An international forum has shed light on the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip

A forum in the Gaza Strip sheds light on the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip for 15 years

The Days of Palestine Foundation, in partnership with the October 16 group and We Are Not Numbers, have held an international forum in the besieged Gaza Strip. ‘The Siege of Gaza, an Ongoing Crime’ was the first forum of its kind in the occupied territory, and was intended to shed light on the ongoing, brutal Israeli siege imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip since 2007, and its implications.

A number of international figures from the worlds of politics and human rights took part. Notably, they included former UN rapporteur Richard Falk and Finnish parliamentarian Anna Kontula. All of the speakers explained that the Israeli siege and its effects on various sectors in the Gaza Strip is a crime, and highlighted the role of countries and international organisations in its implementation. They also discussed the legal and humanitarian ways to break the siege based on internationally-recognised resolutions and conventions.

Collective punishment

In his speech on behalf of the organising committee, Ahmed Abu Rtema said that the Israeli blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007 is a flagrant violation of international laws and humanitarian norms; a collective punishment that has caused suffering to civilians across Palestinian society.

Hundreds of patients have died because the Israeli occupation authorities blocked their basic right to have access to hospitals and appropriate medical care. The blockade, Rtema said, has undermined the Palestinian economy, blocked self-development and exacerbated poverty and unemployment. Palestinian citizens have been denied their natural rights to freedom of movement and travel.

He stressed that this siege would not have lasted fifteen years without international complicity that gives the occupation government political and diplomatic cover, allowing it to continue its violations safe in the knowledge that it won’t be held to account. The forum, he explained, was intended to shed light on the suffering caused by the siege, because no statute of limitations cancels out this suffering, nor does it mean that the people of occupied Palestine should simply adapt their lives to it. Lives are lost and property is destroyed every day, he reminded the audience.

Finnish MP Anna Kontula said that Israel has built another wall, this time around the illegally besieged Gaza Strip, where two million people are living as prisoners who dream of living freely. She noted that the Palestinians are suffering the longest occupation in the modern era accompanied by human rights violations committed by Israel. She also pointed out that according to the UN and many human rights organisations, the blockade imposed on Gaza is a breach of international law and is collective punishment of civilians which has led to a social, economic, and humanitarian catastrophe.

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Richard Falk paid an inspirational tribute to the people of Gaza in the way that they live, resist and persevere creatively as they continue to build a meaningful life for themselves, holding on to their dreams as part of their resistance measures. He added that they are an important example for people living in impossible conditions.

Falk stressed that the civilian population of Gaza has been, and still is, the victim of various forms of collective punishment, beginning with the siege itself, which is aggravated periodically by illegal military offensives carried out by Israel on a large scale, resulting in many civilian casualties.

The law professor stressed that the basic essence of international humanitarian law, especially regarding occupation, clearly prohibits such an aggressive approach. The law calls on the occupying power — in this case Israel — to treat civilians well in all circumstances.

He also said that the Israeli occupation defies international law in several ways, including illegal assassinations and failing to protect the civilian population. Israel uses its air, sea and ground forces against vulnerable and unarmed Palestinian civilians. As such, he believes that it goes beyond what might be termed a ‘reasonable’ conflict; it is grave, cruel and a continuous violation of the basic duties of a member state of the UN and a sovereign state that respects the basics of international law.

The role of the international community in breaking the siege

Jennifer Bing is the director of the Palestine Programme at the Quaker American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). She has been an activist for and in Palestine for forty years and talked about the role of US civil society in confronting the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

In the second session of the forum, she said that ever since her first visit to Palestine in 1982, she has been motivated by the courage of mothers, the creativity of children, the commitment of farmers to reform the land, and the strength of the Palestinian community to withstand unbearable challenges. She stressed that the AFSC is striving to get Americans to realise their responsibility to take action in order to change US policies that cause harm and avoid accountability for human rights abuses.

Some progress has been made. For the first time in decades, Bing explained, the sale of arms to Israel was blocked in the US Congress. Hundreds of civil society groups were mobilised, including allies and supporters of the Black Lives Matter and Climate Justice Movements, as well as congregations in many religious communities.

Irish journalist and activist David Cronin spoke about Europe’s role in encouraging the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip. One of the most important ways in which the EU has contributed to the siege is its funding of the improved surveillance equipment at the Karam Abu Salem border crossing, through which limited supplies of goods pass between Gaza and Israel.

He highlighted the fact that the EU allowed Israel to participate in the Horizon Europe research programme, which has a budget of over $107 billion for 2022-27. This will allow Israel to bomb Gaza repeatedly and steal water from the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

Cronin ended his contribution by saying, ‘My friends, I have complete confidence that the strength of the people will help lift the siege on Gaza and put an end to Israel’s corrupt apartheid regime.’

The weakness of international solidarity regarding the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip was the focus of Canadian human rights and legal researcher Peter Larson’s contribution to the forum. The chairman of the board of directors of the Canadian Ottawa Foundation, which specialises in Palestinian-Israeli affairs mentioned in his presentation the power cuts, drones, snipers along the fence, Gaza fishermen being harassed by the Israeli navy, and that Israel refuses to allow most Palestinians from Gaza to go to Jerusalem or the West Bank, or to see their relatives.

