OPT: Humanitarian crisis - Depoliticizing the war in Gaza

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There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza' claims the Israeli Foreign Prime Minister, Tzipi Livni. The tragedy and irony contained in these words is immense; but in order to be fully appreciated, a certain level of cynicism is required. The existence of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a clear fact that nobody, not even the Israeli Government, is really trying to deny in any serious fashion. The perceived stubbornness of Tzipi Livni´s high-profile denial is part of a carefully designed plan by the Israeli propaganda apparatus. The Government of Ehud Olmert has spent an incredible amount of money and effort putting out the message that Israel is acting in self-defence and that Hamas´ cowardice, rather than their missiles, are responsible for the high numbers of civilian casualties.

Horrific images flood television screens. We are told that there is neither food nor medicines, and that Israel and the ongoing fighting will not allow humanitarian workers to access the Strip. Within hours, the problem of the 'humanitarian crisis' in Gaza is the cover story of the international press as western sensibilities become deeply troubled.

However, what counts as a problem and how a problem is defined is a complex process involving many interests.

Through an arduous process of Depoliticization, Israel has succeed in turning a political problem requiring a political solution, such as the Palestine-Israeli conflict, into a technical problem requiring logistical solutions, such as a humanitarian crisis. It has been a difficult process but the results are worth it for those who make the effort.

Israel has not only washed hands of the Palestinian blood, but moreover they have fooled the international community into doing and paying for the "dirty job". As Israel categorically denies the humanitarian tragedy in the Strip, the international agencies activate their "emergency plans". Most international NGOs are now suspending their development projects in Gaza, and instead focusing their resources and efforts to relieve the effects of the humanitarian tragedy. Ironically, they also manage to relieve Israel of its obligations as an occupying power clearly outlined in the Geneva Convention.

As the Haarezt journalist, Yossi Sarid, nicely summarized back on January 2008 when referring to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, 'If the welfare agencies are supporting 900,000 needy people, let them support another 100,000 or 200,000 - the difference means nothing to them.' He is not wrong either. The international organizations are indeed focusing all their efforts into getting the funds that will allow them to purchase emergency materials and relief supplies. On top of the resources, we have to add the increasing logistic, administrative and security difficulties of introducing and distributing food, medications and other basic materials in the Strip on a normal day - not to mention during an ongoing war.

At this point, the depoliticization of the conflict is complete and it has become, in effect, a logistic problem. Through this process, the collective right of the Palestinian people to an independent and viable state has successfully been turned into a struggle for the individual and basic right of every man, women and child to food and shelter - a struggle which will be borne by the international community. While donors and NGOs focus on alleviating the humanitarian crisis, they demote, if not completely neglect, their role as witnesses and their obligation to question the Israeli occupation and control of the land, water, economy and basic rights of Palestinians. Despite the horrors of the last weeks, the people of Gaza have not forgotten what matters.

'Don't bring me blankets' a mother yells while holding the dead body of her son, 'bring me peace'. The Hamas leader exiled in Syria, Khaled Meshaal, warns 'We will not accept an indefinite truce (...) There won't be peace while the occupation continues". Despite the Israeli efforts to blame the massacre on Hamas, no one in the Strip thinks that the Islamic group bears responsibility. Hamas is after all, the only democratically chosen representative of the Palestinian people, as of yesterday and the official end of President Abbas´ presidential mandate.

Although horrific, the latest attack on Gaza is just the next phase in a series of steps beginning in 2000. Throughout nearly a decade of isolation and siege, the Gazans have lived perennially on the brink of a humanitarian crisis which has transformed the way that the international community perceives the power relations in the conflict. The beginning of the second Intifada also marked a 'humanitarian crisis' in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While waving the flag of self-defence, and once more under the generic justification of 'security reasons', the Israeli army declared curfew in every major Palestinian city and went about establishing an intricate system of control of checkpoints, road blocks and permits which virtually destroyed the Palestinian economy. In the Gaza Strip, the perimeter fence that surrounds the area is sealed turning one and a half million Palestinians into Israeli prisoners. Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, presented as a good will gesture, was nothing but a change in strategy by Sharon from a policy of direct military occupation - a flagrant violation of the international law - to a policy of siege and oppression. The conditions of the withdrawal from Gaza gave Israel the opportunity to disassociate itself from any legal responsibility towards the Palestinians trapped in the Strip, while in reality they remained in complete control over the borders, natural resources and economy. Although the Gaza Strip was free of foreign presence, the Israeli State was still able to guarantee a constant humanitarian crisis that has lasted until today.

The change of the international community's perception of the situation from one of conflict and occupation to that of a humanitarian crisis also brought about a change in the way donors, agencies and international organizations addressed the situation. While the money poured in, the funds dedicated to development decreased by 70% with respect to the pre-intifada period - meanwhile emergency aid went through the roof. In the last eight years, the number of families dependent of humanitarian aid increased by a factor of ten in the Gaza Strip to 80% in 2009. In times of crisis, as during the invasion and reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002, many donors and agencies adopt a position of political neutrality and focus their efforts on providing humanitarian aid and reconstruction work while blatantly ignoring the roots of the aggression and its colonial nature. Until recently no one has even begun questioning the role that donors, agencies and organizations play in the evolution and development of the conflict. However, over the last 20 years, and especially since the signing of the Oslo accords, the importance and influence of these agencies has increased dramatically. It is in times of crisis, as during the second Intifada and now during the war on Gaza, that test the actors of the humanitarian industry.

When it is time to support the Palestinian people in their struggle for their collective right, donors, agencies and organizations alike opt for distributing blankets and milk - thus allowing the occupier to put NGO resources and efforts to their own benefit and toward the perpetuation of the occupation. Contrary to what many may think, humanitarian aid is not necessarily a good thing. Perhaps it is time to analyze the responsibilities of the international actors within this conflict and time to review the obligations of the occupier force and the international community towards the Palestinian people. But above all, it is time to speak, and loudly, because as in the words of Médicins san Frontetières; 'We don't know whether words save lives, but we know for sure that silence kills'

I.J, from Ramallah