Putting Palestinians “On a Diet”: Israel’s Siege & Blockade of Gaza
PURPOSE OF ISRAEL'S SIEGE & BLOCKADE
- Israel’s siege and blockade of Gaza are central pillars of a policy of economic warfare intended to punish the entire population of the tiny, occupied coastal strip in the hopes that Palestinians living there will blame Hamas for their predicament and reject the organization as well as any resistance to Israel’s continued control of the territory. As noted by the UN and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, this amounts to collective punishment, which is a violation of international law. (See below for more on the legal status of the blockade and siege.)
- In early 2006, Dov Weisglass, then a senior advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, explained that Israeli policy was designed “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” In 2012 it was revealed that in early 2008 Israeli authorities drew up a document calculating the minimum caloric intake necessary for Palestinians to avoid malnutrition so Israel could limit the amount of foodstuffs allowed into Gaza without causing outright starvation.
IMPACT OF THE SIEGE & BLOCKADE
- Since 1991, Israel has made it increasingly difficult for Palestinians and commercial goods to enter or leave Gaza. Following Israel’s withdrawal of settlers from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas’ victory in Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections in 2006, restrictions on the movement of people, goods, and supplies were further tightened as Israel implemented a siege and naval blockade on Gaza in conjunction with Egypt. In doing so, Israel has deepened the separation it began imposing between Gaza, the West Bank and the rest of the outside world during the 1990s, in violation of the Oslo Accords, which specified that the occupied Palestinian territories should be treated as one territorial unit.
- Since 2000, Israel has prevented students in Gaza from traveling to study at universities in the West Bank, some of which offer fields of study and degrees not available in Gaza. According to a report from Haaretz newspaper, between 2000 and 2012 Israel let just three Gazans travel to study at universities in the West Bank, all of whom had received US government scholarships. (See fact sheet here for more on Israel’s violations of Palestinian academic freedom and right to education.)
- According to Israeli human rights organization Gisha, as of July 9, 2014, before Israel’s latest assault on Gaza began:
- More than 70% of the population of Gaza received humanitarian aid.
- The official unemployment figure as of the first quarter of 2014 was 40.8%, compared to 18.7% in 2000.
- From January to June, Israel allowed an average of 17 truckloads of exported goods to leave Gaza each month, less than 2% of what exited monthly before 2007.
- Israel prevents access to a “buffer zone” beginning 300 meters (328 yards) from the boundary line between Israel and Gaza, denying Palestinian farmers access large parts of Gaza’s already scarce arable land.
- As of July 6, 2014, Israel limited fishing in Gaza’s territorial waters to just three nautical miles off the coast, barring Palestinian fishermen from reaching fertile fishing grounds further out in violation of the terms of the Oslo Accords, which stipulated a fishing limit of 20 nautical miles.
- According to a 2012 joint report by Save the Children and UK-based Medical Aid for Palestinians:
- 10% of children under five experienced stunted growth due to prolonged malnutrition due to the blockade and siege.
- 58.6% of Gaza’s schoolchildren were anemic, as were more than 68% of children aged nine to 12 months and nearly 37% of pregnant women.
- According to UNICEF, more than 90% of the water from Gaza’s only aquifer is unsafe for human consumption due to pollution, while repairs to Gaza’s sewage and water infrastructure cannot be carried out because of Israeli restrictions on the entry of building materials and equipment.
- Gaza suffered from severe shortages of electricity due to Israeli restrictions on imports of equipment needed to replace and repair the electrical infrastructure, even before Israel bombed Gaza’s only power plant during its latest assault.
- In August 2012, the UN released a report entitled Gaza in 2020: A Liveable Place?, which noted that unless Israel ended its siege and urgent action was taken to reverse its effects:
[By 2020 there] will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline, and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory for most. The already high number of poor, marginalized and food-insecure people depending on assistance will not have changed, and in all likelihood will have increased.
ITEMS CURRENTLY RESTRICTED OR PROHIBITED
- So-called “dual use items” that can be used for military or civilian purposes, such as steel and cement, much needed for construction and the reconstruction of homes and other structures destroyed by the Israeli military during this most recent and past military attacks. (Prior to Israel’s latest assault on Gaza there were 12,000 Palestinians still displaced from Israel’s 2008-2009 attack, Operation Cast Lead.)