Legal and Humanitarian aspects of the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip

In the forum’s third session, Dan Kovalik, an activist and human rights professor at the University of Pittsburgh, spoke about the legal, international and humanitarian aspects of the Israeli siege imposed on the Gaza Strip. He pointed out that over two million Palestinians in the territory are suffering from a severe lack of fresh water, food and medicine, and face serious sanitation problems. He noted that Israel is directly responsible for this suffering and is, in fact, hindering life in Gaza by preventing the entry of necessary equipment and attacking infrastructure repeatedly, including the water and sewage networks and factories. The concrete needed to rebuild the homes that Israel bombs in the Gaza Strip is not allowed to be imported.

Kovalik added that Israel is deliberately depriving Gaza of equipment, supplies and basic necessities of life, such as water, food and medicine necessary for the largely civilian population to survive. Such violations, he noted, are war crimes according to the Geneva Conventions and other parts of international law.

Prof. Kovalik insisted that the world must intervene immediately to stop these crimes, and that the UN must work to stop Israel’s siege by bringing charges against it at the International Criminal Court. Moreover, he said that the recently-completed wall built around the Gaza Strip makes the territory an open-air prison, and must be demolished.

New Zealand investigative journalist and pro-Palestine activist Julie Pullman said that, ‘We are entering the sixteenth year of the Israeli siege on Gaza, a siege that has no moral or legal justification, and has resulted in what the United Nations described as the destruction of the Gaza Strip.’ She also said that it is a process in which development is not only halted, but also destroyed by not allowing the entry of goods and preventing movement to and from Gaza and elsewhere.

Pullman repeated the fact that the blockade of Gaza amounts to a war crime according to international law, as the collective punishment imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip is strictly prohibited according to Article 33 of the Geneva Convention. Israel is also violating the law of occupation under which the Israeli authorities are obligated to respect the right of the Palestinian people as an occupied people without any arbitrary restrictions or conditions, and to guarantee the provision of basic services for life such as health, electricity, water and other basic needs. However, Israel continues to violate these obligations, as well as many human rights agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides for the right to freedom of movement, education, work and health.

She suggested that pressure should be increased on the international community, especially the UN, to demand that the blockade of Gaza be declared — unequivocally — illegal, and that the Security Council has the ability to use military force to rebuild Gaza if necessary. She also stated that it has the ability to ensure the delivery of humanitarian relief to Gaza through international waters, without Israeli interference.

Impact of the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip

In the forum’s final session, lawyer Dr Salah Abdalati, the head of the International Commission to Support Palestinian Rights (Hashd), said that the Israeli military occupation authorities continue to tighten the comprehensive siege on the Gaza Strip, demonstrating that Israeli governments want to implement a policy of collective punishment against the Palestinian residents of Gaza. Successive Israeli measures have included restrictions on freedom of movement of both people and goods to and from the Gaza Strip, which creates a very complex human tragedy.

He added that these practices caused the deterioration of the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the population. The Israeli blockade has affected all Palestinian human rights in the Gaza Strip, especially in terms of unemployment and poverty, restrictions on freedom of movement and goods, the deterioration of living conditions, and the deterioration of health, housing and education provision.

According to Dr Muhammad Ibrahim Miqdad, Professor of Economics at the Islamic University of Gaza, the Gaza Strip is suffering from a major collapse in the economic indicators due to the ongoing policies and practices of the occupation, not only from 2006, but also from 1967. The blockade is the most prominent feature of these Israeli practices. The cost of the siege and military offensives was six times the gross domestic product of the Gaza Strip in 2018 alone. Had it not been for the Israeli siege and military operations, the poverty rate in the Gaza Strip would not have exceeded 15 per cent, according to a UN report. The unemployment rate was 49 per cent in the Gaza Strip in 2020, and is expected to rise to 59 per cent, according to the World Bank’s published data for 2022, and 75 per cent according to the Ministry of Social Development in the Gaza Strip.

Speaking about the environmental reality of the Gaza Strip under siege, Dr Ahmed Hilles, the head of the National Institute for the Environment and Development, stated that the Palestinians in the territory are suffering as families in terms of the amount of water reaching their homes for daily use. They have just 60-70 litres per person, per day in the built-up areas; it may be much less for many families in rural and marginalised areas. The World Health Organisation, he noted, recommends a supply of at least 100-120 litres per person, per day to achieve the level of water security required for drinking and personal hygiene.

Hilles stressed that environmental pollution is linked closely to the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip. During Israel’s latest major offensive last May and, indeed, in all of its offensives over the years, Gaza has experienced severe environmental pollution due to the variety of weapons, bombs and missiles used intensively by the Israeli armed forces. Noise pollution has also become a constant inconvenience and the psychological effect of hearing Israeli military reconnaissance aircraft, including drones, which fly frequently at low altitudes over residential neighbourhoods 24/7, can only really be measured by the number of Palestinians being treated for trauma, especially the children.