Maps and numbers: meeting OCHA (Tuesday 7 February)
PREVIOUS: Conscience and power
I’m an election analyst, so I love maps and numbers. They are also in my comfort zone, particularly in a situation like this one where emotions run high. I am moved when I meet someone who has suffered injustice, as I was when I saw Omar’s Kafkaesque situation at Al-Walajah yesterday, as it would take a heart of stone (or concrete) not to be. But I am also conscious that these are not the only human tragedies in the conflict, and that the grief of the people who lost friends and family in suicide bombings or rocket attacks is not to be ignored. Human sympathy is, or should be, universal although in Israel/ Palestine it often appears that it is not fully extended to the innocents (still less the combatants) on either side. But maps and numbers can tell me what the overall situation is like; one sometimes needs distance to make out the landscape.
This visit, and my trip in January to Moldova, have made me think more highly of the United Nations. There are two principal UN organisations in the Palestinian territories, namely UNRWA (Relief and Works Agency, which deals with refugees) and OCHA-OPT (Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Occupied Palestinian Territory). We visited OCHA at its modest offices in an old building in East Jerusalem (none of that UN luxury that the tabloids always complain about!) for a briefing, based around numbers and maps.
The OCHA briefing covered a lot of subjects, and it informs a lot of what I’ve written elsewhere. I strongly advise going and having a look at the OCHA website at http://www.ochaopt.org/ which publishes much of the valuable research and analysis that OCHA does in the occupied territories. Much of what we learned was deeply depressing, and confirmed the evidence of one’s eyes, that normal life in the West Bank was frequently disrupted for its inhabitants, and that the interests of settlers were always placed ahead of the Palestinians. There was, in the background, the horrifying prospect that the West Bank would become like the caged dystopia of Gaza.
We didn’t go to Gaza. Hardly anyone does. The OCHA briefing was as close as we got.
It is very difficult to get into Gaza unless one is working for an international organisation, but it is even harder to get out. While the West Bank is a complex tangle, the situation in Gaza is brutally simple. It is a tiny fragment of territory, only 360 square kilometres in size (a bit smaller than Rutland), with a million and a half people crammed into it. Since the Israeli army pulled out the few thousand settlers from Gaza in 2005 (destroying the houses as they left) it has been entirely Palestinian. Around half the population is aged under 16. Gaza is dependent on foreign aid, coming through strictly controlled channels via the Israeli port of Ashdod. Self-sufficiency in this densely populated urban strip is hampered by the fact that a fair proportion of the arable land lies along the border zone with Israel, which is covered by an exclusion order enforced by Israeli forces. The ‘buffer zone’ is officially 300m deep, but it seems that people up to at least 800m within Gazan territory are at risk of being shot.
The import of construction materials to Gaza is banned, a problem in any circumstances but given the population boom and the dilapidation of the city this creates a cruel situation. People attempting to gather gravel and other materials (sometimes from the demolished settlements) in the Israeli-imposed ‘buffer zone’ near the border fence are often shot by Israeli soldiers. The alternative is to acquire supplies through the illegal tunnel system, which is of course largely under the control of gangsters and extremists. Exports from Gaza are a tiny trickle, of 6-9 truckloads per week. 90 per cent of drinking water is unsafe, and electricity supply is rationed with 4-12 hours a day of power cuts since the Israelis destroyed the power plant in a raid in 2006. The sea, traditionally a source of livelihood for Gazans, is patrolled by Israeli ships who enforce a unilateral 3km limit, and coastal waters are increasingly polluted by sewage. Gaza is a nightmarish slum city by the Med.
There are some terrorists in Gaza who periodically shoot off rockets into Israeli territory, posing a threat to the civilian populations of towns such as Sderot and Ashkelon but serving no legitimate military function. 31 people have been killed in these attacks since 2001, mostly Israeli civilians. The main consequence of such attacks is to enable Israel to legitimise the blockade and take disproportionate military action against Gaza, thereby sowing more hatred, misery, poverty and terrorism. The lowest estimate of civilian casualties of the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008/9 is 295; it is hard to obtain accurate figures. A further Israeli incursion was widely expected by observers in early 2012.
My friend Aharon Nathan, one of the few Israelis who knows and cares about Gaza (he established the civil authority there after the 1956 war), has a vision of Gaza as an independent state, a kind of Mediterranean Hong Kong or Dubai city state open to the world. Most Palestinians, though, feel that the West Bank and Gaza are part of the same nation and should be in the same state. A Palestinian artist, Mohamed Abusal dreams of Gaza being like modern, peaceful metropolitan areas in the rest of the world and having a Metro system running underground, but all he could do was imagine a map and take his single iron pole with an ‘M’ insignia on the top to the locations he envisaged as station sites. It takes optimists of the calibre of Nathan and Abusal to look at Gaza and feel hope.
( image is the artwork of Mohamed Abusal http://abusalmohamed.com/)