Amnesty International (AI) in its briefing paper titled “Suffocating: The Gaza Strip Under Israeli Blockade”1 asserts that Gazans are suffering enormously under the so-called blockade. These assertions obscure the true nature of the relationship between Israel and Gaza. First and foremost, thousands of Hamas rocket, missile and mortar attacks predated and prompted any economic sanctions put into effect by Israel.2 Despite this fact, as a recent Ministry of Defense report indicates, the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza increased by almost 900 percent in 2009 as compared to 2008.3 Despite that, Israel’s perennial critics, such as AI, have become increasingly vocal. As will be demonstrated below, flogging the purportedly dire humanitarian situation distorts the overall picture of Gaza and forgets the actual cause for the clearly less-than-optimal circumstances in which Gazans live.
Predictions of an “imminent humanitarian crisis” in Gaza have been made at least as far back as 1996. In the year 2000, various NGOs including AI turned up the heat on Israel by claiming the Jewish state was responsible for the “imminent humanitarian crisis/disaster” in the Gaza Strip. Such terminology was mobilized anew in 2001, and since then annually in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. How has the Gaza Strip been “on the verge” of a humanitarian crisis for in excess of ten years? Chicken Little, the sky is falling.
Two relatively unknown features of the situation in Gaza are worthy of mention in relation to the alleged perpetual “humanitarian crisis” that is always about to erupt. First, Gaza’s offshore gas deposits (confirmed with British Gas) are worth an estimated $2 billion4 (even prior to the upsurge in the price of fossil fuels during the past years). If the Hamas government can stabilize the political situation long enough to install platforms to bring the gas to the surface, the Gazans can reap the benefits of these offshore gas deposits. The residents of Gaza might even become middle class. Second, the population of Gaza is comparatively healthy and well educated. In fact, classic indicators of the standard of living place Gaza in a reasonably strong position. Life expectancy in the Gaza Strip is 72.34 years,5 higher than Russia (65.94 years),6 the Bahamas, (65.72 years),7 India (69.25 years),8 Ukraine (68.06 years)9 and Glasgow East (in Scotland), where male life expectancy is 69.3 years.10Similarly, Gaza has a much lower infant mortality rate (21.35 deaths/1,000 live births)11 than Angola (182.31 deaths/1,000 live births),12 Iran (36.93 deaths/1,000 live births),13 India (32.31 deaths/1,000 live births),14 Egypt (28.36 deaths/ 1,000 live births)15 and Brazil (26.67 deaths/1,000 live births).16 Perhaps the most astonishing fact, in light of the sensationalist media coverage damning Gaza’s chances for a better future, is that literacy in Gaza stands at a staggering 92.4 percent.17This is far higher than India (47.8 percent),18 Egypt (59.4 percent)19 and even wealthy Saudi Arabia (70.8 percent).20 Similarly, Gaza has a much lower infant mortality rate (21.35 deaths/1,000 live births)
In blaming Israel for all of Gaza’s problems AI makes no mention of Hamas’s electoral success. Even prior to the coup that overthrew Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, Hamas succeeded in being chosen by a clear plurality of the Palestinian electorate.21 Hamas did not conceal its religious fanaticism or the methods it intended to use if elected. The Hamas Charter is explicit about its intent to use violent means to destroy Israel and place all of its citizens under Islamic Palestinian rule.22 They clearly state that there can be no compromise; “peaceful solutions and international conferences are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement.”23 Gaza’s voters well understood the ramifications on living conditions of Hamastan fundamentalist governance.
It has been documented that when Israel furnishes and allows transit of donated goods intended for the civilians of Gaza, “there is ‘foolproof’ evidence that Hamas diverts supplies for ‘terrorist use.’”24 Thus, for example, AI’s repeated complaints that the import of building materials is barred by Israel neglect to acknowledge that the same cement intended to be used to rebuild schools can also be used to reinforce smuggling tunnels and military bunkers.
AI’s briefing paper is replete with references to international law, without once pointing to any specific provision being violated. Moreover, it is unclear why AI is using the term “collective punishment” since none is intended and, more importantly, as will be discussed below, none is effectuated by Israel.
