Friday, July 09, 2010

Australian Labor debates the Gaza blockade

On 9 June 2010 Peter Jennings, Executive Officer of Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA (Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad), the ACTU's overseas aid organization, sent a letter to Australian MP’s about the conflict in Gaza. Excerpts from the letter below appear in italics. The response of Senator David Feeney (ALP) to each point appears within square brackets and in bold font:

We at Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA believe Australia should finally add its voice to those many nations calling for an end to the economic blockade of Gaza.

The siege of Gaza is now entering its fourth year. In the light of the recent killings of nine peace activists taking international aid to the people of Gaza, and given the fact that I am one of the few Australians who have been permitted to enter Gaza this year (I led a trade union delegation to the Middle East in March, and we spent three days in Gaza), I would like to share some reflections concerning the blockade of Gaza.

[Dear Mr Jennings

Thank you for your letter of 9 June concerning the Israeli blockade of Gaza. I’m writing to let you know that I thoroughly disagree with most of your assertions.

When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, agreements were reached between Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority allowing for the import and export of goods by land, through both the Israeli and Egyptian borders. Under this agreement, Israel also agreed to the opening of Gaza’s seaports and airport under international supervision.

In June 2007, however, Hamas seized control of Gaza from the PA in a violent military coup d’etat, and began using that territory as a base to launch rocket attacks against Israel.

The agreement between Israel and the PA was not renewed after it expired in 2008 due to the refusal of Hamas to act in accordance with the agreement.

Hamas is an organisation which is committed to the destruction of Israel by force. Its Charter states:

“Israel will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it. Hamas believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [holy land] consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgement Day. There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavours.”

Since 2006 some twenty-eight Israelis (and several Palestinians) have been killed by Hamas rocket attacks. Rockets are fired at random at Israeli towns, hitting Sderot, Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon. The rockets are imported in pieces from Syria and Iran, smuggled in by both land and sea. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called the Hamas rocket attacks “appalling and unacceptable,” and a “violation of basic humanitarian law.”

In June 2007 Israel imposed a land and sea blockade in an effort to prevent the importation of rockets and other weapons. Egypt also closed its border with Gaza.

I note that your letter makes no mention of the Egyptian blockade of Gaza.]

The Israeli economic blockade of Gaza is illegal. It contravenes international law, specifically, Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

[You assert that the blockade of Gaza is illegal, because it contravenes article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits collective punishment. I don’t accept this. The blockade is not collective punishment of the people of Gaza. It is a defensive measure intended to stop Hamas using Gaza as a missile platform from which to attack Israel.

The Convention was written in 1949 and was intended to regulate warfare between nation states. Its authors could not foresee a situation of conflict between a state and a non-state terrorist organisation such as Hamas. Israel is entitled to defend itself against attacks from such organisations, which of course recognise no international law.

If and when the Palestinian Authority re-asserts its internationally recognised authority over Gaza and disarms Hamas, the blockade can be lifted.

The Geneva Convention is not the only relevant piece of international law. The San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea of 1994 makes it clear that blockades are a legitimate and legal method of warfare. The Manual says that “Merchant vessels believed on reasonable grounds to be breaching a blockade may be captured. Merchant vessels which, after prior warning, clearly resist capture may be attacked.”

The Manual stipulates that: “The declaration or establishment of a blockade is prohibited if:

(a) it has the sole purpose of starving the civilian population or denying it other objects essential for its survival; or

(b) the damage to the civilian population is, or may be expected to be, excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade.”

The Israeli blockade is not a “starvation blockade,” nor is the hardship which the blockade is causing in Gaza disproportionate to the intended purpose of the blockade, which is to save the lives of the civilians, both Israeli and Palestinian, who are being killed as a result of Hamas’ attacks on Israel.]

The Israeli economic blockade of Gaza is inhumane. The blockade is causing immense human suffering for the 1.5 million people living in Gaza, and we know that in cases of deprivation and shortages, it is the women and children who usually suffer the most. The Gazan people have been driven from enjoying a moderate standard of living four years ago to now being amongst the poorest in the Middle East with 70% now living on less than $ US 1 a day, 75% surviving on UN-supplied food aid, and over 80% adult male unemployment. UNRWA statistics show that about one-quarter of the trucks are now permitted to enter Gaza each week compared with the average weekly number permitted to enter prior to June 2007 when the blockade began. UNRWA told us that Gazans were receiving only 80% of their daily food requirements, people were going hungry and there were emerging signs of child malnutrition.

