Leading article: A brutal siege the world must ignore no longer

The Independent

Published: 08 September 2006

Gaza is being slowly strangled. This small strip of land on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean has been under siege by the Israeli military for three months. Its 1.5 million inhabitants have been subject to more than 270 air strikes, numerous ground raids, and a severe artillery bombardment. Since Gaza's sole power plant was bombed in June, its people have been forced to survive by candlelight after dark. Hospitals use electric generators to keep essential services running. The strip's water mains have been destroyed, causing serious supply problems and increasing the risk of disease. Bridges have been bombed and checkpoints closed. No Palestinians are allowed in or out of what has in effect become a prison.

This has brought the Palestinian economy to its knees. The majority of Gazan families have been forced to rely on United Nations food aid. Yet even support from the outside world for these people has been severely cut back. When Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January, the United States and the European Union decided to stop their funding of the governing institutions of the Palestinian Authority until the militant organisation renounced violence and accepted Israel's right to exist. An adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister referred to this jokingly as "putting the Palestinians on a diet". But the result has been the complete breakdown of Palestinian society. The civil service, which supports one-quarter of the population, has been paid no wages in six months.

According to the United Nations, $30m-worth of damage has been inflicted on Gaza since this operation began. But the far graver cost has been in human life. In July and August, some 251 Palestinians were killed by Israeli military action, half of them civilians. The dead have included women, children and the elderly. Hundreds more have been wounded.

And yet while all of this has been going on - the bloodshed, the hunger, the social collapse - the world has turned away. The international community has been preoccupied with the worsening situation in Iraq, Afghanistan or Israel's war with Lebanon. Yet while the people of Lebanon were able to flee Israel's bombardment, Gazans have had no such freedom.

The Israeli government claims the purpose of its blockade is to secure the return of Corporal Gilad Shalit, a soldier kidnapped in June after a raid by a faction of Hamas. Another objective is, we are told, to prevent militants firing Qassam rockets across the border into Israeli towns and villages by militants. Even if we accept this intention, the methods have been grossly disproportionate. Five Israelis have been killed by Qassams in the past six years. Does this justify such a lethal response in Gaza? The operation is also deeply questionable from a practical perspective. Does the Israeli government truly expect degrading all Gazans in this fashion to secure the release of Corporal Shalit?

Ultimately we must accept that the return of the Israeli military to Gaza is less about stopping rocket attacks, winning the release of Corporal Shalit, or even removing Hamas, than it is about imposing a collective punishment on the Palestinian people, in the belief that it is in the interests of the state of Israel to do so. It is not. The long-term interest of Israel lies, as it always has, in progress towards a two-state solution. The great prize is the normalisation of relations between Palestinians and Israelis. Every day that the people of Gaza are denied their dignity - every time more innocent Palestinians are killed by stray Israeli rockets - such a settlement is pushed further away.