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Barack Obama's presidency

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The Gaza Ghetto

By Alvaro Vargas Llosa
June 15, 2010

Editor’s Note: Tough-guy responses to complex political problems inflict horrendous human suffering around the world, but perhaps nowhere worse than the Middle East. President George W. Bush’s swagger – egged on by Washington’s dominant neoconservative opinion-leaders – turned Iraq into a killing field last decade.

And Israeli belligerence toward the Palestinians – and their sometimes violent pushback – has created another humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as the Independent Institute’s Alvaro Vargas Llosa observed first-hand:

I arrived in Gaza just hours after Israel’s May 31 commando raid on the flotilla led by Turkish activists. I wanted to gauge the effects of the blockade maintained by Israel since 2007, when Hamas took over all of Gaza’s institutions, and of Israel’s 2008-09 military offensive to stop Hamas rocket barrages.

Gaza looks as if it was bombed and bulldozed yesterday. Not a single building destroyed in the winter of 2008–09 during Israel’s three-week attack has been rebuilt. Construction materials are among the items that Israel bars from Gaza.

Judge Richard Goldstone, who wrote a report for the United Nations on the Gaza conflict, accused both Hamas and Israel of war crimes. A visit here leaves no doubt that thousands of civilians saw their lives ruined.

Jalhal Abulela and his family live in tents in a barren field. Surrounded by barefoot children and some malnourished mules, he told our party: “I have two wives and 18 children, I worked in Israel for 15 years making sewage pipes, I used all my savings to buy us a house here, and one morning the Israelis bulldozed my home.”

Clutching his left arm, his brother Shpar added: “My wife lost her hand in the attack.”

Dozens of bullet-ridden buildings can be seen from here. The sequence is interrupted by the occasional orchard with corn plants.

A woman who would only identify herself as Faiva lives in Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza, where the Israeli Defense Forces concentrated much of the artillery and ground assault. Her two-story house is a bare mass of iron bars and concrete blocks hanging as if about to break off. A few lizards weave their way through the cracks.

“We have nowhere to go,” she said. “We cannot rebuild and we cannot work to buy another house. Hamas has not sent us everything they offered. I hate politics.”

Three-thousand businesses have disappeared because nothing can be imported or exported because the Israeli fear of arms trafficking. Israel allows only enough aid to maintain subsistence conditions for the people of Gaza.

The list of permitted items is strict and the rules seemingly arbitrary: Cinnamon is permitted, but not cilantro. Fishermen cannot venture beyond three nautical miles. As one of them explained at the port, “the few fish that can be caught in this small area are mostly contaminated.”

Unemployment in Gaza hovers around 80 percent. The official figure is smaller; Hamas provides stipends to many people in order to ensure their loyalty, as does, to a lesser extent, the more mainstream Fatah organization.

Because foreign aid was originally tied to small menial jobs, the streets, including the neighborhood of Ezbt Abed Rabbo, part of which the tanks reduced to rubble, are strikingly clean.

In the port, Hamas officials gathered for a funeral ceremony related to the flotilla. I asked spokesman Fawzy Barhoum if his organization feels responsible for any of the suffering.

“Israel attacked because we won an election,” he replied. “What kind of democracy do they stand for? And why do civilians bear the brunt?”

But aren’t Hamas’ fratricidal war against Fatah and the group’s non-recognition of Israel major obstacles to peace? “We are willing to come to terms with Fatah and to guarantee Israel’s security without need for official recognition in exchange for Palestinian sovereignty,” he said.

Hamas’ surveillance is oppressive. The black uniforms of its security apparatus are as conspicuous as its green flags, and its grip has been strengthened by the blockade. Yet dissatisfaction is in the air. It is whispered, not proclaimed.

“Women are most affected,” explains a man in his 40s. “They voted for Hamas but now regret it; the government has legitimized husbands having several wives.”

The full veil is ubiquitous, but at Al-Azhar University and other liberal enclaves, women still go without it. Alcohol has disappeared.

There are children everywhere. They smile but look destitute. They have never seen an Israeli without a gun. How many will grow up believing that killing Israelis is their only future?

In the afternoon, two Palestinians are shot attempting to cross the border. Israel says they were terrorists. The Palestinians say they were farmers wanting to flee.

As I head back toward Israel, my head is dizzy with images from Shifa Hospital, where we learned that the siege prevents seriously ill patients from receiving timely treatment outside of Gaza and new equipment from coming in.

Surely Israel, a country that has given such humane and imaginative responses to colossal challenges, can come up with a better solution to its real security problems than maintaining this veritable ghetto that looks as if it were conceived by an enemy of the Jewish state.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute.

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