~ by Katya Reed, from the occupied West Bank
(Interview with John Prideaux-Brune, Country Director for the OPT and Israel at Oxfam GB, Part 1.)
“In all of Oxfam’s history, we’ve never seen, to my knowledge, a humanitarian crisis quite like this one in Gaza,” John Prideaux-Brune told me recently. He emphasized that this crisis is “totally man-made… You have people sitting there, turning the buttons and dials, about what will be allowed in and what won’t.”
Prideaux-Brune, an experienced international aid manager who is currently Oxfam GB’s Country Director for the OPTs and Israel, voiced this evaluation in an interview in his East Jerusalem office, January 12.
In additon to sharing his insights on why the man-made humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unique in Oxfam GB’s history, he also described Israel’s “no prosperity and no development” policy for Gaza, and the tragedy affecting Gaza’s growers of one of Gaza’s premier agricultural products– “the best strawberries in the world.”
Prisdeaux-Brune noted that the challenges Oxfam GB faces in Gaza are distinctly different than those it faces in the West Bank, reflecting the tremendous schism that the political fact of the occupation has wrought among Palestinian communities. The present blog post focuses on Oxfam GB’s struggles to provide relief in Gaza, and a second one will focus on their development efforts in the West Bank, especially in “Area C”.
GAZA, AND WHAT MAKES IT DIFFERENT FROM OTHER HUMANITARIAN CRISES
Oxfam GB works in over 60 countries around the world, everywhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Prideaux-Brune noted that of course there are many crises in the world where the humanitarian conditions are far worse. There are also governments that entirely shut down humanitarian aid from reaching the most vulnerable populations.
You have humanitarian crises where the government just doesn’t care at all about what the international community thinks–where they just turn the dials all the way off. But to have a government actively managing a humanitarian crisis–it’s very weird. I can’t imagine what the people who have these jobs are thinking.
Prideaux-Brune has encountered difficulties convincing some people that a humanitarian crisis exists in Gaza since it has not yet suffered the same mass casualties from starvation and other diseases that typically result from a humanitarian crisis. When conditions are so dire as to cause, as in Gaza, 88% of its people to be dependent on aid, fatalities from impoverishment usually soar to epic proportions.
“Because people are getting food aid we’re not seeing starvation,” Prideaux-Brune noted. “But if we stopped all the aid we would.”
ISRAELI RATIONALE: “NO PROSPERITY, NO DEVELOPMENT, BUT NO HUMANITARIAN CRISIS”
I asked Prideaux-Brune how Israeli officials respond when challenged by Oxfam GB and other international humanitarian organizations.
He said that while the official reason for any restrictions from the blockade was always simply ‘security’, in private Israeli officials had given Oxfam a fuller explanation of their government’s policy.
“Major Peter Lerner, from the Sr. Military Erez CLA Office had told us the policy is ‘no prosperity, no development, but no humanitarian crisis’.”
Major Lerner’s denial of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza is common among Israeli officials. As Human Rights Watch reported last year, “The Israeli government has repeatedly denied that a humanitarian crisis exists. Information from international humanitarian organizations, United Nations agencies, and Gaza’s residents themselves starkly refute that claim”.
In addition to denying the humanitarian crisis engulfing Gaza, Israel also denies that it is continuing to occupy Gaza since the ‘disengagement’ of Israeli soldiers and settlers in 2005. Prideaux-Brune reasons that this point is important because in the world of international humanitarian law, “we’ve never really seen anything like this, where a territory is still being occupied without soldiers on the ground.”
In late December, Oxfam GB and 15 other humanitarian organizations published a report titled “Failing Gaza”, which explains that “under international law, Israel remains the Occupying Power despite its ‘disengagement’ from Gaza”, thus bearing the primarily responsibility to rebuild Gaza. The reasoning articulated in the report (which is, also, importantly, shared by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the official depository for the Geneva Conventions) is as follows:
“This is because Israel still maintains effective control over entry and exit into Gaza, its air space and sea, as well as its population registry, telecommunications networks, and many other aspects of its daily life and infrastructure. Such control entails responsibility to safeguard the welfare of the civilian population.”
THE FUTURE OF GAZA’S TUNNELS
What about Egypt’s new subterranean wall designed to penetrate more than 20 meters deep?
“They [Hamas] will just dig 21 meters deep,” Prideaux-Brune speculates. Even if they have some success in obstructing weapons smuggling in some way, “Hamas will bring the guns in first”. If Israel and Egypt are able to diminish tunnel traffic, Prideaux-Brune predicts that only the passage of food and other civilian traffic would be significantly affected.
While the blockade is the primary obstacle to delivering humanitarian work, Priseaux-brune noted that the restrictions that the UK, other Western governments, and other aid donors maintain on having any contacts with Hamas also present a formidable challenge to Oxfam’s relief efforts in Gaza, since Hamas does exercise authority as the de-facto government within Gaza.
