War often takes its heaviest toll on those who are most vulnerable. But the children of the Gaza Strip were suffering long before Israel’s air strikes began on December 26, according to a local Palestinian activist.
Reem Alnuweiri, a Vancouver coordinator for the Palestinian Refugee Support Network, said that much of her family remains in Gaza. As an example of the dire conditions in the territory, Alnuweiri told the Straight that breast-feeding has become impossible in many areas. “A couple of my cousins were complaining that they literally do not know how to feed their babies,” she explained. “There is no water or juice that they can get their hands on [to produce breast milk].”
In April 2008, a United Nations report warned that between 40 percent and 50 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents did not have access to running water.
Israel claims that it launched its ongoing offensive in retaliation for Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel. But Alnuweiri pointed to what is colloquially known as Israel’s “siege” of Gaza as the root of the conflict.
In January 2006, Hamas won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories. Since then, Israel has enforced a blockade around Gaza, restricting the movement of food, medicine, and other goods, according to various UN reports.
“The rockets are the only voice saying that people are being starved to death,” Alnuweiri said. “It’s not only bullets that can kill people. More people have died from the siege than from bullets.”
Jon Elmer, a writer and photojournalist, has split his time between Vancouver, the West Bank, and Gaza since 2003.
“The question is always where it starts,” he said of the latest conflict. “The blockade was officially launched with the election of Hamas. But from my time working in Gaza over the years, the blockades are, in one form or another, constant.”
In a telephone interview from his Vancouver home, Elmer described the constant uncertainty of life in Gaza. Electricity, fuel, food, water, and medical supplies are all always in short supply, he said.
“This particular stage of the occupation is characterized by total isolation, of ghettoization, trapping the indigenous population behind concrete walls and checkpoints where they can’t move,” Elmer argued. “And so the only response, when you are trapped inside your ghetto, is to fire outside of the ghetto. And that is the Palestinian attempt to resist an ongoing and brutally violent occupation.”
As of January 7, an estimated 700 Palestinians had been killed in the latest conflict—195 of them children, according to Palestinian officials.
Michael Elterman, Pacific regional chair for the Canada-Israel Committee, told the Straight that “there is no humanitarian crisis” in Gaza and claimed that Israel has been allowing dozens of trucks carrying aid into Gaza every day. He argued that Israel has maintained its blockade for security purposes.
From 2001 to the start of the ongoing conflict, rockets launched from Gaza killed 14 Israelis, according to an Israeli NGO. But Elterman said that there have been days when as many as 60 or 70 rockets have fallen on southern Israel.
“If Hamas would stop the rocket attacks, then Israel would have no need to have this incursion,” he argued. “Enough is enough.”
Alnuweiri said that peace will never emerge from an assault that, she argued, could turn all of Gaza into a battleground. “There is no point to this whole venture,” she added.
Demonstrations against Israel’s attack on Gaza were held in Vancouver on December 29 and January 3. According to Alnuweiri, $6,000 was raised at these protests for refugees living in Gaza. A third rally is scheduled for Saturday (January 10) at 1 p.m., at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.