Colossus: The Giant Gazan Prison


Larbi Sadiki - Aljazeera

The blockade imposed on Gaza is a powerful psychological device aimed at wringing concessions from Gazans and Hamas.

Gaza “the giant open prison” are not the words of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president. Nor were they scripted by Hamas’ Khaled Mishaal or Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas. They belong to David Cameron, the young and charismatic British prime minister.

Since the imposition of the Gaza blockade nearly four years ago, no single European leader has voiced moral outrage over the sanctions with such alacrity, simplicity and forcefulness. His words have reverberated widely in Gaza as well as elsewhere in the Arab world.

Like Cameron’s words, the untold misery shatters the international political society’s quasi silence and questions the immorality of indifference and inaction towards the blockade.

Gazans need to reclaim their state of dignity and humanity before reclaiming the seemingly illusionary hope of a Palestinian state. A peek inside the ‘big prison’ reveals the blockade to be multi-layered – affecting economy, polity, diplomacy and security.

For most Arabs, that Israel imposes a de-humanising blockade may be easy to explain, but Egypt’s role in the blockade defies logical explication. The music one hears from the Egyptian regime and other Arab states about adherence to international agreements convinces neither Arabs nor Westerners.

But abiding by sanctions that traumatise, de-humanise and isolate fellow Arabs, as in Iraq (where tens of thousands died as a result) or in Gaza is acceptable in the name of good citizenship in the international arena.

Occupied Palestine: Homo Sacer

There are many ‘prisons’ that dot the Middle East’s vast body politic. However, Gaza is unquestionably the most restricted.

Cameron told the UK parliament in June 2010 that the world is unable “to sort out the problem of the Middle East peace process while there is, effectively, a giant open prison in Gaza”. Israel needs to hear its friends’ moral protest and heed their advice to end the blockade.

The blockade on Gaza is an affront to civilised behaviour. Period.

The horrors of the Holocaust are a lesson that no segment of the human race should be subjected to. The Holocaust belongs to all humanity and demeaned all humanity. It is not the exclusive bastion of Israel.

In Gaza, the Geneva Convention’s obligations on occupying forces have been overruled and invalidated countless times, rendering the fourth convention no more than ink on paper.

Whether Israel is still an occupying force may be a tired legal red-herring. But the fact remains that Gazans cannot move, eat, watch TV, use the Internet, drive cars, study, work, think of the future, make and raise babies, and literally be, when Israel controls air, sea and land routes in and out of Gaza.

Without the protection of international law, Gaza is effectively treated almost as a homo sacer amongst the community of human entities and international society of cities and states. War, sanctions and a psychologically traumatising siege on 1.5 million human beings render them ‘accursed’, almost stripped of all rights afforded in and to societies of human congregations in all corners of the world.

Over the last few years Gazans have been placed on a forced collective ‘diet’, bombed in the middle of the blockade, starved of financial liquidity, causing Gaza to backtrack into an appalling state of sub-human existence.

Obama’s daughters in Gaza

What is baffling in all of this is that the sanctions maintained by Israel and Egypt are not UN-mandated yet nearly the whole world – bar UN relief agencies – seem to abide by them.

Poor Obama whose advent to power whetted the appetite of the ‘wretched of the earth,’ who expected him to liberate them from hunger, occupation, authoritarianism and under-representation.

He is lost for words when it comes to Gaza. But his silver tongue virulently and eloquently lashed at Hamas and other Palestinian factions’ rockets against the settlement of Sedorot. He was correct to lend support and sympathy to Sedorot’s inhabitants. Ismail Haniyeh, the besieged premier in Gaza, concurs. Like many other Hamas leaders, he sees no utility in this strategy. Just as many Israeli leaders and people oppose the blockade and the bombing of Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.

“If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do everything to stop that, and would expect Israelis to do the same thing,” the then president-elect told Israelis in July 2008.

Malia, Sasha and their puppy would not endure the blockade in Gaza like the hundreds of thousands of puppy-less Gazan children whose parents cannot afford to feed them, much less buy them pets.

Maybe Obama thinks it but does not speak it: “If somebody was cutting off the electricity and food of my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do everything to stop that, and would expect Palestinians to do the same thing.”

A Tale of Two Cities

The politics of urban space used by Israel is brilliant. It is another method in its inventory of war against Palestinians. Ramallah is ensconced in the false illusion that normalcy is back to people’s lives. The trappings of normalcy – food, a degree of free movement, education, law and order and night clubs – abound.

The credit goes partly to Keith Dayton, the American officer who sculptured out of Fatah’s unruly militias a nuclear body for an ‘Abbas-istan’ in the West Bank. There is, however, still policing against dissidence, corruption and nepotism.

Unlike Ramallah and Bethlehem where living standards are satisfactory, Gaza has to make do with little. Indeed, the blockade has been eased and more foodstuffs and other goods make their way into the Strip on a daily basis. However, to a large extent the strategic goods essential for reconstruction are still banned. Cement and metal are vital for rebuilding close to 20,000 homes destroyed during the 2009 bombing.

Coupon culture is rife. With nearly 40 per cent jobless, the blockade has turned a large segment of the Palestinian population into parasites, relying on food coupons and rations doled out by charity organisations and the government. Were it not for Qatar, amongst other donors, the local bureaucracy would have been wage-less. But as the crisis of liquidity bites, Haniyeh has to reduce wages by about $40 a month. The tunnels still serve to smuggle large amounts of cash but not enough to run a state.

Hard Power vs. Soft Power

This is exactly at the core of the blockade: to re-stratify the Palestinian polity between the haves of Abbas-ville whose livelihoods are secure, and the have-nots of Gaza where collective punishment makes people re-think loyalty to Hamas and commitment to its political strategy. It is a powerful psychological device aimed at wringing concessions from Gazans and Hamas.

Time has come for investing more soft power in Gaza to lure Gazans and Hamas to the negotiating table, and unburdening Israel and Egypt of their dehumanising tactics. Hamas needs to sharpen its diplomatic skills to open up Gaza. Gazans have endured enough humiliation and isolation.

The ‘carrot’ that is the West Bank has not thus far tempted Gaza. Instead of queuing up for the benefits of secure existence in Ramallah and its surroundings, Gazans affirmed resistance by digging tunnels, claiming in the past four years the lives of nearly 300 tunnel diggers.

Hamas sought self-sufficiency in fruits and vegetables and has partly succeeded. A lease-based farming system in the so-called muharrarat (formerly mustawtanat or settlements vacated by Israelis) has been instrumental in this strategy.

The release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and of Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier, can be one step in deploying soft power with Gaza.

Asta Quando?

It was heart-warming to see images of the Chilean miners winched to freedom and the world caring for 36 human beings trapped underground for over two months.

There is half a million minors (between the age of zero and 18), and 1 million adults trapped in Gaza in an inhumane state of siege, which is not UN-mandated but the whole world seems to observe. Why? They, too, need to be winched to freedom of movement and existence.


Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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