Palestinians at a United Nations food center at Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. (Photo: AP)
Arish, Egypt - Yesterday, en route to the Rafah border crossing that leads into Gaza, our driver pointed to a long line of trucks laden with goods that are desperately needed in every area of Gaza. "You see," he said, "all of this is to help people." Generous people, around the world, want Gazans to have food, shelter, fuel, medicine and water while the Israeli military ruthlessly attacks their homes and neighborhoods. The aid shipments will surely save lives and ease affliction. Nevertheless, this relief will meet only a fraction of the need. What's more, the Egyptian government's recent decision to allow humanitarian goods into Gaza through the Rafah border crossing - a border over which they have sovereign control - is a departure from the normal state of siege that Gazans have endured for most of the past sixteen months.
A friend, Caoihme Butterly, who had lived in Gaza during the period when the borders were sealed, told me that the limited access to food drove up the prices for basic foods. "A kilo of lentils cost $4, but the average person lived on less that $2 per day. Gazans don't want to live on charity," said Caoihme, "but the humanitarian provisions become political. We were campaigning just to have the border open once a week, but we didn't succeed."
It seems that mutual understanding about the need to open Gaza's borders had been achieved in the negotiations that established a June 19, 2008, cease-fire agreement between Israel and Gaza. A blogspot for the Working Group on the Middle East Peace Process listed the conditions for the six-month cease-fire which expired on December 19, 2008. Israel agreed that 72 hours after the mutual agreement took effect, crossing points into Gaza would open up to allow 30 percent more goods to enter Gaza. Thirteen days later, all crossing points would be open between Gaza and Israel, and Israel would allow "the transfer of all goods that were banned or restricted to go into Gaza." ( -posted on January 12, 2009)
Jimmy Carter, in a January 8, 2009, Washington Post article entitled "An Unnecessary War," noted that if importation of humanitarian supplies had returned to the normal level that had existed before Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, 700 trucks would have passed through the opened borders every day, carrying food, water, medicine and fuel. Carter writes that, following the June 19 agreement, "rocket firing was soon stopped and there was an increase in supplies of food, water, medicine and fuel. Yet the increase was to an average of about 20 percent of normal levels. And this fragile truce was partially broken on November 4, when Israel launched an attack in Gaza to destroy a defensive tunnel being dug by Hamas inside the wall that encloses Gaza."
It's true that Hamas's consequent decision to fire primitive rockets into Israeli villages caused terror, panic and demoralization amongst Israelis living in those villages. I believe it's wrong to use weapons under any circumstance. Attacks against civilians prompt spiraling, hideous waves of retaliation and revenge. But Israel responded with a disproportionate capacity to inflict harm and suffering by imposing a state of siege, targeting innocent civilians by denying them essential medicines, health care delivery, fuel, water and food.
I learned about the horrors of economic warfare during repeated visits to Iraq, when civilians suffered under economic sanctions, when pediatric wards in hospitals were like death rows for infants and hundreds of thousands of children were punished to death. But I was a shamefully slow learner. In 1991, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and before the United States began bombing Iraq, I was part of the Gulf Peace Team, an assembly of international peace activists camped on the Iraq side of the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. "What alternative does the US have?" reporters asked us. "Do you think the US should just sit back and allow Iraq to illegally invade another country?"
"The economic sanctions are a viable alternative," I said. "Continued use of economic sanctions would be a less-violent way to persuade Iraq's government to leave Kuwait."
What a foolish and uninformed statement I'd made. Iraq was subjected to thirteen years of the most comprehensive state of siege ever imposed in modern history, and the sanctions directly contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children. Now, many people committed to peacemaking understand that economic warfare can be just as brutal and devastating as bombing, although news coverage generally recedes and then disappears once the bombing wars stop.
This morning, an Egyptian friend corrected me when I questioned him about the June 9, 2008, cease-fire negotiation between Israel and Gaza's Hamas government. "In fact there was no cease-fire," he said. "The war became an economic war, and it targeted civilians who had committed no crime, particularly children."
People who live on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing understand the impact of the bombing. At a tea shop and a barber shop, windows are cracked. An owner of a small shop near the border told me that his children can't sleep at night because they hear constant explosions. The Egyptian community of Rafah has also witnessed, previously, month after month of quiet inactivity at the Rafah border crossing, during the period when the Egyptian and Israeli governments agreed to seal the border. Trapped, isolated, hungry and desperate, Gazans endured economic warfare while the world ignored their pleas for relief from slow-motion death. We must call for an immediate cease-fire and a "cease-siege." As the June 19, 2008, agreement made clear, a cease-fire for Gaza cannot only mean an end to bullets and bombs, but must also end the less visible - but equally destructive - economic violence. I hope that trucks like the ones our driver pointed to will be lined up for months and years, carrying tons of cement and reconstruction materials, along with humanitarian relief, as Gazans rebuild, above ground, constructing a peaceful future.