Palestinians fearful despite ceasefire

23 November 2012


Signs of conflict: a Palestinian wearing a rosary holds a stone during clashes with Israeli troops, near Ramallah, on Monday

Signs of conflict: a Palestinian wearing a rosary holds a stone during clashes with Israeli troops, near Ramallah, on Monday

THE Palestinians of Gaza have spent much of the past ten days sheltering in basements, and being forced to listen to the sound of Israeli missiles crashing into buildings, and the whistle of outgoing rockets. All the while, they have wondered whether Egyptian-led efforts to broker a deal would succeed before the Israeli government gave the order for a ground attack, awakening memories of the war in late 2008 and early 2009.

Exchanges of fire continued into Wednesday, despite indications from Cairo on Tuesday that Egyptian mediation would bring a ceasefire. The arrival of the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in Israel, on the same day, indicated that more complex negotiations might be needed.

On Wednesday evening a ceasefire was announced, and appeared to be holding yesterday. The United Nations Secretary, Ban Ki-Moon, welcomed the ceasefire, and said that it was urgent that humanitarian aid be delivered to Gaza. "We are all aware that there are many details that must be solidified for a broad, durable ceasefire to take firm hold over the longer term," he said.

"It is imperative that both sides stick to the ceasefire in order to allow these underlying issues to be addressed."

"It's a critical situation," a spokeswoman for the Anglican Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City said, on Tuesday afternoon. "We hope they will find a solution. . . It's scary because nobody is safe, even at home. The bombing is everywhere."

Five Israelis and more than 150 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire. Medical sources in Gaza report that more than half of them were civilians. Five Israelis have been killed by rockets launched from Gaza.

The violence has paralysed life within the Palestinian community. The danger of venturing on to the streets, and the absence of transport, means that the staff of the Ahli Hospital have to stay overnight on the premises. Essential supplies are running low. But the hospital has been designated a second-line facility, and most of the casualties from the violence are being treated at government-run hospitals.

The latest serious outbreak of fighting was triggered by the killing of a Hamas military leader, Ahmed Jabari, on Wednesday of last week. But, even before then, rockets had been fired into southern Israel, and several Palestinians had been killed in Israeli retaliation strikes.

The mutual accusations of blame have a wearily familiar ring. There has been violence before, followed by a truce, and followed in turn by more fighting: the foundations of the hostility between Hamas and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu are deep. Israel cannot accept a state of affairs where the lives of its civilians are threatened by Palestinian fire-power. At the same time, Hamas is committed to ending the isolation that its vastly superior neighbour (which it refuses to recognise) has imposed.

Once again, it is the use of force on a massive scale by Israel that is leading to heavy Palestinian loss of life and prompting much of the international condemnation. The British group supporting the Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Friends of Sabeel UK, condemned "the violence by both sides and the loss of civilian life in Israel and the Gaza Strip, but we also reject the continuation of Israel's failed policy of disproportionate violence".

The humanitarian aid charity World Vision said yesterday that it welcomed the ceasefire, but remained "deeply concerned about the humanitarian impact of the conflict. World Vision's director director in Jerusalem, Alex Snary, said: : "We are concerned and alarmed by the mounting humanitarian crisis in Gaza and its impact on civilians, especially children. Children should not have to live under threat of imminent invasion, nor fear of being struck by rocket fire, nor air raids.

"Children in Gaza are particularly vulnerable due to the area's high population density along with the reality that the people of Gaza have nowhere to go to escape violence, due to continued restrictions on movement and ongoing Israeli blockade.  We hope that this ceasefire agreement will materially improve movement and access of people and goods in and out of Gaza."

Christian Aid had called for all sides to exercise restraint. It said that civilians on both sides were "paying the price for the lack of meaningful engagement to find a viable peace". On Tuesday, Christian Aid launched a Gaza and Middle East crisis appeal in order to "help those most in need, working through partners to provide medical assistance and other essential services."

Janet Symes, Christian Aid's Head of Middle East, said: "The people of Gaza are in urgent need of humanitarian support including medical help. The people worst affected by are the poorest - they are struggling to afford food, water and fuel. Lifting the blockade on Gaza is essential and we urge all concerned to ensure this promise is turned into reality.

"'If the ceasefire holds, it could be the first step to meaningful negotiations with all parties which have to take place to bring real change to the people of Gaza."

War on Want condemned the judgement by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, that Hamas bore principal responsibility for the latest Gaza crisis, saying that it was tantamount to giving a green light to Israel.

A spokesman for the charity said that the attacks represented "the latest stage of a policy of collective punishment and killing practised by Israel against the people of Gaza", that had been made possible "only through the continued financial, military, and diplomatic support its government receives from Western states".

The National Coalition of Christian Organizations in Palestine also blamed Israel for the violence, saying that the "Israeli policy of target killings, which started the current episode of fighting, is morally wrong". The statement said that the situation "in the Gaza Strip is the result of the impasse in the political process and the absence of peace. We strongly believe that the cause of all this is the continuing occupation and blockade, and restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities on the Gaza Strip and its 1.6 million population."

The Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop for Jerusalem and Palestine, the Most Revd William Shomali, told the Catholic News Service: "Courageous decisions need to be taken on the part of Israel, and also on the part of Hamas not to remain in this circle of retaliation." The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, meanwhile, have called for a day of prayer for peace in the Middle East on 4 December.

The Quakers in Britain issued a statement on Tuesday that called for an immediate end to the use of force by all parties: "We ask that international law be upheld, and that all those Israelis and Palestinians who work for peace will be given the opportunity to move forward together towards a shared peaceful future."

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has assigned an aid package worth £1.7 million to help families in southern Israel whose lives have been disrupted by rockets from the Gaza Strip.


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