In praise of Gisha
Richard Silverstein, 3 November 2010
Yesterday, I interviewed the director of the Israeli NGO, Gisha, Sari Bashi, about conditions in Gaza. Bashi, a graduate of Yale University and Law School and an international human rights lawyer, clerked for an Israeli Supreme Court justice. To top it all off, she’d just completed an ultra-marathon. I imagined her running up and down Masada and mountains throughout the Judean Desert under a sweltering sun. A thoroughly sober, intense and impressive figure.
Gisha is the group which has valiantly fought an 18 month legal battle against the IDF to expose its guidelines for enforcing the siege against the enclave’s 1.5-million civilians. The army memo I published last week which offered “mathematical” formulas to determine how little flour a Gazan needs to survive came thanks to Gisha (and my trusty translator, Ed. Mad X).
Gisha’s director told me that while the siege has eased “somewhat” in terms of it being somewhat easier to obtain essential items like food, there is no change regarding the prohibition on importing reconstruction materials. Less than 1% of the amount requested by donor countries willing to assist rebuilding efforts has been admitted. Bashi tells me the only building sites in Gaza that are actually building anything are ones affiliated with Hamas or the many Islamic charities supporting it. In front of the building sites of UNWRA, for example, you see an empty hole and a sign promising a building.
Of course, Hamas is able to import all the materials it needs (including ones to make weapons) through the elaborate tunnel system. It builds mosques, schools, hospitals, etc. No one else. The parties harmed by the siege are the international aid organizations like UNWRA and ones affiliated with the European Union, which cannot build anything. Their building materials are banned and so their projects are aborted.
Another damaging ban that continues even post-Mavi Marmara is that Palestinians may not import any raw materials or goods that can be turned into products for export. That means the Gaza economy will remain a basket case. That trained workers will be laid off and forced to seek employment with the Hamas government, which is the only entity paying regular salaries.
As I thought about this, I realized that Israel has actually allowed Hamas to turn Gaza into its showcase, just as southern Lebanon post-2006 war has become Hezbollah and Iran’s showcase. If there was anyone in the IDF or Israeli government capable of doing strategic, rather than tactical thinking, they’d realize it is in the interest of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to create an alternative to Hamas in Gaza. There should be competing spheres of influence in Gaza in order to present alternatives to the population. When you allow Hamas to maintain a monopoly as Israel has done, you turn the place into a bastion for Islamic resistance.
But then I realized that’s precisely what Israel means to do. It NEEDS Gaza as a showcase for the “bad Arabs” which it can show the world anytime the heat is on it demanding that it compromise on some issue it prefers to stymie instead. Gaza under the flag of Hamas is a tremendously useful propaganda vehicle for Israel. Almost like a safety valve.
If Israel did allow other international aid agencies to function fully and freely inside Gaza, then that image of unalloyed evil Israel is trying to project would be dissipated.
Since Hamas began in the 1980s, it has enjoyed a strange symbiotic relationship with Israel. In the beginning, the latter saw Hamas as a viable competitor to Fatah and so did little to discourage its growth. Now, Hamas continues to serve a useful role in Israel’s maintenance of the Occupation and status quo. Yes, in a strange and perverse way the two are good for each other.
Bashi recounted for me some of the legal permutations of Gisha’s struggle with the IDF to release these formerly secret documents. When the group took the IDF to court to get the documents, the latter first denied they existed. Gisha’s response was: “OK, if they don’t exist would you file a sworn affidavit to that effect?” Amos Gilad, the Israeli official responsible for implementing the siege, at that point decided not to perjure himself and conceded the files existed, but were only in draft form. Gisha reminded him that the Freedom of Information Act request covered ANY documents whether in draft or final form. That’s how they got the memo that was released last week–18 months late!
Bashi also reminded me that the army has only released those documents which portray the way the siege was conducted BEFORE the Mavi Marmara massacre. After, siege conditions were eased slightly. But the IDF maintains it does not have to release the new post-Marmara guidelines.
The legal thinking behind their refusal is straight out of Kafka’s Trial. When Gisha first filed its FoIA petition it requested all documents governing the ways in which the siege was enforced. The IDF is claiming that the petition the group filed 18 months ago applies only to guidelines that were in effect 18 months ago. In other words, the new guidelines imposed since Mavi Marmara should be subject to a NEW FoIA request. Which would mean that the IDF could stretch out its appeal against compliance possibly for another 18 months. This matter is now under consideration by an Israeli judge. Hopefully, we should know soon whether the IDF will follow the law or be allowed to creatively interpret it to suit its purposes.
Not surprisingly, the IDF also refused to release a separate “red-lines” document which lays out the minimum amount of calories that a Gazan can consume and remain functioning.
To support Gisha’s important work guaranteeing Palestinians the right to travel, work, trade, and live freely in Gaza and throughout the Conquered Territories, visit its site.