Running the Gaza blockade 
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent 
From: The Australian 
June 12, 2010 12:00AM 

Cargo is pulled through a tunnel Picture: Sylvie LeClezio Source: Supplied 

Life can be cruel inside the besieged Palestinian territory, but who is 
responsible? A special report 

IT'S hard watching a baby slowly die. He's only five days old and you can see 
how hard his little chest is thumping. He seems to be fighting to stay alive.

It's 9.24 on Wednesday morning this week and he has only 36 minutes of 
guaranteed life left.

After that, he's on his own. He's got a heart problem and needs a medication 
that would be available in any hospital in Australia.

Gaza doesn't have any more prostaglandin. It can't get through Israel's and 
Egypt's blockade of the strip of land.

The night before, at 10, the boy had been given the hospital's final batch, 
which an aid worker had smuggled into Gaza and whose effect would last 12 hours.

Three days before, the hospital faxed off a referral note stamped Urgent, but 
the chances of the boy getting through the Erez crossing into an Israeli 
hospital are virtually nil.

So Seraj Abu Jarad is dying.

Another baby near him is dying too. Her name is Noor Taha and she's 34 days 
old. Both her kidneys are failing and doctors need to do a CT scan before they 
know exactly how to treat her, but a tube has broken on the CT machine and the 
hospital hasn't been able to get the tubes into Gaza.

Unlike Seraj Abu Jarad, Noor Taha's cloudy little eyes are open as she tries to 

One doctor says her condition is critical, very bad. The hospital cannot send a 
request for her to enter Israel until it has an accurate diagnosis and it 
cannot do that without a CT machine. So Noor Taha is dying, too.

Another girl, aged nine, may die as well. Because of a lack of equipment, her 
lymphoma was not diagnosed early enough for effective intervention.

Once it was diagnosed, the hospital tried to get her into Israel for treatment 
of a disease that is usually manageable.

It took seven months for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to process her 
paperwork, during which time the tumour grew and spread into her lungs.

As the siege of Gaza enters its fourth year, its problems are starting to run 
into each other; because Gaza's sewage, untreated, runs into the beaches, 
children are getting sick; because electricity is cut for eight to 12 hours a 
day, some of those who can afford a generator are being brought to hospital 
with carbon monoxide poisoning; because food is scarce, mothers are sometimes 
breastfeeding their children until the age of two, leading to malnutrition.

Doctors in Gaza have no drugs for cystic fibrosis patients and none for 

Gaza has suddenly become the Middle East's new battlefield.

This week the Obama administration intervened with a huge injection of money 
and a call for a new approach.

Some blame Israel for the siege. Some blame Hamas. Some blame Egypt. The truth 
is, they are probably all culpable, one way or another.

Israel's blame surely must be for allowing so few medications and medical 
equipment into Gaza. Hamas's blame must come from its prolonged period of 
firing rockets into Israel, which led to the blockade almost four years ago. 
And Egypt can be blamed for its refusal to allow the sick and dying to enter 
the country for treatment, a ban lifted only this week.

The tragedy was evident this week in the case of the dying five-day-old, Seraj 
Abu Jarad.

He was up against it from the start, a full-term baby born weighing only 2kg.

Doctors in Gaza tell Inquirer they have been seeing more babies with congenital 
problems, which they think could be due to chemicals such as white phosphorous, 
which Israel used in last year's 22-day war.

Israel initially denied using white phosphorous but has since admitted it.

Doctors around Seraj at Nasser Pediatric Hospital ask if there's anybody in 
Israel I can call to get him through the Erez crossing to a hospital in Israel.

What happens during the next few hours shows why this conflict is so hard to 

There is a political problem between the director of the hospital and the Hamas 
medical committee. He is not allowed to contact the Palestinian Authority 
directly; there is a problem between Gaza and the West Bank. Because Gaza is 
Hamas and the West Bank is Fatah, the West Bank medical authorities, who decide 
which cases are considered for an Israeli hospital, appear to give Gaza 
patients a lower priority. Then there is a problem in the Palestinian Authority 
getting a quick decision from Israel.

