The experiment in famine began on January 18, 2008. Israel hermetically closed all of Gaza’s borders, preventing even food, medicine and fuel from entering the Strip. Power cuts, which had been frequent for many months, were extended to 12 hours per day. Due to the electricity shortage, at least 40 percent of Gazans have not had access to running water (which is channeled through electric pumps) for several days and the sewage system has broken down. The raw sewage that has not spilled onto the streets is now being poured into the sea at a daily rate of 30 million liters. Hospitals have been forced to rely on emergency generators leading them to cut back, yet again, on the already limited services offered to the Palestinian population. The World Food Programme has reported critical shortages of food and declared that it is unable to provide 10,000 of the poorest Gazans with three out of the five foodstuffs they normally receive.
After five days of extreme suffering, a group of Hamas militants took the lead, and blew-up parts of the steel wall along the Egyptian border. Within hours more than 100,000 Gazans crossed the border into Egypt. They were hungry, thirsty and sick of being locked up in a filthy cage. Once in Egypt they bought everything they could get their hands on and waited patiently for the international community to intervene on their behalf. Yet the world leaders failed them again, and on January 28, after a five day respite, the iron wall was re-erected and the Palestinians were pushed back into the world’s largest prison — the Gaza Strip.
Ehud Barak, Israel’s Minister of Defense, did not stammer when he justified his decision to experiment with famine; he had no qualms about introducing a policy that historically only the most brutal leaders have adopted.
His argument seems rational. Barak said that no government in the world would tolerate the ongoing bombardment of its citizens from across the border. Since other measures — like harsh economic sanctions, extra-judicial executions, the ongoing barrage of northern parts of the Strip as well as the bombardment of several critical infrastructure sites, like the electric power plant and Palestinian government offices — did not do the job, Israel had no other option.
This ostensibly rational argument conveniently ignores the fact that since its victory in the January 2006 democratic elections Hamas has proposed several cease-fire agreements, the latest emerging just last week. In these proposals, Hamas agrees to stop launching missiles at Israeli citizens, in exchange for Israel ending its incursions into Gaza, the assassinations of militants and political leaders, and the economic blockade.
Hamas’s proposals underscore two important facts. First, despite what Barak says the use of force is not the only option Israel has: The government could decide to open a dialogue with Hamas based on a cease-fire agreement. Second, it emphasizes, as Israeli critic Uri Avnery cogently observes, that Israel is cynically using the assaults on its own citizens as a pretext for attempting to overthrow the Hamas regime in Gaza and for preventing a Hamas takeover in the West Bank.
Ultimately, though, even the courageous Avnery does not spell out Israel’s main objective. The central issue for Israel is not Hamas yes or no, but rather Palestinian sovereignty yes or no. The recent crisis reveals, once more, that Israel’s August 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was not an act of decolonization but rather the reorganization of Israeli power and the implementation of neo-colonial rule. Israel realized that in order to maintain sovereignty all it would have to do is preserve its monopoly over the legitimate means of movement. Very different from the withdrawal of British forces from the various colonies of old, it accordingly continued to dominate Gaza’s borders, transforming the Strip into a container of sorts whose openings are totally controlled by Israel.
The experiment in Gaza is, in other words, not really about the bombardment of Israeli citizens or even about Israel’s ongoing efforts to undermine Hamas. It is simply a new draconian strategy aimed at denying the Palestinians their most basic right to self-determination. It is about showing them who is in control, about breaking their backs, so that they lower their expectations and bow down to Israeli demands. The Palestinians understood this and courageously destroyed their prison wall while crying out into the wilderness for international support. Instead of the expected outrage, the only response they received was a weak echo of their own cry for help.
NEVE GORDON teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org