Palestinians in Gaza living under 'siege' Israel says closure in wake of bombings won't end soon

March 25, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA -- The Palestinians call this the "siege," evoking a medieval image of a desperate people cut off and surrounded, watching their supplies dwindle.

The Israeli closure of the Gaza Strip has brought a modern update of that scene. Palestinians cannot get out, few supplies can come in, food is short, money is scarce. For lack of medical care, people have died.

Israeli officials say it will not end soon.

"Israel will put constant pressure on Arafat until he sobers up and fights terror seriously," Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said last week, referring to Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian authority.

"The distress being caused to the Palestinians as a result of the closure is not incidental, but intentional," the Hebrew daily Maariv added, reflecting the mood in Israel after a series of suicide bombings.

The Palestinians say a blockade imposed on 800,000 residents of the Gaza Strip is unjust. A father should not be punished for what his son does, they say. All should not be punished for the violence of a few, they complain.

"For 25 years, I and my sons have worked in Israel in all kinds of work. Never have we been arrested, never in trouble," said Mohammed Nimnim, now trying to earn a living fishing off the Gaza Strip coast. "Why do they sentence me, without a trial, without any crime by me?"

Israel imposed the closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Feb. 12 for 10 days at the start of Muslim holidays, as it has done in the past. It lifted the closure for two days, but reimposed it and added teeth to the restrictions after four Palestinian suicide bombings claimed 61 lives in retaliation for the Jan. 5 assassination of an Islamic bomb-maker in the Gaza Strip, blamed on Israeli agents.

The Israeli blockade is tougher than the periodic closures during the Palestinian intifada of the past eight years, Palestinians say. It is even tougher in some ways than the long curfew imposed during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

"Even during the war, the Israeli army would call and tell us to get food and distribute it among the people," said Abed Minhem Shanti, a Gaza trader whose two big trucks are parked and empty. "They would give us special permits."

Now he sits playing a game with dice and checkers, killing the hours. He cannot bring food across the Gaza border, nor send goods out in trade.

Food grows short

Meat -- brought from Israel -- is scarce, and the price of chicken has doubled in the Gaza Strip. Stores ran out of milk. There are nightly food lines for flour to make bread. United Nations food distributions to 60,000 needy refugees were mobbed last week, and required police protection.

"Nobody is starving yet. But there is a lack of nutritious food," said Ron Wilkinson, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza. "For 27 years, the Palestinians and Israel have been an appendage of the other. You can't cut that overnight."

Overwhelmingly, Palestinians insist that they do not support the suicide bombers and resent having to suffer for what the bombers did. Mohammed Ahmed Othman sits and drinks tea in the fruit and vegetable warehouse he opened 11 months ago to trade with Israel and other countries. His voice bounces off the empty walls. With the blockade, business stopped completely.

"I have 25 families that depend on me. Now they have nothing," he said. "This pressure generates anger. If it continues, not only one person will be a suicide bomber, everybody will be a suicide bomber."

Israel says the current blockade is necessary to prevent other Palestinians from making attacks in Israel. They hint that it could last through the Israeli election May 29.

"The closure will continue as long as is needed for security reasons," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday. "Everything that is needed for security will continue."

The toll on the sick

Even the sick have suffered. On March 10, Israeli soldiers refused to allow an ambulance carrying a 3-month-old baby having an asthma attack to pass to a hospital. The baby died. The next day, a pregnant Palestinian was forced to give birth at an army checkpoint instead of proceeding to the hospital. Her twin newborns died. On March 3, Israeli authorities refused a permit for a 32-year-old heart patient to pass to an Israeli hospital. He also died.

The incidents, reported in the Israeli press and confirmed by authorities, have caused Israel to announce several steps "easing" the closure. Palestinians in West Bank towns and villages, who were not initially allowed out, now may go to other areas in the West Bank, making life easier for them.

They are still barred by roadblocks from entering Israel. Ambulances with severe cases are allowed to travel to the main Arab hospital in East Jerusalem or Israeli hospitals with special permission.

But those in the Gaza Strip still are confined. A few truckloads of flour and food have been allowed in, but not enough to meet the 350 tons of flour needed daily for bread, a staple of the Palestinian diet.

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