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Israel still ignores human toll of Gaza siege - Mya Guarnieri

July 2, 2010 8:46 A.M. (Updated: July 4, 2010 12:47 P.M.)
The death of 19-year-old Fidaa Talal Hijjy stands as a stark reminder of the needs of the people of Gaza; needs that continue to be unmet amidst Israel's empty face-saving promises to ease its siege.

A resident of the Gaza Strip, Hijjy was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 2007—the same year Israel’s blockade of Gaza tightened to the level that prompted 600 activists to board six ships bound for the coastal enclave in May.

As her health deteriorated, so did Gaza’s medical system. By 2009, the UN World Health Organization reported, Hijjy was in urgent need of a bone marrow transplant, a procedure unavailable in the Strip. So Hijjy tried to leave for treatment.

She secured an appointment in Israel. Her transplant would take place on 23 September 2009. But the date came and went as Israeli authorities, who continue to control the flow of people in and out of Gaza, ignored Hijjy’s request to exit.

Hijjy rescheduled the procedure, this time for October, and again sought permission from Israel to exit. She did not receive a response.

She made a third appointment and submitted an urgent request. At last, Hijjy’s exit permit was granted. But it came too late—she’d died from Hodgkin’s the day before, three days after the bone marrow transplant that could have prolonged, or even saved, her life.

Israel's decision to ease the siege on Gaza would not have helped Hijjy, and will not help those like her.

On Wednesday, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that “Israel plans to significantly boost the number of aid trucks allowed into the Gaza Strip.” Gaza will now see 150 incoming trucks a day, an increase of 50 percent. In weeks to come, Israel plans to raise this number to 250, the report cataloged.

Last week, Palestinian Authority officials said Israel barred entry of seven oxygen tanks to the Ministry of Health, because it was set to distribute some of them to hospitals in the Gaza Strip. The machines "came under the category of possible use for non-medical purposes" if they were delivered to the southern Gaza districts. As "dual use" machines, Israel can continue to bar the entry of basic medical equipment.

Israel’s decision to ease the three-year-long blockade, which it implemented after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, came in the wake of the political and public relations crisis that was triggered by the Israeli navy's raid on the Freedom Flotilla, a group of six international ships carrying thousands of tons of aid for the coastal enclave.

The raid, which took place in international waters in the early morning of 31 May, left nine passengers dead and brought the world’s attention to the siege.

The circumstances—the Israeli government’s sudden change of heart in the face of mounting political pressure—suggest, of course, that this partial lifting of the siege is an empty move intended not to help the people of Gaza, but to help Israel save face on the international stage. The numbers confirm this. While additional trucks might be trickling in, Palestinians like Hijjy still aren’t getting out.

Israel, the occupying power that controls Gaza’s borders, continues to completely ignore the human toll of the blockade.

Access-related deaths like Hijjy’s are difficult to estimate. In 2009, the Palestinian Ministry of Health estimated that more than 260 people have lost their lives because they were denied medical treatment since the start of the blockade.

In a report released in late January, the UN World Health Organization stated that since the beginning of 2010, 27 patients who were waiting for permission to leave Gaza had died. That’s three times the number of those who were killed in the flotilla raid.

But the human toll of the blockade isn’t just about deaths. It’s also about the future economic, social, and psychological health of Gaza—which will ripple through generations to come. It’s about the economy that has been destroyed by both a lack of both import and exports. It’s about split families who wish to be reunited but are prevented from doing so because of the blockade. It’s about the 500 students who, their degree programs unavailable in Gaza, can’t reach their universities overseas.

Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates for the Palestinian right to movement, offers the story of Fatma Sharif, a 29-year-old lawyer who was accepted to study for a master’s degree in human rights and democracy at a university in the West Bank.

Speaking to Gisha, Sharif remarked, “I want to go back to Gaza at the end of my master’s degree studies to raise awareness about human rights within the society in Gaza. I firmly believe that every person has rights that they must be made aware of, including where these rights are violated, whether from within their own society or without.”

In 2007, the Israeli High Court ruled that authorities should consider allowing residents of Gaza to study in the West Bank, especially in “cases that would have positive human consequences.” But in the past three years, Gisha reports, Israeli authorities have not allowed one Gazan to travel to the West Bank to attend university. This includes Sharif—who clearly meets the criteria set out by the High Court—and who seeks to leave Gaza now, as Israel claims it is easing the blockade.

Additional aid trucks won’t help Palestinians like Sharif and Hijjy. Israel must make meaningful changes to its policies. Until then, the lives and futures of 1.5 million Gazans are under siege.

Mya Guarnieri is a journalist based in Tel Aviv, Israel. A regular contributor to Ma'an, she also writes for The National as well as The Huffington Post, where a version of this op-ed originally appeared.
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