Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

January 10, 2010

From the Frontlines of “Providing for Palestinians in a Cage”

Filed under: Gaza,Human rights — Katya Reed @ 10:17 am

Interview with Martha Myers, Country Director for the West Bank & Gaza at CARE

On January 6, I had the privilege of sitting down with Martha Myers, the West Bank and Gaza “country director” for the international relief and development group CARE International.  CARE published a report that extensively documents the humanitarian consequences caused by the siege on Gaza entitled “Humanitarian Implosion”.  The March 2008 report noted that “the situation for 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is worse now than it has ever been since the start of the Israeli military occupation in 1967.”

I interviewed Myers for both an update on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the struggles she and her organization face in addressing it.

Since the oncoming winter rains have focused media attention of the siege on Israel’s prohibition of basic building materials, I asked Myers about what arguments she hears from Israeli officials as they try to explain or justify a blockade that paralyzes reconstruction efforts.  I had assumed that Israeli officials could only justify the siege, at least in public, as a means to keep out materials that could be used for making bombs and other weapons that could kill Israeli civilians.

But Myers told me she had heard a quite different argument during a discussion on this point with Maj. Aviad Zilberman, the Head of the Coordinator’s Liasion Office at the Erez crossing.  “I asked, ‘what do you think will happen if you let in cement?  That people will walk up to the fence and lob cement bags at the IDF?'” she said.  “He told me that ‘we don’t want them building defensive structures’.”

That indicates something important about the way this Israeli official– and perhaps many of his colleagues and superiors– look at the intention of the siege.  He was arguing that the danger from reconstruction materials going into Gaza is not that they would be used to kill people, but rather to prevent people from being killed by future Israeli attacks.

The blockade has lasted over two years at this point, and has been tightened considerably since late 2008. Myers– who has worked as an NGO manager and leader in the OPTs for many years now– said it has been the response of the Gaza population that has been the greatest shock.

“If I were going to point to something in Gaza since Cast Lead, it is a community in control of itself,” she explained.   While being subjected to such dire living conditions one might expect people to “fall in on each other like wolves,” that hasn’t happened in Gaza.  “There is still a basic premise of civility that governs individual and community actions,” she noted.

She described the fact that Gazan society has endured the stranglehold of the blockade without further collapse as “one of the things that’s most worth noting about the year since Cast Lead.”

She shared a few stories of the resourceful innovations and coping strategies Gazans have undertaken under the blockade:

  • An engineer from Gaza devised a way for his car to run on water.
  • Vegetable oil has commonly been used to run cars, when gas is not available
  • Without fuel to run an electrical plant, Gazans figured out a way to run their power plant off a gigantic pile of car batteries
  • Rebar rods from bombed out buildings are routinely straightened and re-used for repairs (“though this is a housing-code disaster” she noted)
  • The streets of Gaza, which originally “looked like those old pictures of Dresden”, have now been to a great extent cleaned up

I was reminded of a few more examples of this resourcefulness that I’d heard about elsewhere:

The greatest testament to Gaza’s strength is, perhaps, that it is functioning at all after concerted attempts to debilitate the daily functioning of a society.  “In the months before November 2008 [the month in which  Israel first violated the June 2008 ceasefire in a significant way], no cars were out anyway.  Everybody was walking or riding donkey carts.”  Myers reasoned that “perhaps that makes sense if you can cut down on the mobility of your opponent.”

(Though that logic seems to only follow if your opponent is the entire population of the Gaza Strip.)

She pointed out that the tunnels have been a successful way for Gazans to circumvent the collapse of the Gazan economy.  The tunnel economy constitutes the only economy to speak of in Gaza outside of the international assistance economy.  Cooking oil and some other types of fuel have remained available only because of the tunnel economy.  Now that Egypt is building a wall to destroy those tunnels, Myers predicts that Gaza will be brought to a “grinding halt”. She pointed out that hospitals in Gaza rely heavily on fuel-run generators for emergency needs, like keeping their ICU’s functioning.


