As a recent report from 26 humanitarian and human rights organizations shows, six months of a less-oppressive blockade regime has made only a minimal difference to the lives of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants. Here are a few headline findings:
- Imports into Gaza are still at 35 percent of pre-blockade levels
- Israel has granted approval in 7 percent of projects submitted by the UN's Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) for constructing clinics and schools (though only a fraction of the number green-lighted has actually had materials sent through)
- There is still no free movement of people in and out of Gaza (movement levels are 1 percent of those in the year 2000, for example)
- In the past six months there have been almost no exports allowed out of Gaza (true, a Europe-bound consignment of strawberries and flowers was allowed out in late November, but this is a mere fraction of what is needed)
Not surprisingly the figures tell the story far more accurately than the rhetorical device of referring to an "easing." If we're going to employ these concepts realistically, we'd actually be better talking about a noose that‘s been loosened very slightly, but better still would be to avoid misleading use of politicized metaphors and have recourse to the figures themselves.
That said, even when the data is cited by commentators there seems to be evidence of Israel's things-are-getting-better message subverting the truth.
So on the very day that NGOs were publishing their latest bleak (but factually-based) assessment of the continuing harm and deprivation caused by the blockade, Tony Blair's Quartet office was accentuating the positive with a highly selective run-through of import-export data. The Quartet's Ambassador Gary A. Grappo alighted on the fact that materials for UNRWA and USAID projects had been allowed into Gaza without noting the extremely low figure (7 percent in theory, but less than that in practice). Similarly Grappo referred to the increase in average inward truck deliveries, without mentioning that these are still a small fraction of pre-blockade levels (in the case of construction materials, the "eased" period still saw only 11 percent of pre-blockade truck volumes, and of course the 2008-9 Operation "Cast Lead" conflict wreaked havoc on Gaza's -- already blockade-affected -- civilian infrastructure).
Israel's own response to detailed criticism has had a predictable quality: the selective provision of figures that ignore the pre-blockade situation to focus on the good news supposedly heralded by the "easing" story. Plus, when the blockade has been condemned, there's been the standard-issue criticism of NGO bias.
Even so, there are signs that the political-public relations usefulness of the easing motif is coming to an end. Catherine Ashton for one has recently sounded EU alarm at the "unsatisfactory" nature of what the easing measures have achieved.
The EU should be speaking out like this and it's frankly deplorable that it's taken it so long to do so given the level of human suffering in Gaza. Even now the frame of reference is Israel's own. Rather than debating the merits of a slightly loosened noose, we should be questioning how it is that Israel has been able to maintain this stranglehold on Gaza with so little international criticism and so little effective action to end the blockade.
It took the high-profile, high-risk strategy of launching an international maritime aid mission (the "flotilla") to focus global attention on Israel's long blockade on the people of Gaza. And, in all probability, without the tragic loss of life and attendant international opprobrium for Israel after its forces stormed the Mavi Marmara vessel on 31 May, it's doubtful whether Israel would have made its "easing" announcement and amendments to the blockade even to the very limited extent it has.
Instead of allowing the "easing" rhetoric to any longer frame the debate, the international community should now be taking a step back. The right lens here is international law. The blockade is a violation of international humanitarian law (Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention) in its collective punishment of an entire civilian population under military occupation and control. For how much longer is the world prepared to accept the idea of just "easing" the collective punishment of an entire civilian population?
Kate Allen is the Director of Amnesty International UK.