Since March 30 this year, Israeli forces have killed 129 people and injured more than 5 500 people in Gaza. Hospitals have received gruesome wounds, the majority of which have been to lower limbs — a clear tactic used by Israeli forces to incapacitate protesters. Bones have been turned to ash. Soft tissue has been blown away. Arteries have been ruptured. Thirty-four limbs have been amputated.
The horrific scenes of protesters being shot with live ammunition has ignited outrage, and 120 member states of the United Nations general assembly called for greater protection of civilians in Gaza just last week.
The Israeli ambassador to the UN referred to the protesters as “rioters,” a harrowing reminder of the rhetoric used by the South African apartheid government to describe the student protesters of 1976.
Over the past weekend, on June 16, South Africa celebrated Youth Day. The day marks the Soweto youth uprising of 1976, which was triggered by the policies of the apartheid government, during which police fired live ammunition at protesting students. As horrific as this day was, it is impossible to separate it from the brutal trajectory of life under apartheid. Similarly, in Palestine the horror of protesters being shot cannot overshadow the slow suffocation of life under a 10-year-long siege or a 51-year-long occupation.
I worked in Palestine in 2007, researching the impact of the euphemistically termed “separation barrier” on access to healthcare, education and livelihoods. I met a farmer who would sit on the balcony of his home and look at his olive groves, separated from him by a wire fence and a buffer zone on each side that was regularly patrolled by the Israeli army. Sound bombs were lobbed over the fence into his house at night by passing military jeeps. He could visit his olive grove if he travelled out of his village and crossed through the checkpoint that was only occasionally opened. He no longer made the trip with his wife after she had been insulted at the checkpoint by Israeli soldiers.
In another town, I met a mother who had lost her child during labour at a checkpoint. She sobbed while she told me about how her baby died while she tried, and ultimately failed, to leave her village, which was entirely surrounded by a concrete wall. When I thanked her for telling me her story, she looked at me with fire in her eyes and said: “This is not a story; it’s my life.”
Just a few kilometres away — but separated by near-impassable checkpoints that ensure both the fragmentation of Palestinian land and segregation of Palestinians from Israelis — is the Gaza Strip. Gaza has been under siege for 10 years. Recently, a protester who was shot told Doctors Without Borders (MSF): “In Gaza there is no hope, no future. People here are poor and we’re dying slowly. I am myself desperate with my life here. When I left for the march, I wanted to die.” This desperation has a cause: it is a policy decision of Israel to suffocate Gaza’s people.
Gaza ran out of 40% of essential medicines earlier this year. Electricity appears for only four hours a day and 97% of Gaza’s water is undrinkable. Fifty-three percent of Gazans live in poverty and the unemployment rate is 44%. The 1.8-million residents of Gaza may only use 35% of the land inside Gaza because of an Israeli-imposed buffer zone. If you have cancer, you are unlikely to find treatment. And if you need to be referred to a hospital outside of Gaza it is unlikely that permission will be granted by Israel.
In Gaza, you are trapped as the noose tightens around your neck.
MSF has been treating burn patients in Gaza since before the latest peak of violence. The burns themselves tell the tale of siege. There have been intensive restrictions on building materials into Gaza, including basic elements such as cement. The poor condition of dwellings exacerbate the impact of household cooking accidents, often resulting in severe burns.
Gaza’s hospitals can barely cope with the burden of patients’ long- term and repeated injuries.
The acute peaks of violence that erupt in Gaza occur within a broader context of occupation and dispossession of Palestinian land and lives. This takes the form of expanding settlements in the West Bank, tightening sieges, a labyrinth of checkpoints, arbitrary arrests, targeted assassinations, segregation and the denial of the right to return. This reality remains at the core of the crisis facing Palestinians from the West Bank to Gaza and among Palestinians in neighbouring countries.
Moreover, the actions of the various Palestinian political representatives often make matters worse. The Palestinian Authority itself often acts as the implementing partner of Israeli occupation in the West Bank, as seen most recently by its attack on protesters in Ramallah. In Gaza the heavy-handed rule of Hamas can be considered suffocating in its own right.
After I worked in Palestine in 2007, I joined MSF and have since worked across a multitude of wars in the Middle East and North Africa. However, it was in Palestine that I witnessed the devastating combination of both the brutality of war and the ongoing reality of what I consider to be an Israeli policy of apartheid. The recent acts of violence against unarmed protesters cannot be seen in isolation from this bigger picture. The protection of civilians in Gaza, as called for by the UN general assembly, will only be possible with an end to the chronic condition of institutionalised discrimination, settler-colonialism and occupation.
Jonathan Whittall is the director of the analysis department at Doctors Without Borders. These are his own views. He is based between Johannesburg and Beirut and can be found on Twitter @offyourrecord