[Published June 2010]
The Red Cross - like the United Nations - has unfortunately chosen to play the political card in calling for Israel to end its blockade of Gaza - rather than using its prestige and influence to call for the Gazans to be given the opportunity to be evacuated from Gaza until the political situation is resolved.
The political standoff in Gaza is complicated, has been ongoing since 2007 and is unlikely to be resolved for a considerable period of time.
The disputants and disputes are many and varied - but all involve Hamas as the current governing authority in Gaza in dispute with:
1. Israel - as it seeks to end Hamas political control in Gaza, stop the firing of rockets from Gaza into civilian population centers in Israel, foil the ongoing attempts at terrorist incursions into Israel from Gaza, and procure the release of its captured soldier Gilad Shalit who has been denied visits from the Red Cross for the last four years
2. The Palestinian Authority - as it seeks to regain political control of Gaza since its loss to Hamas in a bloody coup in 2007 and to confirm its authority to control the direction and enforcement of any decisions to be made in the ongoing negotiations with Israel for the “two state solution”
3. Egypt - as it resists efforts to lift its blockade of Gaza which it has been enforcing jointly with Israel in its own national interest since 2007
4. America and the European Union - as they continue to grapple with how to deal with Hamas - declared to be a terrorist organization by them.
The ending of the blockade will not make these disputes disappear overnight. It will only strengthen Hamas and serve to make these disputes even more difficult to resolve. It will afford Hamas the opportunity to build up its military power and allow the free entry of terrorists into and out of Gaza.
Neither Israel nor Egypt will end their blockade although they have already taken steps to ease their effect. Any such steps will not greatly help reduce the shambles that Gaza has become.
Stuck in the middle are Gaza’s residents. They cannot be considered entirely blameless for the precarious position in which they find themselves.
On not one but two occasions Gazans have elected Hamas to power over its rival Fatah - the party chaired by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
In municipal elections held in the 10 districts comprising Gaza in January 2005, Hamas won 75 seats out of the 118 seats contested.
This result was then replicated in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006 when Hamas won 15 out of the 24 seats in Gaza with Fatah winning only 6. Hamas captured 74 seats to Fatah’s 45 seats out of the 132 seats contested in the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas can certainly claim it has a mandate to rule as Gaza’s government. However no opportunity has been given to Gazans to say whether they wish Hamas to continue in power - and there is no indication Hamas will give them that opportunity in the near future.
The release of a report this week by an Israeli human rights organization - B’Tselem - shows the price Gazans are paying at this very moment and underscores why evacuation must be offered to them as an immediate option.
The report states that :
1. 98 percent of Gaza residents suffer from planned blackouts lasting up to eight or ten hours a day. The other two percent of the population do not receive any electricity at allHamas is now holding Gazans to ransom in its bid to maintain and increase its political power in Gaza as it refuses to accept from Israel any permitted humanitarian aid such as foodstuffs and medicine intercepted by Israel on the Gaza flotilla and the Rachel Corrie last week.
2. At the end of 2009, 93 percent of the wells were found to be polluted with high quantities of chloride and nitrates, far in excess of the World Health Organization’s recommended levels. The water supply is defective, and thousands of residents are not even connected to the water grid. Waste treatment has also been affected: every day, some 100,000 cubic meters of untreated, or partially untreated, wastewater flow into the sea.
3. Since January 2009 fishermen are not allowed to go more than three nautical miles from the coast. The waters within this range yield a meager supply of fish, and fishermen find it difficult to make a living and to meet the demand for fish.
4. 95 percent of the factories and workshops are closed. Tens of thousands of persons have lost their livelihood, and unemployment now exceeds 40 percent. As a result, more than 70 percent of the population depends on aid from international organizations to obtain food.
5. Exports of manufactured goods and agricultural produce other than strawberries and flowers is prohibited.
Hamas’ refusal to allow the delivery of such aid should be reason enough for the Red Cross to call for the evacuation of Gaza’s civilian population. Hamas is now blatantly attempting - for political reasons - to bite the humanitarian aid hand that feeds its citizens.
Knowing the straits Gazans are in - the Red Cross can only be seen as complicit in any further suffering of Gaza’s civilian population if it fails to call for such an evacuation.
Playing the blame game and attempting to place the responsibility for the current problems in Gaza on Israel alone - when other nations are just as involved in bringing Hamas to its heels - is not going to solve the Gazans’ suffering.
Taking action now to evacuate the Gazans will relieve that suffering until the political issues have been resolved. Perhaps Hamas will attempt to stop Gazans being evacuated. Perhaps many will not want to leave.
Until the Red Cross canvasses these options no one will really know.
What is critically important however is that the Red Cross gets on its moral high horse and calls for evacuation - and soon. That does not mean ceasing to call for both Israel and Egypt to ease - or end - the blockade. But no easing - or even an end to the blockade - can terminate the massive humanitarian problems publicly revealed in B’Tselem’s report in the short term.
Evacuation is an option that must be pursued - and the Red Cross should be in the vanguard demanding it be implemented.
Failure to do so will define the Red Cross as completely lacking in impartiality. It will endanger the proud record the Red Cross has established as a humanitarian organization assisting and relieving human suffering - irrespective of the politics that create those humanitarian problems.
Trying to play the political card will only ensure that the Red Cross will become another victim in the ongoing conflict between Hamas and its political adversaries