- Exports of produce and commercial goods from Gaza are banned or severely restricted.
ITEMS RESTRICTED OR PROHIBITED AT SOME POINT
- Food items such as pasta, flour, yeast, rice, salt, sugar, black pepper, garlic, cinnamon, cooking oil, tea, instant coffee, chick peas, lentils, beans, olives, cookies, canned tuna, and powdered milk,
- Sanitary items such as soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, diapers, baby wipes, detergent, and dish-washing liquid.
- School supplies such as textbooks, writing paper, notebooks, and pens.
- Fuel, seeds, plastic irrigation piping and other agricultural supplies and equipment.
BACKGROUND ON THE SIEGE & BLOCKADE
- Between 1967, when Israel began its military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and 1993, Palestinians in Gaza were able to travel with few restrictions inside Israel and the rest of the occupied territories.
- Starting in 1991, and accelerating following the signing of the first of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Israel began to restrict the movement of Palestinians in Gaza, requiring a difficult to obtain permit to travel or work inside Israel. Israel also began to impose a separation between Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, even though the terms of the Oslo Accords stipulated that they all be treated as one political entity.
- In 2005, after concluding that maintaining Israel’s illegal colonies in crowded and difficult to control Gaza wasn’t worth the cost, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew Israeli soldiers and approximately 8000 Jewish settlers from the interior of Gaza as part of the so-called “disengagement plan.” Refusing to coordinate with either Hamas or the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, Sharon hoped his unilateral move would alleviate growing international pressure on him to negotiate for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories, allowing Israel to continue colonizing the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. As Sharon’s senior advisor and one of the architects of the disengagement plan, Dov Weisglass, explained to an interviewer in 2004, the withdrawal was designed to put the peace process in “formaldehyde,” stating: "The disengagement is actually formaldehyde… It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” (See here for full quote.)
- Following the withdrawal of settlers, in November 2005 Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA), which was supposed to facilitate greater movement into and out of Gaza for people and goods. However, Israel proceeded to violate its obligations under the AMA, maintaining strict controls over Gaza’s entry points, effectively locking the door to Gaza and throwing away the key. According to a November 2006 United Nations report, a year after the AMA was signed, “the ability of Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip to access either the West Bank or the outside world remains extremely limited and the flow of commercial trade is negligible.” The report continued:
“There has been no peaceful economic development as envisaged by the AMA but rather a deterioration in the humanitarian situation and an increase in violence overall. The increased closure of Gaza’s crossing points has contributed to the worsening of the economic situation over the last 12 months.”
- In January 2006, Hamas won elections for the Palestinian Authority legislature, following which Israel began to tighten its restrictions on Gaza further. The next year, after undermining a Palestinian Authority Fatah-Hamas unity government the United States and Israel encouraged Fatah to launch what amounted to a coup attempt against the Hamas-dominated PA in Gaza, resulting in a brief but bloody struggle in which Hamas routed Fatah forces and took complete internal control of Gaza. Following Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, Israel instituted additional restrictions on Gaza, including a naval blockade. (See below for more on the legal status of the blockade.) In early 2006, Dov Weisglass, then a senior advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, explained that Israel’s policy towards Gaza was designed “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” In September 2007, Olmert’s government further tightened restrictions Gaza and prohibited the export of all goods.
- In 2012, following a protracted legal battle waged by Israeli human rights group Gisha, the Israeli government released a confidential document produced in 2008 detailing how Israeli officials had been calculating the minimum caloric intake needed to keep Gazans from starving while maintaining strict control over the import of food. According to Haaretz newspaper:
“The ‘red lines’ document calculates the minimum number of calories needed by every age and gender group in Gaza, then uses this to determine the quantity of staple foods that must be allowed into the Strip every day, as well as the number of trucks needed to carry this quantity. On average, the minimum worked out to 2,279 calories per person per day, which could be supplied by 1,836 grams of food, or 2,575.5 tons of food for the entire population of Gaza.”