I start by calling Yigal Palmor, Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman. I fax him 
Seraj's referral, which had gone to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank 
three days earlier. The Gaza hospital has not heard a word. Because doctors in 
Gaza cannot deal directly with Israel, they cannot fax Palmor. So it leads to 
the absurd situation that I am sitting in the office of the director of the 
hospital faxing Palmor the referral.

Palmor then rings the military to ask them to be ready to allow an ambulance 
with the baby through Erez. Seraj could be in an Israeli hospital within 90 

But the military say they need a formal request from the PA.

As all this goes on, the hospital asks the same aid worker who donated the last 
lot for more prostaglandin. It gives Seraj another two days.

Whether he lives longer than a week is now down to whether a bureaucrat in the 
West Bank decides to push the case and a bureaucrat in Israel decides to send a 
fax approving his journey between Gaza and Israel into a hospital.

It all becomes ground down in bureaucracy and the agendas of various groups 
that dislike each other at best and loathe each other at worst.

This is the siege of Gaza.

AS Israeli Air Force jets roar overhead, our fixer suggests we do our 
interviews quickly, as some of the owners of Gaza's tunnels are becoming 

They don't like questions about profit and insist they are developing this huge 
network of tunnels from Egypt into Gaza because of the blockade that has 
hermetically sealed this small strip of land.

Israel and Egypt are concerned the tunnels are used not just for goods but to 
smuggle into Gaza weapons that are then used against Israel.

Israel periodically bombs the tunnel system -- craters are clearly visible -- 
and while 100 or so are estimated to have been destroyed, hundreds of others 
continue or have been built as a response.

Egypt has also begun building a wall near the tunnels -- about 10km long and up 
to 30m deep -- to try to cut off the system.

When I ask one owner about profits he begins shouting: "My children need food. 
Dogs in other parts of the world eat better than our children!"

The tunnel operators have a vested interest in maintaining the blockade; they 
stand to lose tens of millions of dollars should it end. A European official 
who knows Gaza as well as anyone tells me what he says is one of the great 
unwritten stories about Gaza: that it is the tunnel operators firing the 

It's generally accepted now -- even by Israel -- that Hamas has halted rockets.

The war of last year wrought such terrible consequences for Gaza and its 1.5 
million people that more retaliation is the last thing Hamas wants now.

"We have declared a unilateral ceasefire," senior Hamas political adviser Ahmed 
Yousef tells Inquirer in an interview in his Gaza office.

"The priority now is how to take care of our people after the war."

There's a strong logic to the argument of the European that the tunnel 
operators, many of whom have their licences only because they have paid Hamas, 
would be the biggest losers should the embargo be lifted.

And a pattern of behaviour certainly fits with the theory; almost every time 
Israel begins talking about a period of calm with Gaza or every time Israel 
comes under pressure to lift the blockade, rockets are fired.

As news emerged last week of the nine killed on the flotilla and international 
reaction called on Israel to lift the blockade, suddenly there were rockets 
fired from Gaza into Israel.

Tunnel-owner Abu Ali rejects the notion it could be the tunnel owners firing 
the rockets: "No one can fire rockets unless Hamas and the factions of Hamas 
approve," he says.

But that's not really a no.

The 1000 or so tunnels are estimated to amount to a $100 million economy. Hamas 
approves, monitors and taxes each tunnel, which costs on average about $200,000 
to build.

Virtually everything for sale in Gaza comes through the tunnels: cars, fridges, 
washing machines, goats, cows, fruit, medicines, wood, cooking oil, petrol, 
water purifiers, wheelchairs: everything.

Each tunnel is covered by a tent, and as we walk from tent to tent it is not 
uncommon to see workers sleeping in the corner until their shift begins.

Today, Abu Ali is renovating his tunnel, which specialises in oranges, ceramic 
tiles, cigarettes and fuel. He says the taxes Hamas imposes are particularly 
high on petrol and cigarettes, about $1 a packet of cigarettes.

Following the raid by Israeli commandos on the flotilla an international debate 
has begun about the real state of Gaza.