Contrary to AI’s criticism, no country is obliged to open its borders. Since Israel is under no legal obligation to engage in trade of fuel or anything else with the Gaza Strip, or to maintain open borders with the Gaza Strip, it may withhold commercial items and seal its borders at its discretion, even if intended as “punishment” for Hamas’ terrorism. Israel’s imposition of economic sanctions on the Gaza Strip, such as withholding fuel supplies and electricity, does not involve the use of military force and is therefore a perfectly legal means of responding to Gazan attacks, despite the unfortunate effects on some Palestinian civilians.
The use of economic and other non-military sanctions as a means of disciplining other international actors for their misbehavior is a practice known in international law as “retorsion.”25 It is generally acknowledged that any country may engage in retorsion.26 Indeed, it is acknowledged that states may even go beyond retorsion to carry out non-belligerent reprisals, non-military acts that would otherwise be illegal (such as suspending flight agreements) as counter-measures.27
While international law bars “collective punishment,”28 contrary to AI’s assertions, none of Israel’s combat actions and retorsions may be considered collective punishment. The bar on collective punishment forbids the imposition of criminal-type penalties on individuals or groups on the basis of another’s guilt, or the commission of acts that would otherwise violate the rules of distinction and/or proportionality.29 None of Israel’s actions involve the imposition of criminal-type penalties or the violation of the rules of distinction and proportionality. Apparently, AI forgets that there has never been a prosecution for collective punishment on the basis of economic sanctions. AI apparently feels justified in inventing customary international law.
AI often repeats that they desire fruitful peace efforts in the Middle East. Yet the entire briefing paper discusses the result of an inadequately addressed problem – the continual missile, rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas. The actual attacks are merely given lip service, and AI never once suggests how they will be addressed; rather, AI insists that lifting the sanctions that may be limiting Hamas will improve the situation. In fact, undermining peaceful attempts to ensure security will only decrease the chances for peace while increasing the likelihood of violence and confrontation. For those who don’t suffer from amnesia, the real culprit in this tragedy is the Hamas terrorist organization.
Contrary to the implications of AI’s reporting, Israel has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent the emergence of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel established the “Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA), where representatives of the IDF and government ministries work day and night to respond to humanitarian issues in Gaza.”30 Former CLA commander Col. Nir Press spoke candidly of Hamas’ “well-oiled media and propaganda machine which has succeeded in creating humanitarian ‘crises’ out of thin air.”31 He gave as an example Israel’s decision to suspend fuel supplies in early 2008 after a Palestinian attack on the Nahal Oz fuel depot.32 Before restricting the supply, Israel filled all of the gas tanks in Gaza to their maximum. Yet, “taking advantage of this as a PR opportunity,” Hamas refused to draw on the fuel and “sent hundreds of people to gas stations in Gaza to stand with buckets in a long line, giving the impression that there was a fuel shortage in the Strip.”33 The stunt was only called off after journalists “contacted Palestinian newspapers and Gaza-based industrialists to explain that the tankers were, in fact, full, but that Hamas was purposely not drawing the fuel. As a result, internal Palestinian pressure mounted, and Hamas had no choice but to distribute the fuel.”34 Once again, Hamas hoodwinked the well-meaning NGOs and media.
