06 December 2012
Gaza: Alive, but slimmer
Last October, the Israeli Minister of Defence resolved under judicial order to declassify documents dating from January 2008. These archives contain the implementation details of the embargo imposed on Gaza in 2007, following Hamas' rise to power. They specify that only essential items and humanitarian aid would be allowed into the Gaza Strip. Entitled "Food consumption in the Gaza Strip - Red lines", these documents were obtained after a long legal battle waged by Gisha, an Israeli human rights organisation. Reflecting discussions between the Israeli security services and the Ministry of Health, they set out the process followed to calculate as precisely as possible the volume of aid required to prevent Gaza's population succumbing to malnutrition.
The Israeli ministry of defence unit charged with coordinating governmental activities in the Palestinian territories (COGAT) explains that the recommendations set out in these documents were never used. Nevertheless, it does seem that the Israeli authorities developed calculations of a sort so as to guarantee the Gaza population received the bare minimum , and not an iota more, required "to prevent avoid a humanitarian crisis". As it happens, the "Red line" document tries to establish how to provide an average of 2279 calories per day to each individual living in Gaza - figures aligned with the World Health Organization's (WHO) recommendations. The Ministry of Defence's spokesman, Major Guy Inbar, explains things thus: "A process of calculation was introduced to identify food consumption needs and prevent a humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip." Among others, the document fixes the quantities of meat and flour required per head; it also calculates the total number of trucks needed for transportation, from which is deducted (in the number of trucks) the equivalent to agricultural products produced locally. It bears noting here that the recommendations on the threshold of calories required per individual are based on the minimum identified by the WHO for leading a "healthy life", so were never envisaged as a means of limiting food availability.
It is not the first time that the Israeli government has exposed its humanitarian management of the conflict with the Hamas. In 2006, Gideon Levy, a journalist for the Israeli daily newspaper "Haaretz" and specialized in the Occupation, reported on a ministerial meeting held to discuss the consequences of Hamas' electoral victory in Gaza. During the meeting, the possibility of imposing an economic blockade was discussed. "It's like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will slim down nicely, but they won't die" announced Dov Weissglas, an advisor to the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. If we believe Gideon Levy, his comment was received with laughter by the assembly.
Some years later, on 1st January 2009, France suggested "a forty-eight hour truce on humanitarian grounds" during operation "Cast Lead". In response, Tzipi Livni, Minister of Israeil Foreign Affairs, explained that despite the count of over 400 already dead on the Palestinian side, "aid trucks were getting through the check points" and thus "there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and [...] no need for a truce".
Following the entry restrictions imposed on construction material and consumable items, the economic situation in Gaza deteriorated sharply. According to Gisha, between the second quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2008, the unemployment rate reached 73% while the proportion of Gaza's population receiving humanitarian aid rose from 63% in 2006 to 89% in 2008. Gisha's calculations also show that the number of trucks sent through the Gaza Strip check points at the time were well below the figure calculated in the "Red line" documents. Yet it seems that the humanitarian side of Israel's policy in Gaza did intend to limit the human fallout, doubtless to avoid the inevitable criticisms it would have received following a massively high death rate or a significant deterioration in the populations' nutritional state.
After the Gaza flotilla episode, the Israeli government was persuaded to ease the food restrictions. Yet revelations on past political practices to one side, the "Red line" documents also raise questions on the role played by humanitarian aid in Gaza. In such conditions, is it possible for medical aid organisations such as MSF to avoid becoming the healthcare assistants of the occupying power? In a document entitled "Palestinian Chronicles", this very question was addressed by the president of MSF's French section from 2002 on. International humanitarian aid, which until now has played only a peripheral role in this conflict, now risks being cast in the role of prison warden at the heart of a pitiless system of domination and segregation.
These considerations also underpin the questions posed by left wing Israeli intellectuals, according to whom humanitarian aid "suspends disaster" and relieves Israel of its duty to resolve the conflict. For Adi Ophir and Arielle Azoulay, participating in a symposium in 2004, the intervention [of humanitarian and human rights organizations] is an extension of the political set up, one of its branches, that is responsible for "suspending disaster" and creating conditions for a "chronic distress". To support their analysis, they cite an interview with two COGAT colonels. When asked what the consequence would be of a withdrawal of humanitarian organisations from Palestine, the officers replied ‘together, simultaneously and repetitively, stressing every word as if they were chanting a verse in a Greek chorus: "There will be no famine in Palestine, There will be no famine in Palestine, Israel won't let it happen".'
OFF THE CUFF is a blog meant to expose the diversity of views among aid practicionners. Do not hesitate to send your contributions to email@example.com, or post your comments directly on-line.
Views expressed on this blog are those of their authors and do not necessarily relfect the official positions of Médecins Sans Frontières.