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Is the Embargo collective punishment? Is it wise?

The Dish cites a limited list of what’s permitted and what’s not, by way of a graphic in the Economist. Andrew writes:

I understand the need to deploy a blockade to prevent serious weaponry getting in to Hamas. But when you look at the full range of blockaded goods, you realize that this is a de facto act of collective punishment, depriving Gazans of the ability to feed themselves, rebuild their shattered infrastructure, or construct a functioning state. Has it weakened Hamas’ grip? Not so far as one can tell.

It’s slimy (and a bit grammatically confusing) when Andrew tries to limit the reasonable scope of a blockade to “prevent[ing] serious weaponry getting in to Hamas.”  Most of the rockets and mortars that are fired from Gaza are made domestically; the blockade is not necessary just for Grad missiles and some Iranian ones being imported. But regardless, Gisha, the organization that the Economist is citing (and Peter Beinart does as well), provides a helpful note with its May 2010 report:

The following list is approximate and partial, and it changes from time to time. It is based on information from Palestinian traders and businesspersons, international organizations, and the Palestinian Coordination Committee, all of whom “deduce” what is permitted and what is banned based on their experience requesting permission to bring goods into Gaza and the answers they receive from the Israeli authorities (approved or denied).

OK, so there may be problems with accuracy and precision. Let’s assume the information they gather and present is mostly right about what’s prohibited, and that none of the “banned” items are allowed up to a certain quantity. The latter I think is a bigger assumption than the former.

It is not possible to verify this list with the Israeli authorities because they refuse to disclose information regarding the restrictions on transferring goods into Gaza.

OK, I don’t support that. Israel should be open with this information.

It should be noted that Israel permits some of the “prohibited” items into Gaza (for example: paper, biscuits, and chocolate), on the condition that they are for the use of international organizations, while requests from private merchants to purchase them are denied.

Hmm, I would like to see list of those items that are sometimes prohibited. In the meantime, I’m guessing that Israel appreciates when sumptuary goods are not distributed by Hamas, and instead by UN and US funded aid agencies.

(But I don’t know whether the private merchants can’t get a hold of things because they might somehow end up distributed by Hamas, or just because some officials want to hold back Gaza’s economy.)

Now, is this “collective punishment”?

Legally, collective punishment refers to reprisals against whole communities (ex. Lidice, townspeople annihilated and town destroyed) or members picked at random (ex. Fosse Ardeatine massacre, 42 killed) for specific crimes or military acts committed by specific individuals. The punishments international law references as signifying collective punishment are military or criminal penalties (i.e., jail/execution), “terrorism” (that’s the word Geneva uses — covert attacks on civilians I guess) and confiscation/destruction of property.

Any reduction in supplies to a hostile entity (ex. Gaza) does not count as “collective punishment,” unless it prevents bare necessities, goods and materials that people need to survive. An example of collective punishment by deprivation of goods is how America prevented food aid from reaching ethnic Germans in 1945, during the occupation. From Wikipedia:

General Lucius Clay, then Deputy to General Eisenhower, stated: “I feel that the Germans should suffer from hunger and from cold as I believe such suffering is necessary to make them realize the consequences of a war which they caused.[11]”

The German Red Cross was dissolved, and the International Red Cross and the few other allowed international relief agencies were kept from helping Germans through strict controls on supplies and on travel.[10] The few agencies permitted to help Germans, such as the indigenous Caritas Verband, were not allowed to use imported supplies. When the Vatican attempted to transmit food supplies from Chile to German infants the U.S. State Department forbade it.[12]

During 1945 it was estimated that the average German civilian in the U.S. and the United Kingdom occupation zones received 1,200 calories a day.[13] Meanwhile non-German Displaced Persons were receiving 2,300 calories through emergency food imports and Red Cross help.[14] In early October 1945 the UK government privately acknowledged in a cabinet meeting that German civilian adult death rates had risen to four times the pre-war levels and death rates amongst the German children had risen by 10 times the pre-war levels. [13]

General Lucius Clay stated in October 1945 that:
“undoubtedly a large number of refugees have already died of starvation, exposure and disease…. The death rate in many places has increased several fold, and infant mortality is approaching 65 percent in many places. By the spring of 1946, German observers expect that epidemics and malnutrition will claim 2.5 to 3 million victims between the Oder and Elbe.[13]”

U.S. occupation forces were under strict orders not to share their food with the German population, and this also applied to their wives when they arrived later in the occupation. The women were under orders not to allow their German maids to get hold of any leftovers; “the food was to be destroyed or made inedible”, although in view of the starving German population facing them many housewives chose to disregard these official orders.[15] Nevertheless, according to a U.S. intelligence survey a German university professor reportedly said: “Your soldiers are good-natured, good ambassadors; but they create unnecessary ill will to pour twenty litres of left-over cocoa in the gutter when it is badly needed in our clinics. It makes it hard for me to defend American democracy amongst my countrymen.”[16]

In January 1946, 34 U.S. Senators petitioned that private relief organizations be allowed to help in Germany and Austria, stating that the desperate food situation in occupied Germany:
“presents a picture of such frightful horror as to stagger the imagination, evidence which increasingly marks the United States as an accomplice in a terrible crime against humanity.”[17]

(Note, from The Daily Dish’s history text: After this, and the even worse treatment of German POWs in U.S. custody which decimated thousands, America was a righteous beacon of freedom and liberal democracy again, and we could “Know Hope,” all the way until Bush’s torture program. Damn neoconservatives to hell! … and anyone whose thoughts get too close to their evil thoughts.)

