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29 January 2009

The people’s spirit survives

By Sami Abdel-Shafi

Into the second week of the ceasefire, Gaza is almost exactly as it was before the war. Israel’s siege, the restricted admittance of humanitarian aid, the near total closure of crossing points, the continued operation of the deposed government of Hamas and the enduring embarrassment of Palestinian division – all are still in place. Massive destruction to the fundamentals of civilian life, and great death and injury among civilians, were all that Israel achieved. Entire neighbourhoods were annihilated, leaving homes either completely demolished or so gutted that they were uninhabitable. Desperation and hopelessness are now soaring to new levels.

There seems to be no victor in this war. What is clear, however, is how the plight of the Palestinian people, and particularly those in Gaza, has moved to the forefront of urgent tragedies in the world. Ironically, it was Israel’s shameful haste in conducting this war that exposed the genuine morality of the Palestinian plight; a moral cause that was, oddly enough, smeared by internal Palestinian strife.

The long siege on the Gaza Strip allowed Israel to characterise it, unfairly, as a “humanitarian case”. Having consistently kept basic supplies at dangerously low levels, Israel leveraged its tight control of “humanitarian” supplies by simply stopping them under whatever pretext. In Gaza, this was widely seen as one of Israel’s most unfair weapons against ordinary Palestinians.

It now seems increasingly evident that Israel is heading towards making Gaza into a region of beggars by applying crippling controls to any postwar reconstruction efforts and pre-empting Gaza’s proper development – claiming that its security needs dictate restrictions on essential reconstruction materials.

The policy of the UK, America and the major European countries towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of attempting to influence the outcome by remote control. As the great powers of the world directly supported and engaged with Israel, while not necessarily extending the same support even to more moderate Palestinians, they left Israel virtually unchallenged in meting out whatever punishment it saw fit on Palestinians, whether in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip.

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Without directly engaging with all the adversaries in the conflict, the great powers will have, in effect, endorsed its continuation. One of the most painful outcomes will be the condemning of Gaza to the position of an endless “humanitarian case”, as long as a political resolution remains elusive.

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Curbing Israel’s unrelenting will to exercise its superiority over Palestinians now seems mandatory. The world must encourage Palestinian reconciliation and directly engage with all Palestinians, including Hamas. A new political approach based on dialogue would pave the way for renewed and credible peace. The worry is, however, that Israel may cripple a unity government, and one with a political programme based on pursuing peace, just as it did in early 2007, by restricting the movement of its cabinet and withholding its funds.

Continued political failure will turn a motivated and aspiring people into permanent beggars: something they have never been. What strengthens the resistance of Gazans is their unrelenting resilience and their determination to secure a dignified life – just as they long for a comprehensive and just solution with Israel. Any rebuilding efforts that sideline Gaza’s positive spirit and its need for political resolution will be a wasted investment.

Sami Abdel-Shafi is a writer and management consultant, based in Gaza City