The grim reality in Gaza

Mohammed Omer reports on shortages in Gaza from crucial medical supplies through children's winter c

Traffic in the Gaza Strip slowed to a trickle last week, and this week medical centres have scaled back treatment in the medicines and sustenance-destitute Strip.

"Israel’s decision is a death penalty: our reserve of fuel is almost zero and it may very likely run out by the end of today," said Khaled Radi, Ministry of Health spokesman for the dismissed Hamas government.

Radi spoke in reference to the 30 November Israeli Supreme Court decision to allow further fuel cutbacks, severe reductions which are crippling Gaza’s residents in all aspects of life. Prior to that ruling, as early as October Israel decided to begin limiting fuel, with Gaza soon after enduring serious cuts of over 50% of fuel needs, a dire statistic confirmed by the UN body OCHA.

At the Nahal Oz crossing, through which all fuel enters Gaza, the Palestinian petrol authority reported that Israel has delivered around only 190,000 litres of diesel a day since late October, falling short of the 350,000 litres needed by the Gaza Strip. This number plummeted on 29 November, with Israel delivering a scanty 60,000 litres, only marginally improving three days later, 2 December, with a delivery of 90,000 litres.

This week’s increased cutbacks resulted in a several day closure of Gaza’s petrol stations, owners striking in protest to the pittance of fuel allowed in–just one quarter of that normally received.

Gaza’s Association for Fuel Station Owners commented: "Petrol firms considered the amount negligible and so, in protest over the Israeli blockade, refused to accept the paltry offering which does not come close to meeting the essential needs of Gaza’s civilians."

A Gaza taxi driver related his concern: "Cutting off fuel means cutting off our lives. We use it for everything, in the place of wood or coal. It’s tragic not only that Israel is imposing this siege on Gaza, but also that some Palestinians are supporting this cruel embargo, with the naïve idea of causing the people turn against Hamas in Gaza."

Shortages of fuel have greatly affected the public transportation system, leaving students from universities in Gaza City delayed for hours standing in wait for transportation back to Khan Younies and Rafah in the south.

Trickle Effect

The fuel cuts in turn impede water access: with diesel-run pumps unable to function, leaving over 77,000 without fresh drinking water, according to Gaza’s water utility. Oxfam International has warned that soon 225,000 Gazans could suffer from inadequate water supplies, raising concerns for public health.

Ambulances and clinics suffer too, a fact reiterated by Khaled Radi, who related how fuel shortages have already brought some ambulances to a standstill: "This has affected the mobility of ambulances which are especially vital during on-going Israeli air strikes such as that of this morning."

He added that shortages further threatened to close essential clinics, which rely on back-up generators during the frequent electricity shortages in the Strip. Two first aid health centres have already been forced to suspend treatment during electricity cuts. Those that remain open suffer from want of medical supplies, with 91 of 416 essential medicines depleted, according to the WHO.

Even basic things are scarce. Residents are hard-pressed to find a piece of glass to repair a broken window, imperative in December’s cold weather, particularly in a time when electricity and gas are scarce-to-absent.

Eyad Yousef, a 31-year-old Palestinian teacher, has been waiting for cement, unavailable for the last many months, to enter Gaza. Concurrently, prices of building materials have skyrocketed, more than tripled in the worst cases. Yousef waits for any sort of building material, but he knows that will not find anything, as he has looked all over the picked-clean area. "I have a floor of my home to finish, but can’t do so yet as no sort of building materials are available in Gaza," he said. "I'm using pieces of nylon to cover my windows at home, but I can’t go on like this for long," he added, saying he hopes that the international community will put pressure on Israel to open borders and let vital products into Gaza.

Death Penalty

Yousef, at least, is luckier than the newly dead: since last month at least 31 medical patients have died in Gaza, a result of Israel’s lockdown on borders and preventing of medical access to Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian hospitals, as well as West Bank hospitals.

Since Hamas took over power in June, this subsequent Israeli lockdown has made it virtually impossible for Palestinians to get out of Gaza. The situation then deteriorated with the closing of Karni crossing, Gaza’s only commercial crossing, only opened for the most basic food essentials. Coupled with Israel’s ground and air attacks, the situation for Palestinians worsened yet further still when Israel last October announced Gaza as a "hostile entity", further allowing Israel to justify its closed-borders policy to the international arena.

In the densely-populated region starved of medical supplies, and now facing the shutdown of clinics, Gazan citizens have been given a death sentence with Israel’s control over borders. Yahya Al Jamal 53, one case among hundreds of people, has cancer and is in serious need of medical care at well-equipped hospitals. For more than two months now he has been refused entry to Israel for treatment. His agonized father reported that his son will die in the coming days if he does not get the medication he needs, an outcome of Israel’s mass denial of the luxury of critical healthcare.

Insult upon injuries, cement – already scarce for building – is no longer available even for graves of the many recently dead.

Empty Stocks

Aid agencies like the World Food Program (WFP) reporting that food imports are only enough to meet 41 per cent of demand in the Gaza Strip.

As winter progresses, resilient citizens desperately seek to survive. In Rafah’s Saturday market, Umm Mohammed Zourub scours the stalls yet again: "I've been looking for new winter clothes for my children, but I haven't been able to find any because no materials are coming into Gaza with the closed borders," the 43 year old mother lamented.

Indeed, the cold weather has fallen quickly on an internationally-isolated and starved population. From the intense heat of summer months, where water was scarce and air conditioning a fantasy, Gazans now experience the bitter cold in the same homes unprepared for extremes, and the bitter realization that, once again, they have been left to the whims of imprisonment, Israeli air and ground attacks, and a staggering invisibility in the international realm.

Mohammed Omer
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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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