[You assert that the blockade is inhumane. I don’t dispute that the blockade is causing hardship. I do dispute your contention that it is causing “immense human suffering” in Gaza.

Your source for this contention is stated as being UNRWA statistics and the testimony of UNRWA officials. UNRWA was long ago captured by Palestinian and pro-Palestinian activists. It is a bloated, corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy which serves mainly to line the pockets of its officials, to misappropriate international aid funds and channel them to terrorist organisations, and to keep the Palestinian people classed as “refugees” and in a state of dependence, more than sixty years after their ancestors left what is now the state of Israel. I don’t place much value on its assertions.

Fortunately, there are other sources of information about the state of affairs in Gaza. The fact is that Gaza is not totally blockaded. Goods are brought to Israel by sea, then sent into Gaza by land after inspection. Israel continues to supply Gaza with electricity, which Hamas pays for with international aid money (while at the same time firing rockets at the power plant which supplies it!).

In 2009 a total of 7,233 truckloads of goods, containing 115,000 tons of food, over 4,000 tons of medicines and medical equipment, 3.3 million litres of fuel and diesel, 95 truckloads of equipment for water and sewage systems and 3,700 tons of chloride for water purification, passed from Israel into Gaza. The shipment of goods into Gaza is made more difficult by the state of lawlessness there. Trucks are frequently hijacked, and goods are stolen for private sale at higher prices. Hamas insists on controlling the distribution of aid and refuses entry to some aid which it can’t control.

Thousands of people, both Palestinians and foreigners, legally enter and exit Gaza every month. During 2009 more than 10,500 patients from Gaza received medical treatment in Israel. Others included students studying abroad, sporting and cultural groups, and Muslims and Christians going on pilgrimages or to religious events. In addition, over 21,000 foreign staff members and over 400 diplomatic delegations entered Gaza in 2009.

Financially, Gaza is the recipient of huge amounts of international aid money, some of which it diverts to buying arms. Since 2007 monetary transfers to Gaza have totalled over US$5 billion. The Gulf Arab states, Iran and the EU make large donations to Gaza. Recently the Hamas government received US$40 million from the Islamic Development Bank and the Qatar Red Crescent Society to purchase hospital equipment. Further, the PA continues to pay the salaries of Gaza civil servants despite the Hamas seizure of power, and in fact spends half its budget in Gaza.

Recent visitors to Gaza do not share your dire view of conditions there. On June 3, Janine Zacharia wrote in The Washington Post;

“If you walk down Gaza City’s main thoroughfare, grocery stores are stocked wall-to-wall with everything from fresh Israeli yogurt and hummus to Cocoa Puffs. Pharmacies look as well-supplied as a typical Rite Aid in the United States.”

The Palestinian Ma’an News Agency said on February 19 that “Gaza markets are saturated with goods.”

Fuel is cheaper in Gaza than it is in Israel. The prices of cement and steel have dropped sharply this year because so much is being brought in from Egypt.

As you note yourself, the Gaza-Egypt border is de facto open to shipment of all kinds of goods.

Of course it’s not healthy that much of Gaza’s economic life depends on foreign aid rather than on a functioning economy – although Gaza is now again exporting fruit and flowers to Europe with Israeli assistance – and there is no doubt that there is considerable poverty and hardship in Gaza. But this is also to a large extent true of the Palestinian population on the West Bank and in the so-called “refugee” camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The root causes of Palestinian dependency and poverty are, firstly, the continuing state of war which exists between Israel and Palestinian terrorist organisations such as Hamas, and, secondly, the vested interest that UNRWA and other agencies opposed to the existence of Israel have in keeping the Palestinians poor, dependent and cooped up in camps as propaganda exhibits for their anti-Israel campaigns.]

The Israeli economic blockade of Gaza is counter-productive. The stated aim of the blockade is to undermine Hamas, but it is having the opposite effect. Goods are smuggled through the tunnels from Rafah, Egypt, and Hamas can now control what comes into Gaza, who gets it, and how much tax they will charge on it. Because of the blockade, Hamas’ power and control over the 1.5 million people of Gaza has increased, not decreased.

The Israeli economic blockade of Gaza is capricious. Although many houses, schools and public buildings were destroyed during the Israeli invasion on December 2008 and January 2009, very little cement is permitted into Gaza to rebuild. Does Israel really believe that the frustrated youth of Gaza will make rockets out of cement? Hair shampoo and conditioner is banned. Some foodstuffs are permitted, but not industrial margarine. Some clothing is permitted, but not textiles, so employment cannot be continued in the clothing factories. Cooking gas is permitted by Israel, but only about 60% of their daily needs.

