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Gaza and Yemen: The Forgotten Sieges

Blockades targeted at civilians are prohibited under humanitarian law — except for when it comes to Yemen and Gaza.

Constituting a form of collective punishment, sieges and blockades targeted at civilian populations are effectively prohibited under international humanitarian law. In recent times, and very rightly, Bashar Al-Assad’s inhumane tactic of siege, bombardment and starvation that his regime has regularly employed to break the will of defiant populations in Syria has been a subject of fierce criticism.

However, the decade-long Israeli blockade of Gaza — enforced in collaboration with Egypt, which has devastated the living conditions and economy of the Gaza Strip — seldom draws the same level of reproval from the international community. Same is the case with Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of Yemen, already one of the poorest countries in the Arab world that imports more than 90 percent of its total food needs.

Israeli Siege of Gaza

Gaza, is home to 1.8 million people, and since Israel’s unilateral disengagement in 2005, the area been subject to what many call occupation by other means. Israel, along with Egypt, controls all the border crossings into Gaza, thereby regulating civilian and commercial traffic in and out of the strip.

Since Hamas overtook the reins of Gaza’s government in 2007, Israel has severely restricted the enclave’s imports and exports, allowing commercial movement only through the under-equipped Karem Abu Salem Crossing. According to Palestinian Center For Human Rights (PCHR), a Gaza-based NGO, the number of truckloads allowed through the crossing stands at a meager 200 per day, as opposed to 570, through just Abu Salem, before 2007.

Similarly, the exports from Gaza that mainly constituted agricultural products of 150 truckloads per day have been reduced to zero according to PCHR. Furthermore, Gaza’s fishermen have lost 85 percent of their incomes due to the Israeli naval blockade and curtailment of fishing area. Although Gaza’s only airport was closed by Israel with the onset of second Intifada, the Israelis soon afterwards demolished the airport’s runway and bombed out its communication infrastructure.

On the Egyptian side, sporadic civilian movement is allowed through the Rafah crossing. The smuggling tunnels into Egypt that formed a vital lifeline for the residents in Gaza have been gradually dismantled since 2013.

The Beit Hanoun crossing, which remains Gaza’s only conduit for civilian movement into Occupied West Bank and Israel, is also tightly controlled by the Israelis. Each year, tens of thousands of Palestinians — including students, pilgrims and even cancer patients requiring specialized treatment — are denied exit/entry permits. Moreover, the travelers who manage to secure permits are regularly subjected to deliberate provocations and degrading treatment by Israeli authorities. Some are even coerced to collaborate with Israeli intelligence agencies for passage.

All this suffering is compounded by the regular Israeli military assaults into the Gaza strip that, besides killing and injuring thousands of civilians, have devastated the enclave’s public and private infrastructure, including Gaza’s only power plant, water reservoirs, schools, hospitals and homes. The UN’s Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, created after the destructive Israeli bombardment of the strip in 2014, has so far failed to materialize because of the pervasive restrictions imposed on the construction materials by Israelis.

Gaza’s sole power plant, since its opening in 2002, was bombed by Israelis in 2006, and again in 2014. Built for a maximum production of 140 megawatts (MW) per day, the plant can currently reach to an average production of 60 MW per day, assuming that Israelis allow the required amount of diesel to pass through. The vital repairs on the power plant and grid network are hard to carry out amidst Israeli restrictions on the travel of trained technicians and import of equipment. With 102 MW per day sold at excessive rates by Israel and 28 MW by Egypt, the peak supply of electricity into Gaza reaches 208 MW, way short of the peak demand of 450 MW.

The electricity blackouts in Gaza sometimes extend for 20 hours per day in many areas. The use of alternative sources like candles often leads to household fires, like the May 2016 blaze in which three Palestinian children were burnt to death. Israel also prohibits the import of solar panels and uninterruptable power supply systems, deeming them “dual-use” materials.

