Starving in the Dark

On the excuse of rescuing one kidnapped soldier, Israeli is now bombing the Gaza Strip and is poised to re-invade. It has also arrested a third of the Palestinian parliament, wrecking even its fragile illusion of capacity and reducing the already-empty vessel of the Palestinian Authority into broken shards.

In the shambles, Palestinians may be observing one bitter pill of compensation: vicious angling by Fatah to reclaim control of Palestinian national politics and its rivalry with Hamas are now rendered obsolete. Even the dogged international community cannot maintain its dogged pretense that the PA is actually capable of any governance at all. The demise of the disastrous Oslo model, Israel’s device to ensure its final dismemberment of Palestinian land and its fatal cooptation of the Palestinian national movement, may finally be at hand. Perhaps Palestinian unity again has a chance.

But no one knows what will replace the PA. It is therefore not surprising that this transformed diplomatic landscape is absorbing the principal attention of an anxious international community.

Nevertheless, politics should not be the greatest international concern. For over in Gaza, one appalling act must now eclipse all thoughts of “road maps” or “mutual gestures”: on Wednesday, Israeli war planes repeatedly bombed and utterly demolished Gaza’s only power plant. About 700,000 of Gaza’s 1.3 million people now have no electricity, and word is that power cannot be restored for six months.

It is not the immediate human conditions created by this strike that are monumental. Those conditions are, of course, bad enough. No lights, no refrigerators, no fans through the suffocating Gaza summer heat. No going outside for air, due to ongoing bombing and Israel’s impending military assault. In the hot darkness, massive explosions shake the cities, close and far, while repeated sonic booms are doubtless wreaking the havoc they have wrought before: smashing windows, sending children screaming into the arms of terrified adults, old people collapsing with heart failure, pregnant women collapsing with spontaneous abortions. Mass terror, despair, desperate hoarding of food and water. And no radios, television, cell phones, or laptops (for the few who have them), and so no way to get news of how long this nightmare might go on.

But this time, the situation is worse than that. As food in the refrigerators spoils, the only remaining food is grains. Most people cook with gas, but with the borders sealed, soon there will be no gas. When family-kitchen propane tanks run out, there will be no cooking. No cooked lentils or beans, no humus, no bread ­ the staples Palestinian foods, the only food for the poor. (And there is no firewood or coal in dry, overcrowded Gaza.)

And yet, even all this misery is overshadowed by a grimmer fact: no water. Gaza’s public water supply is pumped by electricity. The taps, too, are dry. No sewage system. And again, word is that the electricity is out for at least six months.

The Gaza aquifer is already contaminated with sea water and sewage, due to over-pumping (partly by those now-abandoned Israeli settlements) and the grossly inadequate sewage system. To be drinkable, well water is purified through machinery run by electricity. Otherwise, the brackish water must at least be boiled before it can be consumed, but this requires electricity or gas. And people will soon have neither.

Drinking unpurified water means sickness, even cholera. If cholera breaks out, it will spread like wildfire in a population so densely packed and lacking fuel or water for sanitation. And the hospitals and clinics aren’t functioning, either, because there is no electricity.

Finally, people can’t leave. None of the neighboring countries have resources to absorb a million desperate and impoverished refugees: logistically and politically, the flood would entirely destabilize Egypt, for example. But Palestinians in Gaza can’t seek sanctuary with their relatives in the West Bank, either, because they can’t get out of Gaza to get there. They can’t even go over the border into Egypt and around through Jordan, because Israel will no longer allow people with Gaza identification cards to enter the West Bank. In any case, a cordon of Palestinian police are blocking people from trying to scramble over the Egyptian border–and war refugees have tried, through a hole blown open by militants, clutching packages and children.

In short, over a million civilians are now trapped, hunkered in their homes listening to Israeli shells, while facing the awful prospect, within days or weeks, of having to give toxic water to their children that may consign them to quick but agonizing deaths.

One woman near the Rafah border, taking care of her nephews, spoke to BBC: “If I am frightened in front of them I think they will die of fear.” If the international community does nothing, her children may soon die anyway.

The astonishing scale of this humanitarian situation is indeed matched only by the deafening drizzle of international reaction. “Of course it is understandable that [the Israelis] would want to go after those who kidnapped their soldier,” says Kofi Anan (while the Palestinian population cowers in the dark listening to thundering explosions demolish their society), “but it has to be done in such a way that civilian populations are not made to suffer.” Even as Israel bombs smash Gaza’s roadways, the G-8 stands up on its hind-legs to intone, “We call on Israel to exercise utmost restraint in the current crisis.” How about the Russians, now angling for position in the new “Great Game” of the Middle East? “The right and duty of the government of Israel to defend the lives and security of its citizens are beyond doubt,” says Russia’s foreign ministry, as though poor Corporal Shalit warrants any of this mayhem, “But this should not be done at the cost of many lives and the lives of many Palestinian civilians, by massive military strikes with heavy consequences for the civilian population.”

And what says noble Europe, proud font of human rights conventions, architects of the misión civilizatrice? “The EU remains deeply concerned,” mumbles the mighty defenders of humanitarian law, “about the worsening security and humanitarian developments.” Seemingly soggy phrases like “deeply concerned” are diplomatic code for “We are seriously unhappy.” But under these circumstances, “remains deeply concerned” suggests that this staggering crime is just one more sobering moment in the failed “road map.”

Diplomatic bubbles of unreality in the Middle East are the norm rather than the exception, but at some point the international community must face the very unwelcome fact that it needs to change gear. A country that claims kinship among the western democracies of Europe is behaving like a murderous rogue regime, using any excuse to reduce over a million people to utter human misery and even mass death. Plastering Corporal Shalit’s face over this policy is no more convincing that South African newspapers emblazoning the picture of one poor murdered white doctor over their coverage of the 1976 Soweto uprising.

Israel has done many things argued to be war crimes: mass house demolitions, closing whole cities for weeks, indefinite “preventative” detentions, massive land confiscation, the razing of thousands of square miles of Palestinian olive groves and agriculture, systematic physical and mental torture of prisoners, extrajudicial killings, aerial bombardment of civilian areas, collective punishment of every description in defiance of the Geneva Conventions–not to mention the general humiliation and ruin of the indigenous people under its military control. But destroying the only power source for a trapped and defenseless civilian population is an unprecedented step toward barbarity. It reeks, ironically, of the Warsaw Ghetto. As we flutter our hands about tectonic political change, we must take pause: in the eyes of history, what is happening in Gaza may come to eclipse them all.

Dr. VIRGINIA TILLEY is a professor of political science, currently working in South Africa. She can be reached at tilley@hws.edu.




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VIRGINIA TILLEY is associate professor of Political Science and International Relations, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock. She can be reached at: virginia.tilley@gmail.com.

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