The Israeli economic blockade of Gaza is unsustainable, according the USA Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, last week. What is Israel’s future plans for the blockade? To continue for another three years? Six years? Twelve years? How much further can the people of Gaza be pushed into poverty, frustration and anger? For Israel’s sake, friendly nations such as Australia need to assist with a circuit-breaker which will enable Israel to move away from this disastrously failed policy without losing face. What does Israel hope to achieve by continuing the blockade indefinitely?

[You assert that the blockade is counter-productive and unsustainable. These are matters of opinion. I agree that the blockade receives much negative publicity and that this fuels anti-Israel sentiment around the world. But that is also true of everything Israel does to defend itself. The West Bank security barrier, for example, has successfully ended the wave of Hamas suicide bombings which killed over 1,000 people (including one Australian), yet it is demonised as an “apartheid fence.”

I recognise Israel’s right to decide for itself what is necessary and sustainable for its own defence.

I would like to see the Gaza blockade ended as soon as possible. I would also like to see a peace settlement based on the creation of a Palestinian state, as soon as possible, in accordance with Labor policy. But neither of these things will be possible as long as organisations such as Hamas, and the states such as Iran and Syria which fund and arm them, continue to refuse to accept the existence of Israel. Even the PA, which officially recognises Israel, continues to insist on the so-called “right of return” for more than 4 million Palestinians to Israel, which would amount in effect to the liquidation of Israel.

I remind you that in 2000 Israeli Labour Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton offered Yasir Arafat a state taking in 94% of the West Bank plus Gaza, with shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. Arafat rejected this offer. It was repeated by Prime Minister Olmert in 2009, with the added offer of trading Israeli land for the areas in the West Bank now occupied by Israel settlers. PA leader Abbas again rejected the offer. It takes two to conclude peace. I am no particular admirer of the current Israeli administration, but no Israeli government can be expected to give away their country’s essential security interests. Peace requires an acceptance by the Palestinians and the Arab states of the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. Until that occurs the conflict will continue, and the people of Gaza and the West Bank will continue to suffer as a result.]

In recent days, many world leaders have spoken out against the economic blockade of Gaza, and calling on Israel to lift the blockade. These calls come from most of the leaders of Europe, from the UN’s Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon and the USA Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Our own Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, speaking in Parliament on June 1, said only that “there should be an easing of the blockade”.

We believe Israel should not just “ease” the blockade, but should observe the full Oslo Agreement, and allow into Gaza all the requirements of the population of Gaza. This would include not just food and medicines, but also cement for rebuilding (and therefore job creation), oil for re-starting industries and raw material for factories such as textiles.

In recent years, Australia has become a very, very close supporter of Israel, almost always voting with Israel in the United Nations, and rarely offering criticism for the 43 years of military occupation in the West Bank, the many human rights abuses, or the creeping annexation of Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This close, unquestioning friendship should give us influence with our friend, so please use this influence to demand an end to the harsh and illegal treatment of the 1.5 million men, women and children in Gaza.

We believe it is now time for Australia to finally add our voice to those nations strongly calling for an end to the economic blockade of Gaza.

[Finally, you assert that Australia should be putting pressure on Israel to lift the blockade. I reject this view. Israel has the same right to decide on what measures are needed for its defence and security that Australia has, and I’m sure you would not welcome other countries trying to dictate to us how we provide for our security. Nevertheless, I agree with the recent statement by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith that Israel should consider relaxing the blockade to allow easier shipment of supplies to Gaza. More broadly, Australia should continue its bipartisan policy of recent times – supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, while urging all parties to resume negotiations for a peace settlement based on mutual recognition of Israel and a Palestinian state.

It is a great shame that APHEDA – the international aid agency of the ACTU – should adopt such a highly partisan position in relation to Israel.

I would prefer that APHEDA’s energy was spent assisting in the important task of building and strengthening free trade unions and training workers, rather than in attacking Israeli policy.

I note that Israel has a long and proud tradition of trade unionism and that trade unions there enjoy a strong, respected and productive role in public life.

Perhaps APHEDA could aim to replicate this success in Gaza? In Syria? In Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

Perhaps APHEDA could agitate against the arrest and imprisonment of striking bus drivers in Tehran by the regime in Iran, rather than assisting Iran’s proxies in Gaza in their continuing efforts to de-legitimise and destroy the democratic state of Israel.

Yours sincerely
Senator for Victoria]
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