By Sami Abdel-Shafi, senior partner at Emerge Consulting Group, in Gaza City (THE GUARDIAN, 08/11/06):
The initiation of Avigdor Lieberman – widely regarded as an outright racist – into Ehud Olmert’s Israeli government seems to have already brought a taste of things to come. For the past week, the Gaza Strip city of Beit Hanoun has been made a ground zero by the Israeli army. By yesterday, more than 260 Palestinians lay dead and injured, with 53 fatalities – women, children and ambulance drivers among them.
The Israeli army had vowed to end the firing of home-made rockets towards southern Israel. Many Palestinians disagree with the use of these makeshift rockets, but regard Israeli offensives as flagrantly disproportionate. Beit Hanoun was left with no men between the ages of 16 and 45 in the wake of a massive forced round-up by the Israeli army last Thursday night amid helicopter gunfire, tanks and artillery shelling. Women and children in the city sent urgent calls for help through Gaza’s radio stations. To these jobless women, losing their men meant breakdown in their households.
On Friday morning, scores of women marched through Beit Hanoun in a spontaneous rush to aid friends and loved ones after hearing their pleas. Unarmed, they were shot at by Israeli soldiers from their tanks; two women were left dead and others severely injured. These women were said to have been heading to a mosque to free armed men who took refuge there. Television footage and interviews with witnesses show these women posed no military threat, but they were treated as such by the Israeli army without warning.
Meanwhile, Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”), envisages expelling Palestinians or subjecting them to such misery that they are forced to leave. The party’s spin doctors state it more mildly, saying that it proposes to relocate Palestinians to areas under the Palestinian Authority’s control. The Beit Hanoun offensive offers an example of what lies in store for them.
Today, the Palestinian Authority tries to govern a besieged Gaza Strip and a West Bank with disconnected cities and villages. The 1.4 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are imprisoned by closure policies, impoverished and without any hope of a dignified life or economic development. The 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank are quickly catching up in a collapse created by the dozens of Israeli military checkpoints and the separation wall which make their lives impossible. Israeli restrictions on movement have made the Palestinians of East Jerusalem look as though they live in a faraway country, from the point of view of West Bankers and Gazans.
The present subjugation of Palestinians to siege, poverty and confinement – in addition to continuing Israeli military attacks – can only make it easier for our people to slip into infighting and tragedy. Both the international community and peace-loving Israelis and Palestinians will inevitably face ever more criticism for their failure to stem this tide of misery. Even to those who never supported Hamas, it is impossible to ignore such a huge double standard: the outside world accepts Lieberman’s appointment as deputy prime minister, despite his extreme views, while it boycotts the Palestinian Authority’s elected Hamas administration.
One can only wonder at Olmert’s insistence that his deputy will not diminish whatever prospects remain of peace. Israel’s offensives against Gaza punish an entire population. Bulldozing the area’s water and sewage systems, including those built with international donor funding, killing civilians and subjecting tens of thousands of residents to oppressive military measures represent the reality of Israel’s policy, whatever its stated objectives.