Israel Continues to Ignore the Human Toll of the Siege on Gaza

Fidaa Talal Hijjy, a resident of the Gaza Strip, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 2007--the same year Israel's blockade of Gaza began. As her health deteriorated, so did Gaza's medical system. Drugs are in short supply. Hospitals lack necessary equipment. And because the siege on Gaza also impedes the movement of people, medical staff cannot leave to get the training they need.

By 2009, the UN World Health Organization reports, Hijjy was in urgent need of a bone marrow transplant, a procedure unavailable in the Strip.

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

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

She made a third appointment and submitted an urgent request. And, 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.

Haaretz reported yesterday: "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.

Israel's decision to ease the three-year-long blockade, which it implemented after Hamas took control of Gaza, came in the wake of the political and public relations crisis was triggered by the Israeli army's raid on the Freedom Flotilla. The raid, which took place in international waters in the early morning of May 31, left nine activists dead and brought the world's attention to Israel's siege on Gaza.

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 the Gaza Strip, but to help Israel save face on the international stage. The numbers confirm this. While additional trucks might be trickling in, many 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 estimates that more than 260 have occurred since the blockade began. 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 students who, their degree programs unavailable in Gaza, can't reach their universities in the West Bank or 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 Supreme Court ruled that 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 Supreme Court--and who seeks to leave Gaza now but remains unable to do so even though Israel claims it is easing the blockade.

Additional aid trucks won't help Palestinians like Sharif and Hijjy. Israel must admit that it has accomplished nothing with the blockade and must end it. Until then, the lives and futures of 1.5 million Gazans will remain under siege.