Australia must join others in calling for the full lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, for humanitarian purposes. The blockade cannot be accepted as normal; it is clearly collective punishment under international law.
Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (22:14): I would like to speak on the issue of Israel and Palestine, as vexed as it is. From the outset, I want to acknowledge that both Israel and Palestine have the right to live in peace within secure borders. I am grateful for the meeting I had with APAN—the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network—just yesterday. I want to reflect on Gaza. Even before the latest period of conflict in Gaza, at least two-thirds of the population were reliant on food aid and 90 per cent of the aquifer water was unfit for human consumption. Unemployment was 45 per cent, with youth unemployment at almost 70 per cent. 1.8 million people live on a strip of land that is only 11 kilometres wide and 51 kilometres long, making it one of the most densely populated places on earth. Gaza has been living under an Israeli blockade since 2007 when Israel placed massive restrictions over movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza. They have even placed restrictions on how far out fishermen can go from Gaza’s shores. There are reports that boats that drift over the line are shot at. Most recently, a fisherman was killed on 7 March 2015.
However, between 7 July and 26 August 2014, Israel launched a massive military assault on Gaza through Operation Protective Edge, causing catastrophic effects. I want to make it clear that Israel responded to a number of rockets being fired into Israeli territory, itself a war crime and an act that cannot be justified under any circumstances. But the issue of whether the response was proportionate or not is one that we must reflect on. Preliminary reports from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs say that this resulted in 2,131 fatalities, including 501 children. Over 11,000 people were injured, and it is estimated that 1,000 children will have a permanent disability. The Israeli military action destroyed or severely damaged 18,000 homes. Essential infrastructure was also destroyed—12 per cent of wells were damaged or destroyed, 22 schools were completely destroyed and 118 schools were damaged. An air strike destroyed Gaza’s only power plant, affecting a range of services, including water treatment plants, leading to raw sewage flowing through the strip and into the sea.
More than six months after the cessation of hostilities, Gaza looks as though the attacks occurred only yesterday, according to Jessica Morrison from APAN, who was just there relatively recently. Although $5.4 billion was pledged by international donors in the wake of the crisis, only a tiny fraction has been paid. And the Israeli blockade is providing mountains of red tape, restricting access any aid that has been paid to a large extent.
In a statement of 26 February, Oxfam stated that:
… it could take more than 100 years to complete essential building of homes, schools and health facilities in Gaza unless the Israeli blockade is lifted …
They said that:
Less than 0.25 percent of the truckloads of essential construction materials needed have entered Gaza in the past three months. Six months since the end of the conflict, the situation in Gaza is becoming increasingly desperate. Oxfam is calling for an urgent end to the blockade of Gaza, which has now been in place for nearly eight years.
Oxfam is a well-respected international aid agency organisation; we should heed their concerns.
One horrific example of the effects of this lack of reconstruction is baby Salma, who died of hypothermia at just 40 days old in January this year. Chris Gunness of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East reports:
I meet Salma’s mother, Mirvat, and 14 members of her extended family in the very place, indeed the room, where Salma slept during her last night at home. They still live there in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, in a tiny three-room wooden structure, covered with plastic. When I see it from the road, I assume it houses animals. The door is a blanket which flaps in the biting wind. It is raining. Water flows in. Mirvat pulls back the sodden carpet that serves as flooring and scoops the wet sand below. Memories of Salma’s death on 9 January are painfully fresh.
“The night she died the storm was strong. We were all soaking wet, but some of us managed to sleep. The rain came and in and drenched Salma’s blankets. I found her shaking. Her tiny body was frozen like ice-cream. We took her to hospital, but later the doctor called. Salma was dead. My beautiful girl weighed 3.1kg at birth. She was healthy and would be alive today if we had not been bombed out of our home in the war and reduced to living like this.”
During the Gaza conflict last summer, Mirvat, her husband and four children lived in a complex of five simple buildings with their 40-member extended family, just one kilometre from the barrier between Gaza and Israel. Her father-in-law, Jibril, knew that life on the frontline was unsustainable.
“There was a smell of death in the air. The children were traumatised and couldn’t sleep,” he tells me. “After a week of fighting we fled as the bombs fell around us, terrified for our lives. We went to my brother’s house, but that became too dangerous, so we took refuge in a hospital. After an hour, that was hit, so we ran to the shelter of an UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] school. There were thousands of us living in a school built for one thousand students. So after the war we came here.”
Linking this tragedy to a larger scale, the UN relief and works agency, tasked with delivering aid, developed a program to provide rental subsidies to families who could not pay their rent. Chris Gunness, the Senior Director of UNRWA says:
After the conference in Cairo last October at which donors pledged $5.4bn to rebuild Gaza, we created a $720m project. With the generous pledges at Cairo we were certain the funds would be there. Or so we thought. With this money, we aimed to give rental subsidies to people whose homes were uninhabitable. We hoped to give cash so people could repair and rebuild their houses. But the billions pledged did not materialise and the programme was left with a shortfall of nearly $600m.
The day after we announced suspension of the cash assistance, anger boiled over. The office in Gaza of the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process was attacked. The threat of violence remains. You can feel it in the air, just like last summer.
On 26 February, 30 aid agencies released a joint statement entitled ‘We must not fail in Gaza’. They said that:
As UN agencies and international NGOs operating in Gaza, we are alarmed by the limited progress in rebuilding the lives of those affected and tackling the root causes of the conflict.
They ask for action from the international community. They ask that cash assistance to families be provided, they say that little of the $5.4 billion pledged has reached Gaza and they ask for action from Israel. They say:
Israel, as the occupying power, is the main duty bearer and must comply with its obligations under international law.
International law is the key to this. They also say:
In particular, it must fully lift the blockade, within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 1860 (2009).
They also point to Egypt and the other donors who have yet to pay, the need for Egypt to open the Rafah crossing most urgently for humanitarian causes and that donor pledges must be translated into disbursements.
Since the call by aid agencies, there have been some hopeful developments. In the last two weeks Israel has allowed some small amounts of fruit-and-vegetable exports from Gaza into Israel, and a thousand tonnes of cement arrived in Gaza last week from Qatar. This shows the importance of strong international pressure towards gaining action.
Australia, to its credit, pledged $15 million to the Gaza reconstruction, and I understand that this has been paid. This is one practical step. However, this aid money is such a small drop in the bucket, and our contribution remains at risk of not being effectively used, because of the blockade. Australia must join others in calling for the full lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, for humanitarian purposes. The blockade cannot be accepted as normal; it is clearly collective punishment under international law.
Back in July 2014, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said:
Going back to the status quo ante won’t solve the problem, it will only defer it for another day.
It will not stop the bloodshed, it will make it even worse the next time the cycle rolls over the people of Gaza and plagues the people of Israel.
Gaza is an open wound and Band Aids won’t help.
There must be a plan after the aftermath that allows Gaza to breathe and heal.
This plan, sadly, has not eventuated. It is not only to our deep shame but it is costing the lives and the future of Gazans. I add that this allows extremists to foment. Such an atmosphere allows those extreme elements of hatred to be incubated.
I also refer briefly to remarks made by Bishop George Browning of APAN, who has been a tremendous contributor in this debate. Essentially, he says that the future of the region lies in the respect that they can give to their neighbours and to each other. Palestinian, Arab or Israeli, they must have that respect for each other, and I urge the parties to do so. At the moment, there is an absolute imperative for the people of Gaza to get the aid they deserve to be able to reconstruct and rebuild their lives.