Aid flotilla deaths help highlight Gaza plight but unlikely to end blockade - aid agencies
Written by: Katherine Baldwin
Palestinians wait to cross to Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the Gaza Strip. Egypt opened its border with the Gaza on Tuesday, letting Palestinians cross until further notice amid a storm of international criticism of Israel's blockade of the enclave. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
LONDON (AlertNet) - The international outcry sparked by Israel's fatal interception of an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip will help highlight the dire plight of the Palestinians living there but may have little immediate impact on Israel's policy of blockades, relief workers said on Tuesday.
In response to Israeli's raid on the ships, aid agencies stepped up calls on the United Nations, the international community and on Israel to bring about the end of Israel's three-year-blockade of the coastal enclave. Aid workers said they hoped the media attention and broad condemnation would force Israel to soften its stance.
However, if history is anything to go by, Israel will not bow to international pressure, some relief workers noted. Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza in 2007 after Islamist group Hamas took control of the coastal enclave, hoping to deny Hamas' ability to arm and to turn the local population against it.
"We hope that one result of this tragedy is that people will say, look, this blockade situation is quite serious and needs to be addressed," said Jennifer Abrahamson, Middle East media manager at Oxfam. "Otherwise, this was just a tragedy for tragedy's sake."
"But what it does do is underline the problem that's not being addressed by the international community and we certainly hope this will shed light back on the everyday suffering of the people here," she added by telephone from Jerusalem.
The six-ship flotilla was carrying some 10,000 tonnes of aid - building materials, pharmaceutical supplies and wheelchairs, according to one of the activists aboard.
Much of Gaza's infrastructure remains devastated following an Israeli offensive from December 2008-January 2009. Israel bars the imports of building materials including steel, cement and pipes, fearing Hamas could use them to make weapons.
As a result of the blockade, some 61 percent of households in Gaza depend on food aid, 42 percent of the workforce is unemployed and 70 percent of families live on less than one dollar a day per person, according to the United Nations.
The supplies carried by the flotilla were desperately needed but aid agencies said they would have been a drop in the ocean for a population whose livelihoods have been systematically eroded.
And while they welcomed the renewed media attention on the plight of the Palestinians, some relief workers doubted that Israel would react positively to global recrimination.
"It might help, but I don't think the Israelis are easily convinced," said Bernard Sabella, head of the ACT Forum, part of the ACT Alliance of churches, in the Palestinian territories. "The result could be that Israel will liberalise its policy of shipping in goods but I'm not sure - it's guessing, or wishing," he told AlertNet by telephone.
Another aid worker who asked not to be named said outright condemnation of Israel in the past had prompted it to strengthen its policies, rather than weaken them.
Indeed, a statement agreed by the U.N. Security Council criticising Israel drew a complaint from Israel that it had been condemned unfairly for "defensive actions". The Israeli navy also said it was ready to intercept another aid vessel that organisers of the flotilla planned to send to Gaza next week.
The incident, however, did prompt Cairo to open its often-shut border crossing with Gaza at Rafah on the request of Hamas "for an unlimited time" to allow Palestinians and aid to cross. Cairo, coordinating with Israel, has opened the border only sparingly since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. Dozens of people raced for the Egyptian border at Rafah.
But aid workers said only a full lifting of the Israeli blockade would stop what they say is a drastic erosion of Palestinians' living conditions, physical and mental health and future prospects.
"Israel must allow full access in and out of Gaza for goods and people - it is the responsibility of the international community to ensure that this blockade ends immediately," said Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of Save the Children, in a statement.
According to Save the Children, some 60 percent of Gaza's children are in a state of shock following Israel's offensive on Gaza of December 2008-January 2009. Most suffer from fear, anxiety, insomnia, depression and behavioural problems. Malnutrition is rife.
Damage to the sewage system means that of 28 Olympic swimming pools of raw sewage is pumped into the sea of Gaza every day, leading to what experts fear is blanket nitrate poisoning of the population, the charity added.
Sabella said the blockade is proving counterproductive: "The general feeling you hear again and again when you talk to people in Gaza is that they are like prisoners in a big prison," said Sabella. "This brings frustration and ... more radicalisation among young people."
Israel says there is no humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and says it ensures adequate food supplies. But according to Oxfam, the number of trucks of relief items allowed in to Gaza was just 22 percent of what it was before the blockade was tightened in 2007.
Oxfam said the problem in Gaza is more "a crisis of humanity".
"We're not talking about a humanitarian crisis as it was immediately following the (2008-2009) war or a situation like Darfur ... Nonetheless the problem is extremely grave here and there's really no end in sight right now and the longer this blockade continues the worse off people are going to be, the worse off the economy is going to be," said Oxfam's Abrahamson.
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