The starving of Gaza

February 6, 2009

Eric Ruder explains why Israel's offensive against Gaza will continue to claim lives for years to come.

ISRAEL'S WAR on Gaza took a terrible toll in human casualties. Bodies are still being exhumed from the rubble, and Israel's refusal to open Gaza's border crossings to allow in humanitarian supplies has made treating the injured a tortuously slow endeavor.

But one less-noticed effect of Israel's brutal assault on the civilian and economic infrastructure of Gaza--combined with the suffocating effects of the 18-month siege that came before--is the further destruction of Gaza's long-term ability to provide food for its population.

The United Nations Children's Fund said that economic losses as a result of the war total $1.9 billion, which is significantly larger than Gaza's annual economic output. "According to the World Food Program, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and Palestinian officials, between 35 percent and 60 percent of the agriculture industry has been wrecked by the three-week Israeli attack," reported Britain's Guardian newspaper.

This could make a huge portion of Gaza's population entirely dependent on food aid from the outside. "When we have given a food ration in Gaza, it was never a full ration, but to complement the diet," said Christine van Nieuwenhuyse, the World Food Program's country director. "Now it is going to be almost impossible for Gaza to produce the food it needs for the next six to eight months, assuming that the agriculture can be rehabilitated."

Ahmed Hussein's chicken farm in the Jabalya refugee camp was demolished by an Israeli air strike
Ahmed Hussein's chicken farm in the Jabalya refugee camp was demolished by an Israeli air strike (Elliott Woods | Sipa)

The effects are hitting home for Samir Sawafiri, a poultry farmer. Surveying the carcasses of some 65,000 chickens strewn across his farm in Zeitoun, while several dozen live chickens--the only ones that survived the war--scrounged for food, Sawafiri told a reporter, "They are all that is left, and I have nowhere to put them."

The poultry farms around Zeitoun, which is on the eastern edge of Gaza City, once provided the bulk of Gaza's fresh eggs. But almost nothing remains standing now.

"I evacuated on January 9," said Sawafiri. "Three days later, on January 12, tanks came with bulldozers and leveled the fields. They wanted to spoil the economy--that's the only answer. There's no justification for what they did."

Rebuilding the farms will require investment running into the tens of millions of dollars, according to Fuad El-Jamassi, director of Gaza's Environmental and Health Ministry. Further complicating the rebuilding process is the fact that Israel does not allow live animals to cross into Gaza. So the only hope of restocking Gaza's poultry farms depends on whether Israel will restrict the import of fertilized eggs, which can then be taken to a hatchery.

THE MOST pressing challenge for many of Gaza's farmers is planting crops in the next week or two, or they will miss the growing season. But their fields have been destroyed by Israel's repeated bombardments, and are strewn with debris, unexploded ordnance and hazardous chemical dust.

Aid organizations such as Oxfam and Save the Children have been waiting for Israel's permission to deliver humanitarian supplies massed at the border. But for more than two weeks, Israel has refused to allow them through Gaza's border crossings. "We've had every reason under the sun given to us for not going in...Security, not the right day, that is was closed for holiday, that the right people were not available, that we would hear tomorrow," says Mike Baily of Oxfam.

Oxfam is seeking to deliver basic items such as food and medicine, but it also plans to do what it can to help Gaza's farmers prepare their fields for the critical planting deadline. "If we don't plant crops now, we won't harvest in three or four month's time, and the one and a half million people of Gaza will be completely dependent on food aid," says Baily.

Evonne Frederickson, an aid worker with Sweden's Palestinian Solidarity Association, tells the same story. Her efforts to get mental health experts and doctors into Gaza have been repeatedly stymied. But she says that Israeli policy toward aid agencies has been capricious for a long time. "Sometimes you get in, sometimes you don't, so they're playing with those who are working with the aid to Gaza," she says.

On February 5, Israel announced it would allow 100 trucks a day through Gaza's border crossings with humanitarian relief supplies. But that's still less than the 130 trucks a day that crossed on average during the second half of 2008, and far less than the 600 trucks a day estimated to be needed to sustain Gaza's population and provide the critical goods necessary for rebuilding its shattered economy.

Another pressing threat to Gaza's agricultural viability is the raw sewage and toxic chemicals that threaten to contaminate the fields and leech into Gaza's groundwater system.

"This is a top priority," said Jens Toyberg-Frandzen, a special representative of the UN Development Program. "The rubble is mixed with poisonous harmful materials, and may include unexploded ordnances. It needs to be urgently removed to protect the lives of Palestinians in Gaza and to facilitate immediate access to basic humanitarian and social services."

El-Jamassi worries about the need for experts familiar with the chemicals used by Israel to assess the situation. "There were many chemicals used here by the Israelis--there has been chemical dust in the air," he said. "We need experts to come tell us what to do, if this is safe. There are no experts here."

Contamination of Gaza's water supply from failed sewage systems also poses a significant risk. According to Rachel Bergstein, who reports regularly on environmental issues in the Middle East:

Gaza's ecological conditions are already conducive to groundwater pollution. The sandy desert soil tends to absorb water--or pollutants like sewage--easily. Also, the groundwater is fairly close to the surface, so access wells are fairly shallow and easily contaminated...

Due to both a lack of investment and an inability to access materials and equipment for repairs, Gaza's sewage treatment infrastructure was in a pretty bad state of disrepair before the war began at the end of December. Israel's military actions caused even more damage to many of the pipes. As a result, top water engineers in Gaza report that the entire system is on the verge of collapse, posing a severe threat to Gaza's groundwater resources.

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