By Tim Livesey
Embrace the Middle East
Gaza is always a paradox: never out of the news for long — for all the wrong reasons — but never, alas, in the news for long enough. Hard to get into, and not often visited; but equally hard to get out of when things go wrong, and all but impossible to leave if you are Gazan.
Visitors are cherished and treated like family, but most come infrequently and rarely to stay long. Embrace the Middle East is no exception. All the more disappointing when the opportunity to reconnect with partners is stymied at the last minute.
My colleague and I were poised and ready to travel last month. There had been some positive developments since our last visit, and new opportunities were opening up for expanded partnership support. Then disaster struck. In the early hours of the morning we were due to travel an Israeli Special Forces operation, apparently infiltrating the Strip to make contact with an intelligence source, was rumbled. A fire fight broke out. One Israeli soldier was killed, another injured, with seven Palestinian fighters dead. This was the prelude to much deadlier ordnance arriving on either side of the border. Israeli fighters scrambled to provide heavy bombardment to cover the retreat of their forces. Hamas replied with rocket attacks. A period of relative calm,
which had seen some unexpected and positive developments at the macro level, was violently interrupted with lives on both sides needlessly lost.
That is just one small vignette in the precarious life lived by the inhabitants of the Gaza strip, and by Israelis living in Southern Israeli towns within reach of lethal rocket attacks: an almost certainly routine military operation goes wrong, lives are lost, positive initiatives are compromised, a few dramatic headlines are flashed across breaking news wires and another black day begins for the suffering people of Gaza.
When will it end? When will this blockade be lifted? No one seems to believe it will be any time soon. You have to ask yourself why; and the answer can’t simply be, as some rather glibly suggest, ‘Hamas’. Whatever you think about Hamas, and there is no doubt that both it, and the Palestinian Authority, bear some responsibility for the situation of Gaza’s suffering population, neither are actually responsible for blockading Gaza. And when did any of us decide that the answer to the advent of a distasteful, even in some eyes repugnant, regime – we can all think of a few – is to collectively punish two million people? The blockade is largely policed by Israel, sometimes, it seems, almost on a whim. The fishing limit of 20 nautical miles agreed under the Oslo Accords was reduced unilaterally by Israel, first to 12, then to nine and then again to six in 2012. It now oscillates between three and nine nautical miles. Egypt, which has serious security concerns of its own, controls the southern checkpoint at Rafah, which opens only very rarely. And the international community seems to be doing nothing to stop this situation.
So the odd bit of good news needs to be seized and highlighted, even if it flickers like a candle in the wind the moment trouble breaks out. We don’t know exactly why, but the Qatar government has decided to pick up the tab for the hundreds of thousands of public servants who for months have been denied their salaries by the Palestinian Authority because of its disagreements with Hamas.
This is a huge help to desperate families, and a major boost to an economy on permanent life support. It should not be remarkable that people actually get paid their salaries (well 60 per cent anyway). But that’s not all. Qatar has also paid for millions of dollars of fuel so that Gaza’s only, largely defunct, generating plant can once again produce electricity.
For years Gazans have had to live with on average four hours, or less, of electricity, arriving at some point in the day or the night – Gazans never know when. Suddenly, out of the blue, there is electricity for 24 hours. If maintained this could be transformative. We can only hope, and give credit where, all too infrequently, it is due – in this case to the government of Qatar. The slow death of Gaza is a scandal that has to be addressed: by everyone. This is not the time for cutting aid, as the US government so shockingly chose to do. It is the time to say, echoing recently canonised Oscar Romero: ‘Enough. The killing must stop’.
Let’s all do what we can – lobbying our representatives, praying in our churches, giving to those who are providing practical humanitarian support. That way we not only help to save lives, to bring some education and dignity to the disinherited; we also tell politicians and diplomats that standing by hand wringing is not remotely acceptable.