“Robert Turner, UNRWA's director of operations in the Gaza Strip, told Haaretz that he ‘read the draft with concern. If this reflects an authentic policy intended to cap food imports, this “red lines” approach is contrary to humanitarian principles. If it is intended to prevent a humanitarian crisis by setting a minimum threshold, it has failed.’
“UNRWA, as the UN agency responsible for aiding Palestinian refugees, is closely involved in the daily lives of some 1 million residents of the Gaza Strip. Based on this knowledge, Turner asserted that 'the facts on the ground in Gaza demonstrate that food imports consistently fell below the red lines.’”
LEGAL STATUS OF ISRAEL'S BLOCKADE
- In September 2011, the UN released the so-called Palmer Report on Israel’s attack against the Freedom Flotilla in May 2010, which killed nine Turkish activists, including 18-year-old US-citizen Furkan Dogan. The report deemed Israel’s blockade legal, however it was widely considered to be a politicized whitewash and contained the crucial caveat that “its conclusions can not be considered definitive in either fact or law."
- Also in September 2011, shortly after the Palmer Report was released, an independent UN panel of experts released a report concluding that Israel’s blockade of Gaza does indeed violate international law, stating that it amounts to collective punishment in “flagrant contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law.” In reference to Palmer, the independent experts wrote:
“In pronouncing itself on the legality of the naval blockade, the Palmer Report does not recognize the naval blockade as an integral part of Israel's closure policy towards Gaza which has a disproportionate impact on the human rights of civilians.”
- Human rights and humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross also consider the blockade and siege to be acts of collective punishment that contravene international law.
- A 2009 Amnesty International report following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s devastating military assault on Gaza in the winter of 2008-9, stated:
“The prolonged blockade of Gaza, which had already been in place for some 18 months before the current fighting began, amounts to collective punishment of its entire population.
“The Fourth Geneva Convention specifically prohibits collective punishment. Its Article 33 provides: ‘No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.’”
“The whole of Gaza's civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law.”
- Also in June 2010, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, condemned the blockade as a form of collective punishment against the civilian population of Gaza, stating: "I have consistently reported to member states that the blockade is illegal and must be lifted."
- In September 2010, a UN fact-finding mission into Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla concluded:
“The Mission considers that one of the principal motives behind the imposition of the blockade was a desire to punish the people of the Gaza Strip for having elected Hamas. The combination of this motive and the effect of the restrictions on the Gaza Strip leave no doubt that Israel’s actions and policies amount to collective punishment as defined by international law. In this connection, the Mission supports the findings of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Richard Falk, the report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict and most recently the ICRC that the blockade amounts to collective punishment in violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.”
- In June 2012, a group of 50 international aid agencies, including the World Health Organization and Oxfam, called on Israel to lift its siege and blockade of Gaza, stating:
“For over five years in Gaza, more than 1.6 million people have been under blockade in violation of international law. More than half of these people are children. We the undersigned say with one voice: ‘end the blockade now.’”
LEGAL STATUS OF THE GAZA STRIP
- While Hamas nominally controls most of the territory inside the tiny Gaza Strip, Gaza remains under overall Israeli military occupation according to international law. Although Israel withdrew its soldiers and some 8000 settlers from the interior of Gaza in 2005, it continues to control virtually all entry and exit, as well as Gaza's airspace and coastline, therefore retaining "unconsented-to effective control," the legal definition for qualifying as an occupying power.
- Israel's continuing status as an occupying power in Gaza has been affirmed by the United Nations and international humanitarian and human rights organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, as well as the U.S. State Department.
- According to an October 2004 Human Rights Watch statement entitled “Israel: 'Disengagement' Will Not End Gaza Occupation”:
“The Israeli government’s plan to remove troops and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip would not end Israel’s occupation of the territory. As an occupying power, Israel will retain responsibility for the welfare of Gaza’s civilian population.”
"Under international law, the test for determining whether an occupation exists is effective control by a hostile army, not the positioning of troops... Whether the Israeli army is inside Gaza or redeployed around its periphery and restricting entrance and exit, it remains in control."