Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ignoring the plight in Gaza

THE LIGHTS are out in Gaza again and few are paying attention. The 1.5 million Palestinians living in the densely populated strip are being collectively punished once more, while Israel attempts to strangle the Hamas government. The UN agency that feeds hundreds of thousands of people is unable to get supplies in because the border is closed, and a plea from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has been ignored.

Today, Gaza is a horrifying and miserable place. In many areas, the air smells like human waste because of failures in the sewage system that have led to raw sewage overflows. Mosquitoes swarm throughout the area.

When Israel first withdrew its settlers from Gaza in the fall of 2005, it followed the withdrawal with a campaign of sonic booms. Terrifying noises banged through the night. Children began displaying zombie-like behavior and consistently complained of nightmares. Miscarriages rose dramatically during this period.

After Hamas was democratically elected, sanctions followed and the grip began to tighten on the Gaza Strip. Fuel supplies ran short, malnutrition rose, and Gaza's only power plant could not be relied on to provide electricity. Store shelves were often empty of food, and many who were already impoverished were now struggling even more.

And what, if anything, has been gained by all this? If the objective was to diminish public support for the Hamas government, it is hardly working.

Some public-opinion polling of Palestinians has consistently showed that Hamas remains as popular today as it was before it was elected. Some polls also indicate that Hamas garners its highest approval ratings when the collective measures against the Gaza Strip have been most punitive.

But aside from the fact that the Israeli policy of collective punishment, and world complacency to it, is counterproductive, there is a greater problem with this policy: It is morally reprehensible.

In 1949, when Soviets had surrounded Berlin and were ready to choke a war-torn population into submission, the Western world refused to stand silent. In the boldest move in the history of the Cold War, the United States spearheaded an airlift of food and supplies to Berlin, flying in the face of Soviet oppression, confident the Soviets would not fire upon humanitarian aid.

Where, one has to wonder, is that moral courage now?

I am not asking President Bush or President-elect Obama to declare "Ana Ghazawi," the Palestinian equivalent of "Ich bin ein Berliner." Rather, the United States should strongly state to Israel that this failed policy is only hurting innocent civilians and is making Israel and the United States look terrible in the process. While Hamas must moderate its positions if it is to be considered a legitimate political player, this policy has failed to change Hamas.

The collective punishment in Gaza has left a deep and troubling scar on America's image in the world and has hindered our ability to maneuver politically in the region. If we are truly living in a new era, and change has come, let us hope it will come for the innocent civilians in Gaza too.

Yousef Munayyer is a policy analyst for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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