babelmed - 11/07/2012
Israeli environment minister Gilad Erdan’s recent call for turning off electricity provided to the blockaded Gaza Strip smacks of cheap electioneering, but it should also provide the Israeli public the opportunity to think about the cost of the decades-long oppression of Palestinians.
Just as Gaza entered its sixth year of blockade, the minister is rightly concerned about the Israeli resources required to keep the Palestinian territory under occupation, and Gaza in particular under blockade. What he is wrong about is the solution – which would be merely scratching at the surface of a conflict that has pitted civilians on both sides against each other, with tragic consequences.
The 1.6 million Palestinians living under blockade are facing the severest fuel shortages in the enclave in the last five years, over and above the already precarious electricity situation where Gaza’s needs for power cannot be met because of Israel’s restrictions on fuel entering the strip. The consequences are enormous, and totally avoidable. From hospital patients on life support who never know if there is enough fuel in the generators to keep them going after the next power cut, to entire neighbourhoods flooded in sewage because their local sewage pump cannot function.
The impact on what’s left of Gaza’s economy is equally devastating – thousands of factories have had to close down because the blockade has banned them from exporting to their traditional markets – most especially their Israeli trade partners – and now the few left surviving await anxiously everyday for news of some fuel trickling into the strip to provide them with electricity to run their generators. Farmers are watching in despair as they witness their crops wilting, unable to run their pumps extracting water to irrigate their land.
There are also the catastrophic consequences on the people forced to rely on generators in their homes, where entire families have been wiped out because of fires and generator accidents. Meant to be an emergency resource, generators have become part of Gaza’s household furniture. In even poorer houses that cannot afford to buy a portable generator, children are these days studying for their final exams by candlelight.
Mr Erdan’s call might sound appealing to an electorate that is fed up of the conflict and its costs, but a vociferous part of the same electorate has been clamouring for social justice over the last year, faced with the steeply rising cost of living and class inequality. His idea might also sound crass to all those who understand that, for all intents and purposes, the Israeli government is still responsible for the Gaza Strip despite the 2005 “disengagement”.
Israel decides what enters Gaza and what comes out of it; it has total control of the airspace; it controls movement of Palestinians within their own land and bans them from crossing to the West Bank and Jerusalem; it enforces a 3 nautical mile naval blockade on fishermen and up to two kilometres of “no-go area” along its perimeter, depriving thousands of farmers from 30 per cent of Gaza’s most fertile agricultural land. In our work we witness how Israel’s policies go way beyond its legitimate security concerns, with the entire civilian population being punished for crimes they didn’t commit.
But there is nothing new in Mr Erdan’s idea of collectively punishing the Palestinians in Gaza. When in 2006 Israel bombed Gaza’s only power plant in retaliation for the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure did just that, together with the ensuing total closure of the enclave, in what was called an “act of vengeance” by Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem.
Israel’s own High Court of Justice ruled in 2008 that the state was obliged to supply electricity to Gaza as long as it controlled its borders and did not manage to develop alternative power supply sources. Gaza has been prevented from repairing and upgrading its power station because of Israel’s ban on entry of raw materials – which affects the development and reconstruction of the entire strip more than three years since the destruction brought about by Operation Cast Lead.
Under the Oslo Accords, Israel is bound to sell 120 megawatts of electricity to Gaza, which at presents covers only 35 per cent of Gaza’s consumption. The Israeli Electric Company makes around 40 million shekels in revenue every month from the sale of electricity to Gaza. As another Israeli organisation, Gisha, pointed out, deliberate cuts to Gaza’s power supply could result in investors withdrawing their investments in Israel’s electricity company given European government sanctions against investors in companies that breach international humanitarian law.
Putting aside the irony of having an environment minister arguing for what will inevitably lead to an environmental disaster affecting Israel directly (as we speak, millions of litres untreated sewage are seeping out of Gaza and heading upstream towards Ashkelon and Tel Aviv), Mr Erdan would be completely right in arguing that the occupation and the blockade are a waste of money and resources in such times of austerity. There would be no need to supply any electricity to Gaza – even if it generates millions for the Israeli electricity company – if only it was allowed to function and get back on its feet.
For as long as Israel keeps occupying Palestinians and reducing them to aid dependency, it remains responsible for their welfare, even though it has been getting away with violations of international law for decades. Only when the occupation of the Palestinian territory is ended, will the Israeli authorities be justified in switching off the power for Gaza.