brought home to me the contradictory environment in which the Palestinians find themselves following the Annapolis summit in November.

At one level, economic activity within the major towns of the West Bank was more buoyant than I have seen it for a long time. The markets were busy and shop owners appeared to be doing a reasonable trade in Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem. Judging by the level of bookings in hotels in both East Jerusalem and Bethlehem moreover, the tourist trade seemed to have seen something of a revival.

The fact that more Palestinians had at least some money to spend in their local markets is not surprising. With the release of Palestinian tax revenues which had been withheld by Israel and the unfreezing of international aid to the Palestinian Authority following President Abbas’ dismissal of the Hamas-led government last summer, public service workers are being paid their salaries regularly for the first time in over a year. Similarly, widespread construction and reconstruction projects going on in the major Palestinian towns bear witness to the increased capital investment now going in. Again this underlines the desire of international donors to help the President Abbas’ Government to succeed in establishing itself and building a sense of normality in the West Bank.

But any real sense of normality still remains a long way off. Increased economic activity – thanks to greater efficiency in Palestinian governance and active support from the international community – cannot disguise the fact that real and sustainable development in the West Bank is still being strangled by the impact of occupation. Outside Nablus I saw no less than twenty two trucks queuing to get through an Israeli checkpoint. Indeed, according to research recently released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the number of Israeli military checkpoints, closures and other restrictions on the movement of Palestinians within the West Bank has gone up, not down in recent months. Israeli settlement building is continuing apace, as is the construction of the Wall/Barrier on occupied land – despite the fact that both are illegal under international law.

In addition, the day after I visited Nablus on January 2nd, Israeli troops launched a three day military incursion into the old city. 38 people were injured in the attack. In the West Bank that week 26 children were injured during Israeli incursions.

Put together, these actions continue to carve up the West Bank in a way that is destroying the prospect of creating a viable Palestinian state at the same time as both Israel and the international community profess their understanding that such a state will be a key element to any lasting peace in the area.

And all this is just in the West Bank. Not far away Gaza lives in a state of siege. The closure of border crossings is destroying what is left of its fragile economy. The UN estimates that nearly 90 per cent of industrial establishments have closed. Poverty is spiralling with over 80 per cent of Gaza’s 1.5 million people now dependent on food and other humanitarian aid to survive. Already restricted fuel supplies to Gaza are being cut further still by Israel causing frequent power cuts and clean water is in short supply. Hospitals are running short of medical supplies and equipment and the UN reports that 17 per cent of patients referred for treatment at better equipped hospitals outside Gaza have been refused exit by Israel.

Meanwhile, Israeli military strikes have increased. In the first week of 2008, Israeli strikes into Gaza killed 26 Palestinians and injured 63. It was the highest weekly total of Palestinian deaths and injuries due to direct conflict since mid-May 2007. The death toll has risen even more sharply during the rest of January.

According to Israel, the siege is a justified response to the rockets fired by Palestinian militants inside Gaza, which threaten southern Israeli towns like Sderot. Although the casualty rate amongst Israelis is dwarfed by that amongst Palestinians, the fear experienced in Sderot and elsewhere is genuine. And for the families of the two Israelis who were killed by those rockets in 2007 and of the 96 who were injured, the pain is real.

But if the siege is supposed to stop the rockets, it actually appears to be achieving the opposite result. What it is doing is fuelling a dangerous cocktail of anger and despair inside Gaza. What is more, by collectively punishing the entire population of Gaza for the actions of militant groups, Israel’s siege breaches the Geneva Conventions.

Significantly, the Israeli blockade of Gaza which laid the foundations for the current siege was not first stepped up in response to rocket attacks – appalling though they are – but rather in response to the 2006 election of Hamas in Parliamentary elections internationally judged to be both fair and democratic. And although a number of groups were indeed firing rockets into Israel at that time, despite its violent heritage and extremist constitution, Hamas itself was on a unilateral ceasefire and was offering Israel a long term truce.

Whatever opportunities were squandered during 2006/07 by Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which in turn was bolstered by a short sighted international boycott, the Hamas government lost its own legitimacy when it launched its own military takeover of Gaza last June.

We are all now living with the consequences of all this. There can be no sustainable peace nor lasting future in an internationally backed, but still occupied, West Bank severed from an ostracised and impoverished Gaza under siege. The path to durable peace in the Middle East for both Israelis and Palestinians requires a reconciliation of Palestinian politics and the reunification of the West Bank with Gaza. In its dealings with Israel and in its other initiatives, it is time for the international community to do far more to bring that about.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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