Coming to the per-capita consumption of water in Gaza, it is 86 liters per day, way below the WHO recommended 100 liters required to maintain minimum health standards. Shortage of electricity and fuel, exacerbated by Israeli blockade, prevents the proper functioning of water-pumps, desalination facilities and sewage-treatment plants. The release of untreated sewage into the sea and land inevitably contributes to environmental stress affecting marine life and water quality of the coastal aquifer. “Around 96 percent of Gaza’s water is unsuitable for human consumption,” Robert Piper, UN humanitarian coordinator for Palestinian territories, recently asserted.

Forty-four percent of Gaza’s total workforce remains unemployed, and 21.1 percent residents living in extreme poverty. Food insecurity is as high as 72 percent, with half the enclave’s population depending upon some form of food aid. If the current trends persist, Gaza is set to become uninhabitable by 2020, according to a recent report by UN Conference on Trade and Development.

With the international community focused on the devastating war in Syria, and theTrump administration displaying willingness to not only preserve but further embolden the US’s shameful double standards when it comes to the crimes perpetrated by Israel, the daily lives for Gaza’s 1.8 million residents are poised for a greater disaster in the coming years.

Strangulating Yemen

Coming to the war in Yemen, at least 10,000 people have been killed through the course of conflict, most of them due the bombardment of Saudi-led coalition forces. Around 2.2 million people have been displaced, many of them seeking refuge in already war-torn countries like Somalia and Sudan. The humanitarian situation has been further exacerbated by the naval, air and land blockade of Yemen put in place by the Saudis in collaboration with US and UK nearly two years ago.

The declared aim of this blockade was to prevent the smuggling of weapons from Iran to the Houthi rebels. Saudis did in fact intercept multiple smuggling boats laden with weapons purportedly coming from Iran. However, the strategic importance of Yemen’s Bab al-Mandab Strait — which connects the Red Sea and Suez Canal to the Gulf of Aden, and where most of the Saudi and US naval assets are stationed — cannot be overstated. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 3.8 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products pass through the Bab el-Mandeb each day on their way to Europe, Asia and the US, making it the world’s fourth-busiest oil chokepoint.

The blockade severely restricts the import of food and medicines to Yemen, and is one of the major reasons that have brought 12 million Yemenis to the brink of all-out famine. With more than 14 million people food insecure, 2.2 million children are acutely malnourished, according to the UN, and a child under five dies every 10 minutes due to otherwise preventable causes. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS-NET), an organization led by USAID that provides early warning analysis on acute food insecurity, recently put 2 million people in Yemen under Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) 4, a step away from Phase 5, wherein “Starvation, death, and destitution are evident.”

Also, the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY), which remained largely neutral throughout the course of conflict, was recently shifted by the Saudi-backed Hadi-government from its headquarters in Sanaa to the government’s stronghold of Aden, accusing, not without basis, the Houthi rebels of diverting large sums from CBY to their war effort. This has inevitably led to a dearth of competent staff and infrastructure required to properly run the CBY. The bank can no longer provide efficient credit-lines to the major food-importers, thereby exacerbating the food crisis and taking a heavy toll of civilian lives.

Additionally, the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, coordinated with help from British and American military advisers based in Saudi Arabia, has targeted schools, hospitals, residential establishments, camps for internally displaced persons, weddings and even funerals. Amidst this decimation of international humanitarian law and human rights, the governments of the UK and the US go on endorsing multibillion-dollar weapons deals with Saudi Arabia.

To save face, the Saudis, who are all but out of their exploits in Syria, could very well escalate in Yemen. And with the Trump administration set to move closer the Kingdom at the expense of Iran, Saudis would feel more emboldened to do so. All this does not bode well for this impoverished and war-torn nation.

Furthermore, while the US continues its botched drone and special-ops raids against theYemen based al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that, in a recent instance, claimed the lives of at least 25 civilians, including nine children, Saudi weapons are regularly flowing into the AQAP hands. The group’s successful efforts to blend in with the anti-Houthi forces, sponsored by the Saudis, has given it access to weapons and new sources of income, according to a report by the International Crisis Group.

This also underlines the utter futility of the Pentagon’s drone assassination campaign and the hypocrisy of broader “Global War on Terror.”

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