The Israeli blockade threatens the functioning and survival of the Gaza Strip’s trapped inhabitants
THERE IS not much left of the Warsaw Ghetto now. The last time I was there, I made a point of looking for traces of it. All that survives of the high brick wall built by order of the Nazis in 1940 to enclose an area of about 5sq km is a short stretch in a courtyard off Zlota street. It is a sad little remnant of the merciless persecution of Poland’s Jews.
The fact that so little is left is no surprise, because the ghetto (a term that originated in Venice) was pulverised in 1943 after the Nazis crushed a heroic uprising by resistance groups. Until then, it had been crammed with Warsaw’s Jewish citizens and, later, Jewish refugees from other parts of Poland – well over 350,000 at the height of it.
Most of them were “liquidated” in the death camp of Treblinka, 100km from Warsaw. Before that (and many came to know or at least suspect the terrible fate that lay in store for them), the Jews were confined to the ghetto – to make them easier to round up when the time came. And since most were not allowed to work, life was very difficult.
Food was rationed. According to the University of Northampton’s Holocaust research project, the official ration in the Warsaw Ghetto probably amounted to about 800 calories a day per person, “half the ration for non-Jewish Poles and a third the ration for Germans in Poland. (One peanut butter sandwich . . . contains over 350 calories)”.
Inhabitants of the ghetto managed to survive by selling their remaining possessions to buy extra food, usually at exorbitant prices. Smuggling was rife, with hundreds of Jewish children wriggling through tunnels or holes in the wall, “sometimes several times a day . . . returning with goods that often weighed more than they did”.
I looked up the history of the Warsaw Ghetto after learning that two investigative reporters at the leading Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, had revealed the existence of a government document that apparently sets out "the minimum nutritional needs of Gaza's population, according to caloric intake and grams of food, parsed by age and gender". This document – which, naturally, the Israelis deny implementing – is entitled Food Needs in Gaza – Red Lines, and establishes minimal nutritional requirements for subsistence, or as an adviser to former prime minister Ehud Olmert said in early 2006: "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."
That was not long after Hamas had won the Palestinian parliamentary elections, to the immense chagrin of those who had repeatedly called for such a poll – notably the Israelis, their US allies and also the EU. Immediately afterwards, all aid was withdrawn. And when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel imposed its blockade.
“Now, nearing its third anniversary, it’s still in place, slowly suffocating and strangling 1.5 million people, trapped by closed borders, regular incursions and attacks, and shortages of everything needed to function and survive,” as Stephen Lendman wrote for the Chicago-based Mathaba News Agency, an independent “green media” group.
Consider the prohibitions they must endure, as revealed by Gisha, an Israeli non- governmental organisation that campaigns against the oppression of Palestinians. The list of prohibited items was disclosed last month, after the authorities had first claimed in court that this would “harm national security and possibly even diplomatic relations”.
In another blow to Israel’s image, the list included sage, cumin, cardamon, coriander, ginger, jam, vinegar, nutmeg, chocolate, fruit preserves, nuts, biscuits, sweets, potato chips, gas for soft drinks, dried fruit, fresh meat, glucose, flavour and smell enhancers, fabric for clothing, toys, notebooks, A4 paper and musical instruments.
It also included cement, plaster, tar and wood for construction (heaven forbid that the people of Gaza should be allowed to rebuild their homes after the Israeli onslaught 18 months ago), as well as razors, sewing machines, spare parts or heaters for hatcheries, irrigation pipes, fishing rods or nets, horses, donkeys, goats and cattle.
The Haaretzreport noted that Israel's policy is continually subject to change at the whim of the Co-ordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat), who's now screening the Rachel Corrie's cargo. "Any goods that we allow in or prohibit, you'll know about . . . by phone. That's the way we work," one of its officials was quoted as saying.
Lendman (an American Jew, incidentally) noted that Gisha has rightly termed the Israeli blockade as economic sanctions for collective punishment: “Claiming foods, medicines, fuel for electricity and other essential-to-life goods relate to security is outlandish and illegal under international law.” What’s shocking is that it has gone on for so long.
Given the scale of the restrictions imposed, smuggling is an essential lifeline for the Gaza Strip. Literally hundreds of tunnels have been dug under the border between Gaza and Egypt, Israel’s unlikely “partner”, and these serve as conduits for essential supplies, despite being bombed repeatedly from the air.
As for the Israeli “withdrawal” from Gaza in 2005, Palestinian American lawyer Gregory Khalil observed very early on that “Israel still controls every person, every good, literally every drop of water to enter or leave the Gaza Strip.” And it moves in whenever it wants, using helicopter gunships, fighter jets, tanks and phosphorous bombs.
Meanwhile, with even indirect peace talks stalled, the theft of Palestinian land continues, as the Israelis create “facts on the ground” month after month. I’ve also witnessed that myself; it’s like watching a re-run of the Plantation of Ulster.