Israel says there is no humanitarian crisis in this strip of land wedged 
between Israel and Egypt. The 1.5 million inhabitants here, it argues, have 
reasonable standards of living. It's a strange argument for Israel to make: to 
argue its navy can prevent any ships or boats entering Gaza, that no planes can 
land because it has bombed the airport and that its army can prevent any land 
access, yet they have no effect.

Surely a peculiar admission of failure were it true.

The Government Press Office of Israel sent foreign journalists menus from 
Gaza's restaurants recently to show the high life some Gazans were living.

GPO head Danny Seaman recommended the cream of spinach soup.

But humanitarian workers say the situation is desperate.

So what's the reality?

This week Inquirer visited Gaza to make an assessment.

It's obvious the place is steadily becoming more Islamic in nature. It has 
always had a strong secular element though now more and more women, about one 
in four, are wearing the full black burka.

Hamas has set up a new checkpoint on the road into Gaza City from Erez 
crossing. A sign on the wall shows the new mood: alcohol will be confiscated, 
seized, destroyed and, the most painful phrase of all, poured out in front of 
its owners.

As the siege bites, Gaza is becoming an incubator of radicalism. Hamas has made 
it clear to local media it does not want it writing about the new radical 
groups because outsiders will think Hamas is allowing them to grow.

The five groups are Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of God), Ansar Al Sunna 
(Supporters of God), Army of Islam, Army of the Nation and Jaljalat. A 
Palestinian journalist asked the leader of one of these groups, all of which 
are Sunni Muslims, what he would do if he came across a Shia Muslim. Indicating 
he was cutting a leg with a knife, the leader answered: "Slaughter him."

It takes a lot to make Hamas look like moderates, but these groups do. They are 
all affiliated with al-Qa'ida. Jund Ansar Allah had a shoot-out with Hamas last 
year in which 24 people were killed. It ended when the leader detonated his own 
explosives vest.

Jaljalat is a breakaway from Hamas. When Hamas decided to contest the election 
in Gaza four years ago Jaljalat broke away, saying Muslims answered to God, not 
elections. Many in Gaza believe if it is not tunnel operators firing rockets 
into Israel these days, it is most likely Jaljalat.

The siege is taking its toll in all sorts of ways.

Driving from the Erez crossing in the north to the Rafah crossing in the south 
and back again, Inquirer saw that most businesses had closed.

There are pockets of high activity, such as the central markets in Gaza City 
and Rafah, but this is clearly an impoverished society.

Previously, the fishing industry was a mainstay but now, with the Israeli navy 
shooting at boats that go more than 3km from shore, fishing has largely died.

So has construction. Israel argues cement and steel can be used to create 
bunkers to be used in another war with Israel, so these are banned.

One of the few boom industries in Gaza is false limbs.

Israel launched a 22-day ground war on Gaza last year in response to the firing 
of rockets by Hamas on and off for eight years.

The World Health Organisation reported last July that 221 Gazans had required 
amputation of limbs following the war and the main local producer of prostheses 
has had to train more staff and increase production.

Israel's Gisha legal centre has compiled a full list of casualties from the 
war: more than 1440 Palestinians were killed, including 431 children and 114 
women; and 5380 Palestinians were injured, including 1872 children and 800 

On the Israeli side, three civilians and 11 soldiers were killed and 182 
civilians and 340 soldiers were injured.

In a report, Red Lines Crossed: Destruction of Gaza's Infrastructure, Gisha 
reports that it was before the war -- the end of 2008 -- when Israel closed 
Gaza's border crossings almost completely, that its infrastructure was brought 
to the brink of collapse.

The report says the war left electricity, water and sanitation structures 
seriously damaged, yet to this day Israel still blocks their full repair.

The report calls on Israel to end the blockade, subject to individual and 
appropriate security checks.

In March last year, medical journal The Lancet published an investigation that 
attributed blame all around: on the Israeli side for the military invasion in 
January last year and on the Palestinian side because of divisions between 
Fatah and Hamas and general corruption and cronyism.

Whoever is at fault, the children are suffering most: while in 1996 7.2 per 
cent of children had stunted growth, in 2006 this had risen to 10.2 per cent. 
Aid workers say Gaza is one of the few places where this generation of children 
will be smaller than their parents.

When Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin visited in January, he was shocked 
by how small the children were.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East reported 
last year that 30 per cent of children under 36 months had anaemia and 50 per 
cent of pregnant women did.

The Lancet investigation found many problems associated with restrictions of 
movement on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza: during a six-year period, 
69 Palestinian women had not been able to make it to hospital and had given 
birth at an Israeli military checkpoint.

But you do see cement and steel: the tunnels make sure of that. We watch as 
workers frantically pull steel rods from a tunnel at a work rate BHP would 
envy: a clump of five steel rods every two minutes.

While Obama and others this week have been discussing what they think should 
happen in Gaza, the immediate reality is in the hands of Hamas.

To get a sense of where Hamas is going now, I interviewed two Hamas figures, 
Bashir Abu al-Najah, who enforces borders, and Ahmed Yousef, political adviser 
to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Al-Najah is conservative, singing without 
deviation from the Hamas song book. His claims: that supporters of Fatah, the 
rival of Hamas, are able to express their views openly, that Hamas has no 
financial crisis, and he makes no concessions regarding Israel.

I ask him if the embargo were lifted would Hamas guarantee Israel's security. 
"From the very first days of Israel's establishment here they have been talking 
about security," he says. It is illogical.

That's a no. His claim that people are able openly to support Fatah is 
described by one Gazan investigative journalist as "just a lie". Stories are 
legion about Fatah supporters who have been shot, imprisoned or had their legs 
broken by Hamas.

Any Fatah supporter considering going public needs only to consider the fate of 
Muhammad Swairki, 28, a Fatah supporter who had his hands and feet tied by 
members of Hamas before they threw him from the 15th floor of a building in 

The other senior Hamas official Inquirer interviews, Yousef, claims Hamas has 
already demonstrated that Israel's security will not be endangered because it 
was no longer firing rockets.

The occasional rockets that are fired, he argues, are not from Hamas, but 
because Hamas cannot get close enough to the border to stop the individuals who 
are doing it, they continue from time to time.

He argues that because all the rockets that have been fired in recent months 
have always landed in open spaces, they may have been fired by Israeli 
collaborators who want to maintain pressure on Hamas by keeping the siege in 

He also shows that animosity between Hamas and Fatah continues.

Fatah was stunned when it lost the election of 2007, he says. "They had been in 
politics for 40 years and we just 20 and when Hamas won the election, they 
considered it like an insult.

"They tried to do their best to undermine Hamas."

Have Fatah people in Gaza had their legs broken by Hamas?

"There were people being killed, being disappeared, by all political parties 
and nobody can claim to be clean 100 per cent," he says.

"The Israelis were here for 40 years, have a lot of collaborators here, there 
were people being shot and having legs broken, but this is the norm."

While some in Hamas say they will never drop violence against Israel, when I 
ask Yousef what it would take for Hamas to drop its military campaign, he says: 
"End the occupation."

By that does he mean the West Bank and does not include Israel proper, as some 
in Hamas do? "Yes, we would accept a Palestine based on 1967 borders with 
Jerusalem as the capital."

Essentially, that means Hamas shares the same view as Fatah: support for a 
two-state solution with a shared Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestine.

He says he expects Hamas and Fatah to unite within weeks.

Yousef insists the campaign to launch attacks inside Israel by suicide bombings 
is over.

"When was the last time there was a suicide bombing in Israel?" he asks.

"These were not helping us any more and gave Israel leverage to use against us.

"You don't use a tool which is ineffective."

Yousef points to the sending of boats to try to break the siege as the new 

"We are now following the non-violent approach. Let people come to break the 
siege by boat and put pressure on Israel."

The new focus on Gaza may give some hope for the next generation, but it will 
probably be too late for five-day-old Seraj Abu Jarad and 34-day-old Noor Taha.

Related Coverage
  a.. Hamas abandons suicide bombings The Australian, 2 hours ago
  b.. Spy fears shake Hamas to the core The Australian, 5 Mar 2010
  c.. Israeli airstrike injures eight Adelaide Now, 22 Nov 2009
  d.. Israeli air strikes target Gaza tunnels Herald Sun, 14 Jun 2009
  e.. Hamas accused of murdering 32 Gazans The Australian, 20 Apr 2009

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