Illegal wall exacerbates disaster for Gazans

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Collusion between Egypt and the United States in building a wall separating Egypt from Gaza not only threatens Gazans’ health and quality of life, already seriously deteriorating because of the de facto Israeli blockade, but also violates international law.

According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Egypt is installing an underground metal wall up to 33 meters deep along the border where Palestinians have dug a mazelike array of tunnels to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Construction of the wall, carried out with the collaboration of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been denied by the Egyptian government.

Although Israel claims that the tunnels are used to supply militants of Hamas with explosives and arms, the main function of the tunnels is for transferring food and medicine to the severely deprived Palestinian population in Gaza. The Israeli blockade of the coastal enclave has gone as far as barring the import of flour and other basic food.

According to the Disengagement Plan of April 2004, Israeli settlements and stationed troops were unilaterally withdrawn from Gaza for the stated purpose of removing the “basis for claiming that the Gaza Strip is occupied territory.” However, as Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization has stated, “Israel remains the occupying power in the Gaza Strip because of its stated policy and practices.”

According to the Revised Disengagement Plan of June 6, 2004, “Israel will guard the perimeter of the Gaza Strip, continue to control Gaza airspace, and continue to patrol the sea off the Gaza Coast.”

Because Israel still controls Gaza’s borders, including sea and airspace, it controls movements of goods and people as well as the registry for the civilian population and the tax system. As a consequence, Gaza’s civilian population is entitled to the status of protected people under Article 4 of the Geneva Convention.

Rule 20 of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) “Study on Customary International Humanitarian Law” states that before launching an attack, Israel is legally obliged to take feasible precautions to avoid harming civilians, such as giving advanced warning to the population before attacking populated areas. Such precautions were not fulfilled during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, as is made clear in the United Nations report on Gaza.

In addition, Israel is obliged to respect the customary principles of military necessity, distinction and proportionality when carrying out military operations in the Gaza Strip, with the concurrent obligation to treat the occupied population humanely. The obligation to treat protected persons humanely according to a principle of customary international law applies in “all circumstances” and “at all times.”

U.N. agencies still consider that between half and two-thirds of Gazans are “food insecure,” meaning that they live in hunger or fear of starvation. According to estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO), one-third of children under 5 and women of child-bearing age are anemic. The WHO also says Israel’s blockade of Gaza has led to a general “worsening of the health conditions of the population” and to an “accelerated degeneration” of Gaza’s health system.

According to the WHO, 15 of the 27 hospitals have been damaged, some of them extensively, as well as 43 primary care centers, some totally destroyed. Twenty-nine ambulances have been damaged or destroyed and 16 health staff have been killed and several others severely injured. The steadily worsening general situation in the Strip has been characterized as a “complex, chronic disaster of catastrophic proportions.”

Israel’s restrictions on fuel and electricity supplies to the Gaza Strip, as well as the prolonged closures of border crossings for delivering people and goods, including humanitarian aid, constitute collective punishment, which is prohibited under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Unlawful and disproportionate reprisals violate international humanitarian law and cannot be considered means of self-defense.

Despite current policy, the spirit of the Gazan people can be rekindled like a fire after a storm. As Ann Wright, a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel and former U.S. diplomat, recently stated, “Just as the steel walls of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the base of the levees of New Orleans were unable to contain Hurricane Katrina, (the corps’) underground steel walls that will attempt to build an underground cage of Gaza will not be able to contain the survival spirit of the people of Gaza.”

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.