“As a UK organization, we can talk to Hamas but it has to be at the lowest possible level to deliver to the humanitarian needs,” Prideaux-Brune explained. [The restrictions on US aid organizations are notably even stricter than this.]
Prideaux-Brune noted that in Gaza, it’s nearly impossible to know whether any food item or other civilian good that turns up in the market-place was procured through the tunnels. If one could prove an item bought from Gaza entered through the tunnels, one could accuse the buyer of indirectly supporting Hamas since Hamas is believed to charge license fees on the tunnels. Though prosecution of any sort would be unlikely, “it only needs accusation [of supporting Hamas] to do damage”. The chilling effect this has on humanitarian aid is further reinforced because “everyone has a different interpretation of the law” in the UK and in other Western countries, though they all have nearly identical legal formulas against contact with alleged terrorists.
Humanitarian groups have to make a choice, he said.
Most humanitarian groups focus on things you don’t need large amounts of procurement for, like psychosocial therapy. However, for everything you do have to procure you have a stark choice do you buy in Gaza, risking some kind of association with the tunnels. Or you import from Israel–but then there is a high risk that you’ll never get the aid into Gaza.
THE DIALS ON EXPORTS NEARLY ALWAYS TURNED ‘OFF’
“Usually when we think of the blockade, we think about what’s not allowed in,” Prideaux-Brune began. ”But what’s actually killing the Gazan economy is that nothing is going out.”
Oxfam GB works with strawberry farmers in Gaza. ”If you ever have a chance to try a Gazan strawberry do, because Gazan strawberries are the best,” Prideaux-Brune told me. Gaza’s warm Mediterranean climate provides the ideal conditions for mass cultivation of the fruit. However, the crop has become an economic failure because farmers are blocked from exporting them, and the local market is flooded with strawberries as a result. The price in turn becomes too low for Gazan farmers to make a profit, yet it is still too high for the vast majority of Gazans. The economic calculus follows:
COST OF STRAWBERRIES
For consumers to buy: 1 kilogram of strawberries = 2 NIS [New Israeli Shekles] (or approx. 0.54 USD)
For farmers to produce: 1 kilogram of strawberries = 5 NIS (or approx. 1.34 USD)
Accordingly, strawberries are too expensive for the vast majority of Gazans to buy but they are sold at prices that are still too cheap for Gaza’s farmers to even recoup its costs of production, let alone providing an opportunity for profit. To put the cost of strawberries to Gaza’s consumers in perspective, the International Committee on the Red Cross found in a household survey from May 2008 showed that even then 70% of Gazans were living on a dollar a day.
While Israel has subjected Gaza to two decades of fluctuating restrictions on exports, the “Failing Gaza” report notes that under the last two and a half years of the blockade,
exports have been entirely banned with the exception of several small shipments, for example of carnations for the Dutch market. In the period before the blockade, an average of 70 truckloads of exports left Gaza a day.
Until last week’s token shipment, Gaza has not been allowed to export a single strawberry since the Israeli assault of winter 2008-09. (Highlighting both the severity of the blockade as well as the ingenuity of entrepreneurs in Gaza, there is a recent report of the startup of one of the few commercial export businesses capable of evading the blockade: one that exports cellphone ringtones.)
SECURITY FROM DESPERATE PEOPLE?
Prideaux-Brune expressed his profound puzzlement at Israel’s internal reasoning for its imposition of the blockade, arguing that Israel’s blockade on Gaza is blatantly undermining Israel’s future prospects for security. Prideaux-Brune makes the point that,
no strategic country would want their neighboring territory to be a desperate, failed, hostile place. You want security, you don’t want a neighbor that you’re continually impoverishing.
The “Failing Gaza” report from Oxfam GB and 15 other humanitarian organizations acknowledges Israel’s security concerns and asserts that,
while Israel has a duty to protect its citizens, the measures it uses to do so must conform to international humanitarian and human rights law…
The policy of blockade, punishing the entire civilian population of Gaza for the acts of a few, is a collective punishment, which is unacceptable and violates international law. The blockade is also in breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1860, and of the Agreement on Movement and Access signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2005.
Prideaux-Brune told me, “I don’t see why Israel thinks that repressing other people is in their own best interest.” He said he found it hard to believe that Israel’s strategists were not thinking about their country’s longterm future.
I left the interview thinking about Prideaux-Brune’s vivid metaphor of the dials and control buttons the Israeli government is continually turning and adjusting. If the dial for Gaza’s “prosperity” is turned entirely off, and the dial for Gaza’s “development” is also turned off, what is Israel’s plan for the dial on “tomorrow” for the future of the region?
Katya Reed is a freelance journalist based in the West Bank, regularly contributing her “livefrompalestine” updates to the FPFD blog. She can be reached at reed.katya-AT-gmail.com. Part 2 of her interview with john Prideaux-Brune will be published shortly.