If any reduction in supplies counts as a “de facto act of collective punishment” as Andrew writes, then our sanctions on Saddam’s Iraq were criminal in the same way as the treatment of the Germans in 1945 and 1946. Also criminal were the Quartet’s 2006-2007 economic sanctions on the Palestinian territories (which ended when Hamas militants violently ended Fatah’s remaining power in Gaza). One could even charge that the 1973 OPEC embargo of the United States was “collective punishment” of American citizens, illegal, as is every international dispute that involves tit-for-tat trade protectionism.

I’ve written before about the “reality” on the ground in Gaza.

I agree that there is a possibility that Israel will become guilty of collective punishment through its blockade of Gaza. Some basic resources (such as electricity or fuel) Israel allows in  based on certain distribution choices it assumes Hamas will make, with Hamas and its cronies taking everything they can while keeping the people at a lesser level. However, if Hamas does not make those choices or circumstances otherwise change (ex. major tunnels collapse, the Swine Flu goes through Gaza) and this imminently jeopardizes the lives of Palestinians, Israel will be committing collective punishment. As close as Israel is to Gaza and as much as Israel can know about what’s happening there, it is possible that Israel will not be able to increase the flow of resources in time.

As to whether the blockade is wise … I’m not sure.

Sadly, Israel is stuck with it now until something big happens on the other side. Unless the blockade is ended as a quid pro quo for an extremely significant peace gesture on the part of the Palestinians, the end of the blockade will be viewed as a victory for Hamas. Fatah will be hobbled and so will any peace process with the West Bank, maybe for years. Hamas may even gain power in the West Bank, and its “more moderate” politicians will start to seclude themselves and their more moderate ideas from public eyes. Doesn’t sound like a good outcome from a small-c conservative/realist point of view — although the Dish would be ecstatic for at least a couple days.

In the wake of this flotilla disaster, I think Israel should talk to its Friends in the international community and change some of its blockade policies, increasing their transparency and letting some notably restricted sumptuary goods in through non-Hamas or only part-Hamas channels. It should ask the EU to take the lead in guiding home construction materials to … non-ballistic projects, and to the houses of people who are associated with Fatah as well.

In the meantime, the embargo does not seem to be strengthening Hamas in Gaza, although support for them over the last three months may have ticked up in the West Bank. This in spite of how Gaza has ingeniously formed a semi-closed-system economy, with the help of the tunnels. According to The Economist, Gaza’s economy may be growing faster than that of the West Bank.

The most recent poll I can find is from March 2010 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Their previous poll of Palestinians was only 3 months before, in December 2009,  has these results for Fateh and Hamas support

party) Total — West Bank — Gaza

Fateh ) 32.9  — 33.1  — 32.5
Hamas )  20.8  — 17.8  — 26.6

Three months later it’s:

Fateh ) 30.1 — 29.6 — 31.0
Hamas )  21.7 — 19.1 — 25.9

The change is within the stipulated 3% margin of error. Compare these results to how Hamas was at the start of the blockade (after the coup in June) in their poll in September 2007:

Fateh ) 35.6 33.5 39.2
Hamas ) 20.7 16.5 28.0

Now before the coup, in March 2007:

Fateh ) 29.1 26.8 33.1
Hamas ) 26.7 23.2 32.9

Support for Hamas has gone down, by more than the margin of error, between the March before the blockade started and March of this year.

But has support for Hamas gone down enough to justify Israel’s increase of the amount of collective despair? Enough to justify Israel putting itself so close to the possibility of causing collective punishment?



Two interesting questions from the March 2010 poll:

From among the following three Palestinian priorities, which in your opinion is the most important one today?
1) Gaza reconstruction
16.7 — 18.0 –14.5
2) reconciliation and reunification of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip
59.3 –60.1 — 57.9
3) opening of Gaza crossings with Egypt and Israel
23.8 — 21.7 –27.3
4) DK/NA
0.2 — 0.2 — 0.2

Ending the blockade comes in second place with more than twice as many people in both Gaza and the West Bank saying the most important thing is political reunification between the two territories. Additionally, West Bank Palestinians somehow think Gaza reconstruction is more important than Gazans do.

And what if Fateh wins new legislative and president elections, will this in your view lead to the lifting or to tightening of the international boycott of the Palestinian government?
1) will lead to the lifting of the boycott
56.7 — 46.3 — 73.9
2) will lead to the tightening of the boycott
8.9 — 10.7 — 6.0
3) conditions will stay as they are today
29.7 — 38.0 — 16.0
4) DK/NA

73.9% of Gazans (as opposed to less than half of Palestinians in the West Bank) think that if they elect Fateh, the Israelis will end the blockade. I agree with the Gazans.

One Response

  1. […] punishment” is meaningless as Sullivan uses it — see this post. It’s about turning the 1.5 million people there into helpless dependents on Israeli industry […]

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