Finally, AI might be better advised to redirect its efforts to entities that are genuinely in need of humanitarian assistance and that are not terrorizing their neighbors. In fact, Gazans receive the greatest amount of international aid per capita of any entity in the world.35 Perhaps, nine hundred million dollars, the sum pledged to rebuild Gaza by Secretary of State Clinton,36 would go a long way towards alleviating the suffering of the millions who live in desperate circumstances in Haiti. The Haitians would not divert the foreign aid to launch missiles, rockets, and mortars toward the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Pictures of Gaza, from “Palestine Today” November 26, 2009, taken from Tom Gross Mideast Media Analysis
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1. “Suffocating: The Gaza Strip Under Israeli Blockade,” Index: MDE 15/002/2010, Jan. 2010, http://www.amnesty.ie/amnesty/upload/images/amnesty_ie/campaigns/Israel%20OPT/Suffocating%20The%20Gaza%20Strip%20under%20Israeli%20Blockade.pdf
2. “The Hamas Terror War Against Israel,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as of January 14, 2010, http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Terrorism-+Obstacle+to+Peace/Palestinian+terror+since+2000/Missile+fire+from+Gaza+on+Israeli+civilian+targets+Aug+2007.htm; “Israel to Impose Hamas sanctions,” BBC News, February 19, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4729000.stm
3. “Increased Humanitarian Aid to Gaza after IDF Operation,” Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, Israeli Ministry of Defense, January 9, 2010, http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Government/Communiques/2009/Increased_humanitarian_aid_Gaza_after_IDF_operation_Jan_2009
4. Tim Butcher, “Gaza Doesn’t Need Aid: It Has a £2bn Gas Field,” Daily Telegraph, November 7, 2007, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2007/11/07/do0705.xml.
5. The World Factbook – Gaza Strip, CIA, 15 July 2008, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gz.html#Intro.
6. “Life Expectancy at Birth – Country Comparison,” as of January 1, 2008, http://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?t=50&v=30.
8. “India Life Expectancy at Birth,” as of May 16, 2008, http://www.indexmundi.com/india/life_expectancy_at_birth.html .
9. “Ukraine Life Expectancy at Birth,” as of May 16, 2008, http://indexmundi.com/ukraine/life_expectancy_at_birth.html.
10. “FactCheck: Glasgow Worse than Gaza?,” Channel 4 News, 7 July, 2008, http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/society/health/factcheck+glasgow+worse+than+gaza/2320267.
11. The World Factbook – Gaza Strip, CIA, 15 July 2008, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gz.html#Intro.
12. “Infant Mortality Rate – Country Comparison,” as of January 1, 2008, http://indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?c=tp&v=29.
17. The World Factbook – Gaza Strip, CIA, 15 July 2008, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gz.html#Intro.
18. “Literacy – Country Comparison,” as of January 1, 2008, http://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?c=in&v=39.
21. “The Final Results of the Second PLC Elections,” Central Elections Commission – Palestine, January 29, 2006, http://www.elections.ps/template.aspx?id=291
24. “Rights Groups: Humanitarian ‘Implosion’ Grips Gaza,” CNN, March 6, 2008, http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/meast/03/06/gaza.crisis/?iref=hpmostpop.
25. Encyclopedia of Public International Law, 335 (1986); Oppenheim’s International Law, 134 (H. Lauterpacht ed., 7th ed. 1952).
26. Elisabeth Zoller, Peacetime Unilateral Remedies: An Analysis of Countermeasures 7 (1984).
27. Examples of retorsions are legion in international affairs. The U.S., for example, froze trade with Uganda in 1978 following accusations of genocide, and with Iran after the 1979 Revolution. In 2000, fourteen European states suspended various diplomatic relations with Austria in protest of the participation of Jorg Haider in the government. Numerous states suspended trade and diplomatic relations with South Africa as punishment for apartheid practices. In none of these cases was the charge of “collective punishment” even raised. “Punishing” an entity with restrictions on international trade is not identical to carrying out “collective punishment.”
28. Article 75(4)(b) of Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Victims of International Armed Conflict, June 8, 1977, 1125 UNT.S. 3-608. While Israel is not a party to the Protocol, the prohibition on collective punishment is considered to reflect customary international law. See Dinstein, supra note 17, at 21.
30. Yaakov Katz, “Security and Defense: A Colonel of Hope,” Jerusalem Post, July 31, 2008, http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1215331161934&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull.
35. Carol Migdalovitz, “Israel-Arab Negotiations: Background, Conflicts, and U.S.,” CRS Report RL33530, Dec. 22, 2006, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/crs/rs22370.pd
36. Reuters, “U.S. plans to pledge $900 million for Gaza,” Feb. 23, 2009, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1066381.html