Will the international community allow ICU’s to be deprived of fuel?  It is worth noting that they already have.  It is only because Gazans have defied the blockade by creating an underground economy that the generators are still able to function and to allow hospitals to continue saving lives.

Has the international community yet brought enough pressure on Israel to change the situation, I asked?

“On the contrary.  The Israelis are sitting in a very comfortable position.  They don’t have to do anything.  They can just sit here with the status quo,” Myers replied.  “The Israelis and the PA [Palestinian Authority] are quite comfortable and confident that the humanitarian community will continue to provide for Palestinians in a cage.”

The PA, too?  Martha nodded, and went on to say, “I sometimes wonder if the PNA [Palestinian National Authority] is more focused on the well-being of the citizens of Gaza or the political quarrel with Hamas.”

With the closing of the Karni and Nahal Oz border crossings, the Israeli restrictions on aid delivery have become more onerous, not less, and the international community seems too willing to accommodate these ever-increasing obstacles.  “If Israelis say do it with your legs crossed and your hands behind your head the international community will simply agree.” Even USAID projects struggle to slightly alter the formulations of which food items can be allowed into Gaza after months of high level negotiations.

So what is the solution?

In their “Middle East Quartet: Progress Report”, CARE and 12 other international NGOs that jointly authored the report called on Israel to adhere to the Agreement on Movement and Access of 2005 that it  committed itself to along with the other relevant parties.  They also demanded that Israel immediately allow for the entry of reconstruction materials and other urgent humanitarian supplies while an end to the blockade is being negotiated and normal civilian commerce restored.

Myers warned of just how deeply Gaza’s population has been forced into a state of lengthy dependence on international assistance.  “I suppose it could be worse,” she said.  “Eighty-eight percent of Gazans rely on the services of international community to meet their basic survival requirements for food, water, and shelter.  But we could pull out of international aid there.  We would then be looking at Srebrenitsa with people standing by a fence with their ribs sticking out.”

So it seems to me that that’s what the international community has been doing: keeping Gaza from– but still right at the edge of– a Srebrenitsa scenario, and working with the Israelis to maintain a status quo in which even the ability of the population to try to protect itself from Israeli airstrikes is out of the question.  There have been no changes in the policies of the major world powers.  Meanwhile Gazans have been forced to run their cars on water, substituting meals with grass seed, and running hospital generators on black-market fuel.

After talking with Martha Myers, I am ever the more grateful for the work of groups like CARE and other organizations that are “feeding Palestinians in a cage” rather than allowing a Srebrenitsa scenario.  But it is also all the more clear that the real and urgent work for the international community is to unhinge the cage itself, that is, to end Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank once and for all.  This is a particular responsibility for all those governments that for many years now have been paying all the expenses associated with administering the occupation on a daily basis– a situation that some diplomats from big aid donor Norway and other aid-giving countries now refer to as “our financing of the occupation.”

However it is the “basic premise of civility”, or the story of Gaza’s resilience that is, as Myers said, the big story of the past year since Operation Cast Lead.

This is all the more astonishing when it appears that the main target of the siege, as of last winter’s war, has been precisely that same force: Gaza’s own steadfast resilience.


Katya Reed is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah,  regularly contributing her “livefrompalestine” updates to the FPFD blog.  She can be reached at reed.katya-AT-gmail.com.



  1. An engineer from Gaza devised a way for his car to run on water.

    Are you sure you have this quite right? It doesn’t seem possible to me.

    Without fuel to run an electrical plant, Gazans figured out a way to run their power plant off a gigantic pile of car batteries

    How do they charge the car batteries?

    Comment by Joe in Australia — January 10, 2010 @ 11:24 pm | Reply

  2. Cuba has managed too run itself for 50 years despite the cruel and stupid US blockade. Let us hope that Gaza does not have to do the same. This blockade of Gaza makes the Warsaw ghetto look good.

    Comment by Jack — January 11, 2010 @ 12:14 pm | Reply

  3. “This blockade of Gaza makes the Warsaw ghetto look good”

    Except that the Warsaw ghetto ended with the residents being taken out to gas chambers. There is no evidence, precedence or any other reason, what so ever to think a similar fate awaits the residents of Gaza.

