ARISH, Egypt Yesterday, en route to the Rafah border crossing that
leads into Gaza, our driver pointed to a long line of trucks laden with
goods that are desperately needed in every area of Gaza. "You see," he said,
"all of this is to help people." Generous people, around the world, want
Gazans to have food, shelter, fuel, medicine and water while the Israeli
military ruthlessly attacks their homes and neighborhoods. The aid shipments
will surely save lives and ease affliction. Nevertheless, this relief will
meet only a fraction of the need. What's more, the Egyptian government's
recent decision to allow humanitarian goods into Gaza through the Rafah
border crossing, a border over which they have sovereign control, is a departure
from the normal state of siege that Gazans have endured for most of the
past sixteen months.
A friend, Caoihme Butterly, who had lived in Gaza during the period when
the borders were sealed, told me that the limited access to food drove up
the prices for basic foods. "A kilo of lentils cost $4.00, but the
average person lived on less that $2.00 per day. "Gazans don't
want to live on charity," said Caoihme, "but the humanitarian
provisions become political. We were campaigning just to have the border
open once a week, but we didn't succeed."
It seems that mutual understanding about the need to open Gaza's borders
had been achieved in the negotiations that established a June
19th, 2008 cease-fire agreement between Israel and Gaza.
Israel agreed that 72 hours after the mutual agreement took effect, crossing
points into Gaza would open up to allow 30% more goods to enter Gaza. Thirteen
days later, all crossing points would be open between
Gaza and Israel, and Israel would allow "the transfer of all goods
that were banned or restricted to go into Gaza."
Jimmy Carter, in a January 8, 2009 Washington Post article entitled
"An Unnecessary War," noted that if importation of humanitarian supplies
had returned to the normal level that had existed before Israel's 2005
withdrawal from Gaza, 700 trucks would have passed through the opened borders
every day, carrying food, water, medicine and fuel. Carter writes that,
following the June 19th agreement, "rocket firing was soon
stopped and there was an increase in supplies of food, water, medicine and
fuel. Yet the increase was to an average of about 20 percent of normal levels.
And this fragile truce was partially broken on Nov. 4, when Israel launched
an attack in Gaza to destroy a defensive tunnel being dug by Hamas inside
the wall that encloses Gaza."
It's true that Hamas's consequent decision to fire primitive rockets
into Israeli villages caused terror, panic and demoralization amongst Israelis
living in those villages. I believe it's wrong to use weapons under any
circumstance. Attacks against civilians prompt spiraling, hideous waves
of retaliation and revenge. But Israel responded with a disproportionate
capacity to inflict harm and suffering by imposing a state of siege, targeting
innocent civilians by denying them essential medicines, health care delivery,
fuel, water and food.
I learned about the horrors of economic warfare during repeated visits
to Iraq, when civilians suffered under economic sanctions, when pediatric
wards in hospitals were like death rows for infants and hundreds of thousands
of children were punished to death. But I was a shamefully slow learner.
In 1991, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and before the United States
began bombing Iraq, I was part of the Gulf Peace Team, an assembly of international
peace activists camped on the Iraq side of the border between Saudi Arabia
and Iraq. "What alternative does the U.S. have?" reporters asked us. "Do
you think the U.S. should just sit back and allow Iraq to illegally invade
"The economic sanctions are a viable alternative," I said. "Continued use
of economic sanctions would be a less violent way to persuade Iraq's government
to leave Kuwait."
What a foolish and uninformed statement I'd made. Iraq was subjected to
thirteen years of the most comprehensive state of siege ever imposed in
modern history, and the sanctions directly contributed to the deaths of
hundreds of thousands of children. Now, many people committed to peacemaking
understand that economic warfare can be just as brutal and devastating as
bombing, although news coverage generally recedes and then disappears once
the bombing wars stop.
This morning, an Egyptian friend corrected me when I questioned him about
the June 9th, 2008 cease-fire negotiation between Israel and
Gaza's Hamas government. "In fact there was no cease-fire," he said.
"The war became an economic war, and it targeted civilians who had committed
no crime, particularly children."
People who live on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing understand
the impact of the bombing. At a tea shop and a barber shop, windows are
cracked. An owner of a small shop near the border told me that his children
can't sleep at night because they hear constant explosions. The Egyptian
community of Rafah has also witnessed, previously, month after month of
quiet inactivity at the Rafah border crossing, during the period when the
Egyptian and Israeli governments agreed to seal the border shut. Trapped,
isolated, hungry and desperate, Gazans endured economic warfare while the
world ignored their pleas for relief from slow motion death. We must call
for an immediate cease-fire and a "cease-siege." As the June 19th,
2008 agreement made clear, a ceasefire for Gaza cannot only mean an end
to bullets and bombs, but must also end the less visible-but equally destructive-economic
violence. I hope that trucks like the ones our driver pointed to will be
lined up for months and years, carrying tons of cement and reconstruction
materials, along with humanitarian relief, as Gazans rebuild, above ground,
constructing a peaceful future.