Gaza: unlock this prison

Geoffrey Bindman
7 March 2008

Geoffrey Bindman is a former chairman and vice-president of the Society of Labour Lawyers. He is chairman of the British Institute of Human Rights. Also by Geoffrey Bindman in openDemocracy:

"Justice in the world's light" (14 June 2001)

"Civil liberties and the 'war on terror'" (5 May 2004)

"From race to religion: the next deterrent law" (18 August 2004)

"War on terror or war on justice?" (3 March 2005)

"Human rights: can we afford them?" (2 February 2006)

The appalling situation of the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza strip has led a group of development and human-rights agencies - comprising Amnesty International UK, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Trócaire, Care International, Médecins du Monde UK, Cafod and Save the Children UK - to call for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of the blockade imposed by the Israeli government.

Their report - The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion (published on 6 March 2008) - describes the devastation the blockade has caused to the Gazan economy, resulting in the suspension of 95% of industrial operations and unemployment of nearly 50%.

The report quotes the chilling comment of the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Organisation (UNRWA): "Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and - some would say - encouragement of the international community."

The emphasis of the report is on the humanitarian crisis, but the origin of the crisis and the remedy are ultimately political. The Israeli justification for the blockade and for the violent assaults that have left scores of Palestinians (including women and children) dead and many more injured, is that rockets are being fired into Israel from Gaza by Hamas militants.


Without for a moment minimising the lethal nature of rockets fired into southern Israel (and eleven Israeli civilians in Sderot have died in the last four years, while others have been injured), by comparison to the widespread devastation caused in retaliation the situation is one of a clearly disproportionate response.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Gaza, Hamas, and the Israel-Palestine conflict:

Eóin Murray, "Alan Johnston: a reporter in Gaza" (22 April 2007)

Mient Jan Faber & Mary Kaldor, "Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report" (20 May 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Beyond peace: Israel, the Arab world, and Europe" (22 January 2008)

John Strawson, Rosemary Bechler, "Palestine: the pursuit of justice" (28 January 2008)

Eyad Sarraj, "'Gaza is quite a dynamic place now': an interview" (29 January 2008)

Yossi Alpher, "Gaza's agency, Israel's choice" (29 January 2008)

Shlomo Avineri, "Kosovo, Palestine, Iraq: the limits of analogy" (4 March 2008) International law requires self-defence to be proportionate. Israeli action has been grossly excessive. It has undoubtedly breached international law by targeting civilians and by imposing collective punishment. Yet the major international powers, which have a duty to enforce Israel's obligations under the Geneva conventions, have stood by, wringing their hands.

Unfortunately, discussion and dialogue with Hamas, the elected Palestinian government which controls Gaza and which has offered a ceasefire, has so far been ruled out. Yet, as Northern Ireland and countless other international conflict situations have shown, it is the only intelligent route to peace.

The hardline attitude of the Israelis in relation to the beleaguered Palestinians and to Hamas is a legacy of history that has outlived its time. When the state was founded sixty years ago Israelis were properly imbued with the determination that the holocaust should never be repeated. "Never again" made the protection of Jewish lives a supreme national commitment. The emergence of an uncompromisingly aggressive military posture seemed to many Jews not only necessary for Israel's security, but also an appropriate refutation of anti-semitic stereotypes.

The balance of power has now comprehensively shifted. Israel has utter military and economic superiority within its immediate region - even if it cannot avert rocket-attacks or such assaults as that against a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem on 6 March. Israel's proper aim of self-defence cannot come near to justifying the hammer-blows inflicted on the population of Gaza.

If the humanitarian case for a change of Israeli policy is not persuasive enough, the evident failure of the present policy should be enough. Governments hate to lose face by admitting error but the fact is that the blockade and the bombings have not stopped Palestinian rocket-attacks or indeed other operations. Far from enhancing Israeli security they have increased the determination of Palestinians to resist with any means available.

As The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion report says: "Peace will not be achieved by locking 1.5 million people into a prison of spiralling poverty and misery. Failure to end the policy of isolation will only continue the cycle of increasing poverty and extremism in Gaza rather than bring an end to it."

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