Falling through the cracks

Fire and brimstone rained down on northern Israel throughout most of this week. And as air-raid sirens sounded and rockets slammed into the country from Hizbullah positions in Lebanon, the state unfurled its extensive safety net.

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) Home Front Command issued a list of safety recommendations via television and newspapers—including step-by-step instructions on what to do when the sirens sound, and -estimates of how long it takes launched missiles to reach their targets.

Down south, in the Gaza Strip, with 1,3-million people the most densely populated piece of land on Earth—and the terrain of IDF -military incursions for decades—residents will hear no air-raid sirens, and have no protective bunkers to hide in. There simply aren’t any.

Residents in the northern Israeli town of Haifa huddled in their bunkers, which are present in nearly every Israeli house and apartment block, and waited for instructions from their leaders.

But in Gaza, the sounds of artillery and the distant whirr of rotor blades from Apache helicopters will be the only warning many will receive. Raising the alarm of an impending air strike comes in the form of the occasional rooftop sentry—the stuff of a third-rate Hollywood film.

If they are lucky, they will drop what they are doing—and run. Others may be at home with the television set on too loud, and not hear the distant warning sounds. Like the four members of the Wahba family from Rafa’ah in southern Gaza who were earlier this month eating pizza around their dinner table, they will have a split second to look up before the missile or shell lands and blows them apart.

In times of war—the status quo in Israel and the territories it has occupied for decades—the Palestinian people in the conflict areas are literally sitting ducks.

Although obliged to do so in terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, Israel has done little to protect Palestinian civilians from coming to harm in areas under its military occupation. This may come as little surprise, given the nature of conflict. But the paucity of measures taken by Palestinians’ elected leadership, the Palestinian Authority (PA), amounts to negligence.

The PA continues to be the single largest recipient of international donor aid worldwide. Yet there are virtually no social security or welfare measures in place to assist people uprooted, displaced, thrown out of work, injured or killed as a result of the conflict.

According to Article 22 of the Palestinian Constitution: “The welfare of families of martyrs, prisoners of war, the injured, and the disabled, shall be regulated by law. The National Authority shall guarantee them education services, health and social insurance.”

At the moment, these are just words on a piece of paper.

The endless border closures, the restriction of movement of Palestinian ID carriers inside Israel, the arrest of breadwinners on minor infractions and the mere danger of going out to work when military operations are taking place—all this has wreaked havoc on the Palestinian economy. But the PA Welfare Ministry has no unemployment insurance fund for workers.

According to the regulations published this week, workers in the northern Israeli towns under attack who are employed in “non-vital services” will not have to work, but will be paid their full salaries through the National Insurance Institute.

When the Independent Workers Committees in Gaza staged a protest last year to demand a school registration fee exemption for children of unemployed workers, and the establishment of a “social solidarity fund” for unemployment compensation, they were greeted with live ammunition from PA policemen.

The spiralling suffering of the Palestinians as a result of Israeli violence is hardly helped by a leadership that has, in over a decade at the helm, all but sat with arms folded and watched as the living conditions of its populace deteriorate. One reason why, say many on the streets of Gaza, that the recent elections took the form of a protest vote for “the new guy”—Hamas.

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