Western siege of Palestinians fuels misery, anger

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A warning by a senior UN official this week that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reaching a “potentially dangerous deterioration” was but one of many signs pointing to a deepening crisis. A humanitarian catastrophe is already unfolding among Palestinians in the occupied territories, relief workers say.

Alvaro de Soto, the UN special envoy to the Middle East, told the Security Council April 23 that as a result of the withholding of funds by the U.S. and the European Union and the refusal of the Israeli government to turn over customs taxes collected on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf, the PA has run out of money and is facing paralysis.

A growing rift between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas-led cabinet is also contributing to the turmoil, de Soto said.

An economic state of siege was imposed on the PA after Palestinians democratically elected Hamas to top leadership posts in January. Israel, the U.S. and the EU, citing Hamas’ refusal to recognize the state of Israel and to renounce violence, have since tightened the financial noose around the PA in hopes of bringing the month-old government down.

As a consequence, the PA has been unable to pay March salaries to about 152,000 civil servants, including hospital workers, schoolteachers and security personnel. These salaries, in turn, support about 1 million people. Without this income, ever-greater numbers of Palestinians are falling into financial ruin, acute poverty and hunger, especially in Gaza.

Ali Abunimah, a Chicago-based commentator and co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, wrote April 25 that without these salaries, Palestinian poverty rates will rise to about 75 percent. “UN humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations are in no position to replace incomes from the PA,” he said.

John Ging, the Gaza director of the UN Relief and Works Agency, told The Observer (UK) that while people are not starving now, “the clock is ticking toward a crisis.”

Medicines and other vital supplies are also dwindling.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Russia have pledged tens of millions of dollars to relieve the cash crisis, but as of April 21 none of the money had arrived, the PA’s finance minister, Omar Abdel Raziq, told The Associated Press.

Hamas has denounced the siege as an act of political blackmail. As a precondition for what it called “true peace,” it called for Israel’s withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967, the dismantlement of Jewish settlements, the tearing down of the apartheid “separation wall” and the release of Palestinian political prisoners.

Aggravating the economic misery has been a heightened level of military conflict. Saying it is retaliating for the firing of home-made Qassam rockets into its territory, Israel has unleashed a barrage of thousands of artillery shells and high-tech missiles into the Gaza Strip and carried out assassinations of Palestinian militants.

At least 29 Palestinians, including six children, have been killed since March 30, with hundreds more injured.

Ten Israelis have been killed during the same period, including nine in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv committed by the Islamic Jihad. Hamas, which carried out such bombings in the past but which has observed a yearlong ceasefire, refused to condemn the Tel Aviv bombing.

The PLO-affiliated Palestinian People’s Party (Communist) and the Communist Party of Israel have consistently condemned suicide bombings against innocent civilians as playing into the hands of the Israeli government and U.S. imperialism.

Israel has escalated its threats. “If rocket attacks continue and reach an untenable level, including long-range attacks, we will take the necessary steps, which could include the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip,” Yoav Golant, an Israeli general, told the Ma’ariv newspaper.

Meanwhile, as Congress reconvenes, the Washington-based U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a coalition of over 200 groups, has urged rejection of HR 4681, the “Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006.” Under the pretext of combating terrorism, the bill would make even greater cuts in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, critics say.