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A crisis of dignity in Gaza

Mary Robinson
13 January 2009

All signs increasingly point to an Israeli assault in Gaza which contravenes international legal norms relating in particular to proportionality and collective punishment. This response, tragically, is but the latest in an escalating series of measures which not only fail to protect the Israeli people from terrorist attacks but further fan the flames of conflict across the region.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is founder and president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative

Last November I visited the Gaza Strip for the first time in eight years, leading a small delegation of women leaders on a fact-finding mission to the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel which sought to hear and learn from the women of the region. I was shocked by the situation caused by the blockage on Gaza in terms of loss of livelihoods, restrictions on movement and a range of other human rights violations. The UN calls it an 18-month "human dignity crisis". Anyone who has seen the suffering can’t help but feel outraged. Many women I met asked why, given the truce was in place, Israel did not open the borders for at least some civilian activity to take place.

Although Hamas had established order, basic freedoms – of speech, association and religion – were becoming restricted. We had in-depth discussions with Palestinian and Israeli women leaders and community members. They were unified in their conviction that more must be done by both sides to achieve peaceful, and, therefore, more durable, solutions to the conflict. They urged us to do everything possible to help ensure the truce between Israel and Hamas would hold.

Thus it was particularly distressing to see Hamas refuse to extend the cease-fire which expired on 19 December and to watch as Israel launched an all out war which is now compounding the suffering that already existed. The most recent attacks come after more than fifty days of an almost-complete blockade of Gaza, exacerbating a dire humanitarian crisis in which more than three-quarters of the Gaza Strip’s 1.5 million residents became dependent upon direct food provision, and where supplies of water, medicines, electricity, diesel, cooking oil and even food are unpredictable and unreliable.

It was appalling to hear while in Gaza that the UN had a stockpile of over $150 million of building materials for repairing health clinics and schools in Gaza which the Israeli government had blocked at the border. It was heartrending to listen to poor women farmers in the village of Beit Hanoun beg to be able to work. “Our land has been bulldozed,” they told me. “We learned embroidery, but we have no thread. We learned to make candles, but we have no wax.” “Our children are hungry and the sick have no medicine.” Now I picture these women with no water or electricity, pounded from the sky with bombs and explosives and enduring an invasion. I am profoundly shocked and dismayed that this is becoming the “new normal”.

What is to be done now? Clearly, diplomatic efforts to forge a new cease-fire must be intensified and succeed. I add my voice to the call by groups like the International Women’s Commission (IWC) for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian–Israeli Peace – an alliance of Israeli and Palestinian women leaders who have demanded an immediate cessation of the aggression by the Israeli military forces in Gaza, which has already cost hundreds of lives. Just as Israel must end its assault on Gaza, Hamas must stop firing missiles into Israel. Only then can the painstaking work of returning to comprehensive peace talks which include Palestinian unity begin anew.

On the humanitarian front, support to hospitals and distribution of food as well as restoration of electricity, basic sanitation and other services must be facilitated urgently, including through access to border crossings that have been closed. The recent reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross accusing Israel of delaying ambulance access to Gaza to assist the wounded is particularly troubling and yet another potential breach of international humanitarian law.

As things stand at present, only the extremists are winning. War is destroying the middle east. A new way forward must be found, one which ensures both that Israelis can live in peace and security and that the Palestinian people, who have suffered far too much for far too long, are finally able to live in dignity. 

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