As Israel`s siege of Gaza bites deeper, ever more Palestinians languish in sickness or poverty, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Prayer time and afternoon naps excepted, Mohamed Saleh and Hassan Barak spend most of their day together conversing at the crossroads separating their homes in the southern quarter of Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp in central Gaza. Saleh and Barak, who both work in construction, have been unemployed since Hamas took exclusive control of the Gaza Strip. Since then, Israel has tightened its stifling siege of the Strip and prohibited the entrance of materials used in construction, putting the entire sector out of work. The housing project begun with European and Arab funding in the suburbs of the Tel Sultan neighbourhood south of Rafah has ground to a halt, as have the infrastructure projects of local councils across the Strip.
Industrial activity in Gaza has practically halted as well. According to statistics of the Palestinian Businessmen`s Association, 3,190 factories in the Strip have closed because of the inability to import raw materials. This has rendered 56,000 workers unemployed. Further aggravating the situation, Israel has barred Palestinian farmers from exporting their agricultural crops through commercial crossings along the border separating the Strip from Israel, crashing prices and the internal market for producers.
Maher Al-Tabaa, director of public relations in the Gaza Chamber of Commerce, notes that due to the siege imposed on the Strip, merchants are losing $5 million a day, a sum that when distributed across the Strip affects the life and bare survival of thousands of families. Al-Tabaa warns that the price of consumer goods will rise significantly due to the closure of Gaza`s commercial crossings.
The siege situation has, naturally, greatly exacerbated poverty overall in the Strip. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2006 57 per cent of Palestinian families had a monthly income below the national poverty line, while 44 per cent of that number was classified as being in extreme poverty. Adnan Abu Hasna, spokesperson of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), told Al-Ahram Weekly that the number of those dependent on UN aid in the Strip amounts to 782,000. He noted that this number is expected to increase soon: `In the space of a few weeks, people will depend entirely on external aid if the situation remains as it is.` (Ed. See article today `UNRWA Warns of Economic Collapse...`
In addition, the siege has led to a catastrophic deterioration in health conditions. According to statistics of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, more than 150 types of medicines have run out in hospitals and health clinics. Most of them are essential to treating patients with chronic diseases. The centre notes that 20 kinds of medicines have run out in all of Gaza`s private pharmacies, seriously impacting the health status of thousands. Two weeks ago, hundreds of dialysis patients sent a heart-wrenching letter to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Abbas-dismissed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh asking them to provide treatment so that they do not die.
Lack of medicine is not the only problem facing patients in Gaza due to the siege. Much medical equipment, particularly x-ray machines, no longer works because necessary maintenance cannot be undertaken. Maawiya Hasanein, director of the Emergency Department in the Palestinian Ministry of Health, told the Weekly that 80 per cent of x-ray machines in Gaza`s hospitals are broken, in addition to most CAT scan machines. Dialysis machines and other medical equipment cannot be serviced. Hasanein pointed out that a number of operations have been delayed because the necessary equipment and anaesthetics are not available.
Basim Naim, minister of health in Haniyeh`s dismissed government, says that the siege and closure of Gaza`s crossings are the reasons for the major crisis facing patients in Gaza. In a statement to the Weekly, Naim said that most medicine in the Ministry of Health is in Ramallah. Naim says that health conditions in Gaza seem all the more tragic given the presence of large medicine factories in the West Bank, a fact that has made it relatively easy to find treatment and meet medicinal needs in the West Bank.
Naim does not hold the government of Abbas- appointed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad responsible for the deteriorating health situation in Gaza. He notes that despite differences between the two governments, there is close cooperation in order to overcome the crisis caused by the lack of medicine.
Obviously, the siege has greatly increased restrictions on Palestinians` freedom of movement. Although most of those stranded at the Rafah border crossing have now returned to the Strip, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza want to leave for reasons related to personal commitments, due to their health conditions, or to complete their university education.
While not as severe, the general situation is not so much different in the West Bank. According to Abdul- Rahman Al-Tamimi, head of the Association of Palestinian Hydrologists, 600,000 Palestinians in the West Bank are deprived of drinking water because they cannot pay their water bills. Al-Tamimi says that due to deteriorating circumstances, 50 per cent of consumers are currently not paying their water bills, a fact that in turn has affected the ability of local councils in the West Bank to pay for the water they acquire from the Qatari- Israeli water company Mekorot.
It is striking that in contrast to the impression Abbas and his advisors have tried to put across, meetings with Israelis have not led to an improvement of conditions for Palestinians. On the contrary, conditions have worsened. Mustafa Al-Barghouti, former Palestinian media minister and head of the Independent Palestine bloc in the Palestinian Legislative Council, notes that despite Israel`s talk of removing military checkpoints from roads in the West Bank, these checkpoints have increased, jumping from 545 in 2005 to 693 currently. `These meetings create a very misleading impression, and form a cover that allows Israel to continue its project of expansion and aggression against the Palestinian people,` Barghouti told the Weekly.
Barghouti notes that the number of settlers in the West Bank has increased by 50 per cent since Israel began to implement the disengagement plan in Gaza in 2005. Barghouti also notes that since 255 Palestinian prisoners were released, following the latest Sharm El-Sheikh summit, Israel has arrested 336 Palestinians, 50 per cent more than were released. Barghouti says that Israel currently holds 11,000 Palestinians, among them 426 children. Barghouti laments the fact that by continuing to hold meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Abbas is contributing to the misleading of Palestinian, Arab and international public opinion. Barghouti suggests that Israel is coordinating a public relations campaign through these meetings, and nothing more.
Barghouti stresses that the role played by foreign interests has a negative effect on domestic Palestinian relations, particularly between Fatah and Hamas. He has proposed an initiative for dialogue that aims to rescue Palestinians from current crisis; an initiative based on the formation of a transitional government and dissolving the two standing governments in the West Bank and Gaza. For Barghouti, the first mission that must be undertaken is to re-unify Palestinian administrative control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Also pressing is reform of Palestinian security agencies; their restructuring on a professional basis removed from partisan interests. His proposed transitional government would undertake preparations for fresh elections in which all Palestinian parties would take part, leading to the formation of a true national unity government.