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"We are facing a complete collapse"
Strangulation of the Palestinians

May 26, 2006 | Page 12

NICOLE COLSON reports on the nightmarish conditions imposed on Palestinians by Israel's iron grip.

"WE HAVE about two weeks to go. After that, we face complete collapse." That was the judgment earlier this month of Dr. Ibrahim el Habbash, the director of al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza.

Al-Shifa is just one casualty of a growing humanitarian crisis affecting Palestinians in the wake of the cutoff of hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid and tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Unless funding is restored, experts predict that the sanitation and sewage systems may collapse--opening the door to the possibility of epidemics of preventable diseases like cholera in some of the most densely populated areas on the planet.

The sanctions came following the landslide victory of the Islamist Hamas party in January to lead the PA. In retaliation, the Bush administration announced it would cut up to $411 million in aid over the next few years, while the European Union suspended about $600 million in annual aid.

Israel has withheld the monthly transfer of more than $50 million in taxes and customs fees that it collects "on behalf" of Palestinians--though it continues to pay Israeli companies about $5.5 million a month from those receipts for water and electricity used by Palestinians. Israel also has closed checkpoints, preventing Palestinians from crossing the border to work and forcing Palestinian farmers to leave their crops to rot in fields.

While promises of aid have come from some Arab states, most international banks have refused to transfer funds to the PA, for fear of running afoul of the U.S, which classifies Hamas as a "terrorist" organization.

Thus, the PA can no longer pay its 167,000 public-sector employees. Doctors and staff at hospitals like al-Shifa have not been paid since February, and anesthetics, bandages, drugs and dialysis equipment are scarce. "I am afraid that, after two weeks, we won't even be able to do [emergency surgeries]," Dr. Juma Al Saqqa, a physician at al-Shifa, told the Baltimore Sun.

Earlier this month, a fuel shortage left many gas stations in the West Bank and Gaza dry after the Israeli fuel company Dor Energy--the only fuel provider to Palestinians since the mid-1990s--cut off deliveries because of growing debts. While the PA was eventually able to secure fuel deliveries for the next three months, another shortage looms.

Basim Naim, the Palestinian health minister, recently told Britain's Telegraph, "The West is killing Arabs and Muslims with their policy of withholding funds--it is as simple as that."

Even before the current crackdown, more than 60 percent of the Palestinian population was living on less than $2.10 per day. Now, according to a World Bank report, things will get much worse.

Even with "restrained" cuts to aid, the Palestinian economy "would experience a dramatic decline over the coming eight months: by the end of 2006, average personal income would decrease by 30 percent in real terms, unemployment would increase from the pre-election figure of [about] 23 percent to about 40 percent, and poverty levels would climb from 44 percent last year to 67 percent," the report stated.

The crisis is especially severe in Gaza, where almost 40 percent of those employed work for the PA, and the unemployment rate is now more than 70 percent. Yet in an interview last week with the New York Times, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denied that there was a humanitarian crisis.

Olmert is seeking the unilateral settlement of Israel's permanent borders by annexing even more Palestinian land and building thousands of new Jewish-only housing units in the occupied West Bank. Meanwhile, Israel continues a campaign of daily terror against Palestinians, responding to a handful of homemade rocket attacks with massive artillery assaults on civilian areas.

The Israeli government, moreover, is fostering divisions between Hamas and Fatah, the former ruling party of Yasser Arafat.

In the past week, there have been several armed clashes in and around Gaza City between Fatah forces and a new 3,000-strong security force set up by the Hamas-led government in defiance of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is aligned with Fatah. Last week, border guards loyal to Abbas briefly detained a Hamas aide at a Gaza border crossing when he was allegedly caught smuggling money into Palestinian territory.

Abbas, who is viewed by Israel and the U.S. as more pliant, has called for the Hamas security force to be disbanded--and launched a criminal investigation into the supposed smuggling.

Abbas was scheduled to meet with Olmert's top aides to discuss "economic matters" as Socialist Worker went to press--meaning that Israel will likely use the humanitarian crisis to further pressure Abbas into taking action against Hamas.

Olmert has all but demanded a civil war between Fatah and Hamas, saying that Abbas should dismantle Hamas as an armed group. "It's not a call automatically for a civil confrontation," Olmert told the New York Times, but added, "At the same time, I have to say, how can any political entity tolerate the existence of many armed groups fighting against each other in the streets?"

But the perpetrator of violence is not Hamas. It is Israel.

Israel's institutional racism against Palestinians was on display earlier this month as the Israeli Supreme Court upheld a 2003 law barring Palestinians from living with an Israeli spouse inside Israel. With one in five of Israel's population Palestinian by descent, the real aim of the law, as a recent editorial in the Jerusalem Post admitted, is to strip Palestinians of any rights to their historic homeland.

As Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah recently wrote, "Within Israeli society, the dehumanization of Palestinians continues to advance: A new poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 62 percent of Israelis support 'government-backed Arab emigration'--in other words ethnic cleansing of Palestinians."

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