The topic under discussion was grim – "The Politics of Starvation: The Humanitarian Crisis in Palestine." In Room SC-6 of the U.S. Capitol, the Council for the National Interest (CNI) authored a public forum, the 18th in a series over the last few years, dealing with Middle East issues, and in particular, the Israel-Palestine Question. The two presenters at the standing-room- only event on June 23, 2006, were Tim Rothermel, a former UN chief of its Development Program to the Palestinian people (UNDP); and Ms. Laila El-Haddad, a Palestinian journalist and mother from Gaza. She is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at both Harvard and Duke U. Ms. El-Haddad has reported for Aljazeera Satellite Network, Pacifica Radio, UK Guardian Unlimited and also BBC World Service. She also maintains a popular blog.
Since January, 2006, the Israelis have been tightening the screws on the Palestinians, because they dared to elect a government dominated by members of Hamas. (3) Beside additional border closings and constant harassment of civilians at check points, the Israelis’ targeted killings of victims has also greatly accelerated. After May 31, 2006, when Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke to a mostly servile U.S. Congress, the Israeli Occupation Army (IOF) slaughtered 32 Palestinians, including 10 children. Olmert said he has "deep regrets" about the operations of the IOF, but that the lives of Israeli citizens were "even more important," which sounded like a line out of George Orwell’s "Animal Farm." As a result of some of the arbitrary IOF’s border closings, essential food items for "765,000 Gazans" have been seriously "delayed" and even put in jeopardy.
"The humanitarian outlook for the occupied Palestinian territory has become extremely bleak. It is expected to worsen dramatically in the coming months," said Rothermel. He underscored that since the Hamas victory at the polls in January, Israel has halted its "transfer of the Value Added Taxes and custom taxes it is obligated to pay, amounting to half of the Palestinian Authority’s budget." Along with this measure, "Western donor funding for Palestinians," has been suspended as well. "With the fall in revenue to the Palestine Authority (PA), the salaries of over 150,000 civil servants have for the most part not been paid since March. And these civil servants, in turn, directly support some one million other Palestinians or a quarter of the population in the West Bank and Gaza. And the majority of these civil servants are the doctors and nurses, school teachers, police officials and municipal employees whose services provide the backbone of a functioning civil society," Rothermel emphasized.
The affable Eugene H. Bird, CNI’s President, since 1994, opened the proceedings by saying the Israel-Palestine Question "was central to resolving the U.S. war on terrorism." He said that over "60 percent" of the American people want Israel to be held "more accountable" for its reckless actions and that the present federal administration has "no idea what they are doing." As for the U.S. Congress, he said, "It should be ashamed of itself." Rafi Dajani, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), served as moderator for the nearly two-hour program.
"Numbers reflect the deepening crisis," Rothermel continued. "Seventy percent of the population in the occupied Palestinian territory is now living below the poverty line, up from sixty-eight percent in 2005, and thirty percent five years earlier. Unemployment, currently at thirty-eighty percent of the workforce, is expected to double by the end of this year, according to World Bank estimates. The lack of socioeconomic improvement and a rise in violence, attributable to living conditions, has led to increased levels of insecurity throughout the population and food insecurity, i.e. people unable to rely on the purchase of food, has reached over half the population as a result of the PA’s fiscal crisis, extended closures (of borders) and market disruptions."
Rothermel also referred to a recent UN report, whose compelling statistics revealed that the "Gross Domestic Product (in the Occupied Territories) is estimated to fall by 27% by the end of 2006, and poverty [is] expected to rise sharply. Around 70% of Gaza’s potential workforce, for example, will be out of work or go without pay. [They] made up 40% [of the] current unemployed. The loss of PA salaries and further job cuts through the contraction of the economy and the loss of work in Israel (sic)…Palestinians and their goods are no longer able to move freely within the West Bank and are banned from entering many areas, such as the Jordan Valley. Imports into Gaza from Israel are functioning at minimal levels and exports in the past two months have dropped to just six trucks a day…"
The other speaker at this event was Ms. El-Haddad. Her comments were mostly restricted to the present desperate human rights situation in Gaza, where close to 1.4 million people reside. She said Gaza is "sealed off" and that "90 percent of the population are under a total travel ban." She also told the audience that "over 16,000 homes" in the southern border town of Rafah were razed by the IOF, prior to their so-called "disengagement," and that "20,000 fruit-filled trees were uprooted" by the occupiers. (5) She added that Gaza is "so enclosed, that it feels like a prison." To reinforce that opinion, she told how one of the children of Rafah had asked her: "Have you ever seen an Egyptian?" Many of the children of that area, she related, "have never left Rafah, let alone Gaza." Ms. El-Haddad showed photos of "Green Houses" in Gaza, that were funded by U.S. taxpayers and were destroyed by the IOF, which she labeled, "a completely unaccountable" entity.
Ms. El-Haddad said that since the "disengagement" by the IOF, in March, 2006, (citing UN statistics), that "over 8,000" artillery shells have fallen on Gaza, about "a hundred shells a day," fired by IOF’s air strikes, ground forces or from their naval gunboats. "The only commercial crossing," she continued, "into Gaza has been closed more than 50 percent of the year. And as a result, the wheat stocks, at one point, were completely depleted and there were bread shortages. People had to line up and get their rations-two bags of bread a day. The problem is that those stocks (wheat stocks) have never been replenished, are unreliable, and also a thousands of tons of fruits and vegetables actually rotted. Millions of dollars were lost. More importantly, exports couldn’t get outside to Europe…"
Summing up, Ms. El-Haddad said, "there are 9,000 Palestinians" languishing in Israeli jails. The overwhelming majority of them, "without charges. Twenty percent of all Palestinians have been detained or imprisoned at one point in their lives-40 percent of men. Gaza," she concluded, "is very dangerous. It is really at the brink of an implosion, that I can’t emphasize enough. Everything is so unstable right now from a humanitarian perspective…"
Finally, as a result of the authoritative and scholarly Harvard Study, many in this country have come to the shocking realization, that the Israeli Lobby has been exercising "unmatched power" over our foreign policy for more than 40 years, which hasn’t been in the national interest. (6) Whether that will make any difference in how the American people reply to this latest outrage, (read collective punishment), by the Israelis over the Palestinians, remains an open question. Nevertheless, the Israelis, and their Hard Right Zionist supporters in the U.S., should be put on notice that a day of justice is coming. The brilliant Scottish historian, Thomas Caryle, put it this way: "Foolish men imagine that because judgment for an evil thing is delayed, there is no justice…Judgment for an evil thing is many times delayed…but it is sure as life, it is sure as death."
WILLIAM HUGHES is the author of "Saying ‘No’ to the War Party" (IUniverse, Inc.). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© WILLIAM HUGHES 2006.