Gaza has become a prison, say church and human rights groups

By staff writers
December 6, 2006

Renewed violence in the Gaza Strip has exacerbated the humanitarian situation in a territory Palestinians call the "world's largest prison", say church and human rights organizations - writes Chris Herlinger for Ecumenical News International from Gaza City.

"We can't lose hope; otherwise it will be a disaster for the Palestinians," said Constantine S. Dabbagh, the executive director of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) committee for refugee work.

A truce along the Israeli-Gaza border has been called by Israel and has been holding in a precarious way. Still, on 1 December, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian in the West Bank, and militants in Gaza fired a rocket into Israel, raising the number launched since the cease-fire began to more than a dozen, news agencies reported.

Gaza is a thin, 360 square-kilometre coastal area crammed with 1.4 million residents. It borders the Mediterranean and Israel, but is cut off from the West Bank, the area West of the River Jordan that Israel occupied in 1967 and where most Palestinians live.

Asked about the MECC's work and current conditions, Dabbagh said he remained pessimistic, and that US and Western support for Israel is underwriting "perpetual atrocities and massacres in this part of the intentionally forgotten planet". Though Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, leaving it in the hands of the Palestinian Authority, it still holds what a coalition of Israeli human rights groups said in a November statement is "decisive control over central elements of Palestinian life in the Gaza Strip".

This includes complete control over Gaza's air space and territorial waters, as well as movement in and out of Gaza, including overseeing all crossing points between Gaza and Israel.

The Israeli rights coalition includes groups such as B'Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Rabbis for Human Rights, and the Israeli sections of Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights. The groups acknowledge Israel's right to defend itself and that all parties in the current conflict, including Israel and Hamas, the Islamist movement now in control of the Palestinian legislature, must respect international humanitarian law.

They said: "Israel bears legal obligations regarding those spheres that it continues to control." The Israeli rights groups noted that about 80 per cent of Gaza's population "is extremely poor, living on less than 2 US dollars a day", with a majority of the population remaining dependant on international humanitarian food assistance.

The groups also noted that Gaza is effectively sealed off from the rest of the world and that in June, Israel bombed Gaza's only independent power station which produced 43 per cent of the electricity used by residents. They said further, that in the four months until mid-November, the Israeli military had killed more than 300 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and that more than half of those killed were unarmed civilians and 61 were children.

In a November 2006 interview with journalists writing for US religious publications, Bahij Mansour, a one-time member of the Israeli diplomatic corps who now heads Israel's department of religious affairs, said: "I know the Gaza people are suffering." Still, he added that Israel could not minimise the threat it feels from Hamas, which has pledged to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic state.

Mansour said a Hamas-controlled government could not be trusted to exert control over Gaza and stop rocket attacks against Israel.

For his part, the MECC's Dabbagh said Israel's security will depend less on Israeli force than on an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories; a more even-handed approach toward the region by the United States; and by improving the humanitarian situation in Palestinian areas.

"Israel can't guarantee its security by doing what it's doing," Dabbagh said. "We have a right to be free from this bloody occupation."

Chris Herlinger, a New York-based correspondent for ENI and a winner of the 2006 Eileen Egan Award for Journalistic Excellence, recently travelled to Israel and the Palestinian territories as part of the prize awarded by Catholic Relief Services.

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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