Deborah Orr: Israel has turned Gaza into a prison. There can only be one reason for such inhumanity

Reports from eyewitnesses say that farmers trying to protect their land are being beaten or shot
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The Independent Online

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, is not the only person to have been "surprised" by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's response to the kidnap of the Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Reger. The Israeli army appears to have been caught on the hop as well.

In the New Statesman, Gideon Lichfield talks of "horror stories from the war in Lebanon" being "a staple around Israeli dinner tables". The talk is not of frightful combat, however, or even of ignominious defeat. Instead it is of "reserve soldiers who had to buy or borrow bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles, steal food from Lebanese villages, ask relatives and friends to send them supplies, or go into combat in jeans because there weren't enough uniforms".

How could a military machine as efficient as Israel's have messed up quite so badly? Maybe it's because the Olmert administration doesn't even know what its commanders, a tribe of Colonel Kurtzes operating so far up the river they'll never come back, are doing any more. With international eyes still trained on Lebanon, the rest of the world appears also to be oblivious to the activities that are keeping the Israeli army so very busy.

They are, of course, maintaining the military siege of Gaza that they began a few weeks before the Lebanon offensive knocked it off the diplomatic agenda. Lyrically titled "Operation Summer Rains", it has now rolled into its 10th week, killing 202 Palestinians - 44 of them children - launching 267 air strikes and damaging hundreds of buildings, many bridges and the Gaza power plant.

Poor pounded Lebanon is lucky insomuch as it now has a UN peacekeeping force in place, with a commitment to helping in the repair of the country's infrastructure. Gaza needs peacekeepers too, but the army's desire to keep outsiders away from this prison territory is so great that even a delegation from a political organisation as innocuous as Birmingham City Council was turned away last week.

What sort of state can Gaza be in now, 10 weeks into this wholly disproportionate war? Mona el-Farra, a physician and human rights activist, gave a flavour of it all in a hurried blog hammered out during a short resumption of electrical power on Monday. "In the east part of the city, eight people were killed, 17 injured including journalists from Reuters, heavy shooting from the gunboats. Every day hospitals receive killed and injured people, hospital use of diesel increased, to run the operation rooms, with the continuous use of the electrical generators ... no water no electricity no proper sewage system, public health greatly affected, no entertaining, no cash to buy food, increasing number of families rely on aid food alone, children do not have well balanced meals, the borders are closed, only opened rarely to let in some medications and humanitarian aid for the Unrwa, thousands of children suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome symptoms."

Even Unrwa (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) cannot cope any longer, especially since the complete closure of the main Karni crossing point 10 days ago. John Ging, Unrwa's director of operations in Gaza, warned last week that "The prospects are very worrying as Gaza is now cut off economically from the outside world and even keeping our humanitarian operations going is an expensive struggle."

It's more or less accepted now that one of the casualties of Olmert's defeat in Lebanon will be the policy he stood for election on - unilateral disengagement from the West Bank, in an extension of Ariel Sharon's now meaningless withdrawal from Gaza. If what's happening in Gaza - and now on the West Bank - makes little political sense, it's because there is no longer a political framework operating it.

Israel says it won't stop the operation until its kidnapped soldier is released and Palestinian militants cease firing rockets towards Israel. Yet far from being cowed by the widespread criticism of its "disproportionate" response in Lebanon, and the eventual failure of the policy anyway, Israeli hardliners seem all the more wedded to the idea, and are also stepping up summary punishments of civilians on the West Bank as well.

Yesterday, in the town of Zububa, in Jenin, an operation was launched with the aim of destroying the town's olive groves, an area covering 200 square kilometres. Reports from eyewitnesses say that farmers attempting to protect the land are being beaten or shot. Likewise in the Balate refugee camp, just outside Nablus, two young men believed to be terrorists were backed up against a wall by a helicopter and shot dead.

In some respects, the siege is simply the logical conclusion of the policy Israel has followed since the final status negotiations collapsed in 2000: to step up the policy of limiting the independence of the Palestinian Authority at every level, a course which only led to the election of Hamas. But amid the justified fear of terrorist action from an empowered Gaza, what often gets lost is the degree to which ordinary Palestinians are hounded and degraded in the pursuit of a chimerical dream that somehow, some way, the Palestinians can simply be magicked away.

Gaza is a prison now, and nobody can get out or in. This too is the wild crescendo of a covert policy the Israelis have been pursuing for years. Amira Hass, in a report on www. haaretz.com, tells the story of Hayan Ju'beh, a brand-new member of the Palestinian diaspora. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he left as a student to study theatre abroad. He married an Irish woman who also held a British passport, and had two children in this country, Yussef and Sophie.

When their mother died, in 1995, he returned to his family in Jerusalem and worked for the MBC television network, under a tourist visa which demanded that he leave and re-enter the country every three months. In the 11 years that have passed since then, he has been unable to overturn the Israeli government's decision to revoke his citizenship because "Jersusalem was no longer the centre of his life". Barred from settling in Jerusalem, he applied for family residence in Ramallah. This was denied to him, his children by his first marriage, his second wife and their two children (all Palestinian by birth). The family now lives in Britain. They are, officially, no longer Palestinians.

Can the Israelis really believe that they - and the thousands of others processed out of the region since 1948 - will ever be able to shrug, accept this and get on with their lives? Can they believe that a pair of prison territories can be maintained indefinitely, while Israel flourishes merrily around them? Apparently so. Last week, when the Italians running the peace-keeping mission in Lebanon suggested that this might perhaps be the time to look at a similar operation in Gaza, they were greeted with stony disbelief.

How long will it be before Israel accepts this to be the only course of action it has left? Quite a while, unless the world grasps soon just what's going on there.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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