    But it is always nice to ascibe Nazi like actions to the Jews.

    Comment by David — January 11, 2010 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

  4. My reference to the Warsaw ghetto was to the period before the exterminations. Perhaps I missed the differences between that period and the Gaza ghetto and you could enlighten me (except for the fact that the Warsaw ghetto residents had more access to the outside).

    Comment by Jack — January 11, 2010 @ 11:32 pm | Reply

  5. I’m kind of speechless here. I think you actually believe that the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto had it better than Gazans do now. Just prior to starting this response I had a conversation with a fellow engineer about the prospects of a Palin candidacy in 2012 and how could people think, for even a second, that she is qualified. Neither of us could understand the alternate reality they must live in.

    What color is the sky in your reality?

    Comment by David — January 12, 2010 @ 6:55 am | Reply

  6. Jack, here’s an article on the Warsaw Ghetto:

    And here’s the Wikipedia article on the Gaza Strip:

    I don’t think your comparison was helpful, particularly since you artificially restrict it to “the period before the exterminations” – the point of the ghetto was that it was a collection point for Jews before their extermination. You might think that you’re helping the Palestinians by drawing attention to their plight, but really, you’re making more heat than light.

    Comment by Joe in Australia — January 12, 2010 @ 7:39 am | Reply

  7. What comparison would you draw to the Gaza Ghetto?

    Comment by Jack — January 12, 2010 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

  8. When Israel withdrew from Gaza, Palestinains had two choices. They could begin to build the apparatus of a state or use it as a launching pad for attacks on Israel.

    Gazans chose the latter.

    Were the circumstances under which Israel withdrew perfect? No, but the decision to build a terror network rather than a state meant that it could only have gotten worse not better.

    Comment by David — January 12, 2010 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

  9. Obviously there is no other comparison. What happened in Warsaw was horrible beyond human comprehension, and no ne contends that Israel intends extermination of all Gazans,but I repeat, what else in history can you compare the Gaza Ghetto to?

    Comment by Jack — January 12, 2010 @ 7:43 pm | Reply

  10. That would depend on the point you’re trying to make. What is it about the Warsaw Ghetto that you think sheds light on the plight of the Palestinians? Because, frankly, I think the comparison is not a helpful one and it can only inflame both sides and cut off debate.

    Comment by Joe in Australia — January 13, 2010 @ 5:23 am | Reply

  11. The point is that encircling an entire people including women and children with walls and fences based on their religious, ethnic or political affiliations is immoral, wrong and illegal and a crime in itself. Cutting the encircled people off completely from the outside world and denying them any means of a decent life and limiting the entry of food, water and supplies to the bare minimum to sustain a miserable life is immoral , wrong, and illegal and a crime in itself. Shooting any of the inhabitants who even come near the wall including children is also immoral, wrong, illegal and a crime in itself. Up to this point the description fits Warsaw and Gaza equally well. Beyond that the Nazi purpose was eventual extermination of all of the people and they actively tried to carry it out, killing hundreds of thousands in one of humanity’s all time greatest evils. Israel, on the other hand, has limited itself to killing merely hundreds of innocent men, women , and children during its most recent invasion of Gaza and scores of people regularly, so far. But, if history is any guide, the very creation and operation of the ghetto is the beginning of a slippery slope of inhumane treatment. Each step seems to lead inexorably to the next when the imprisoned assert their right to resist. Israel is in great danger of falling into that trap and must end the blockade to save its own sooul.

    Comment by Jack — January 13, 2010 @ 11:44 am | Reply

  12. […] for Palestinians in a Cage’ Jump to Comments This piece was originally posted at Fair Policy, Fair Discussion on January 10, […]

    Pingback by From the Frontlines of ‘Providing for Palestinians in a Cage’ « Katya Reed on Palestine/Israel — February 19, 2010 @ 1:16 pm | Reply

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