This month marks a half of a century since some of the darkest pages were written into Palestinian history. In just six days in June of 1967, Israel seized control of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. These same lands had been designated for a future Palestinian state at the end of British colonial occupation that had occurred just two decades before in 1947. Territorial boundaries were redefined, and in the 50 years that have since elapsed, Palestinians have lived under the oppression and violence that comes with military occupation.
In East Jerusalem, the Israeli military continually demolishes homes and increasingly blocks access to holy sites. In the West Bank, settlement expansion proliferates, while water and other life-giving natural resources serve the Israeli occupation and the big business interests of an incapacitated Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile in Gaza, the near-total blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt has generated a full-blown humanitarian and environmental crisis.
Inhumane Blockade Devastates Gaza
The severity of the situation in Gaza cannot be overstated as the blockade has now been in place for a decade—yet another bleak anniversary commemorated by Palestinians this month. The most visible manifestation of the enclosure has been three bombing assaults conducted by the Israeli military on the tiny coastal enclave: “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-09, “Operation Pillar of Defense” in 2012, and “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014. The collective death toll was more than 4,000 people, and the overwhelming majority of the deceased were Palestinian civilians, including children. Those who survived the attacks continue to experience severe psychological consequences.
Drinking water in Gaza has become largely unavailable. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported that children have shown signs of water related diseases and permanent organ damage due to high levels of ingested chemicals from what little water is available. Constant electrical blackouts—up to 20 hours per day—also affect water and sanitation as well as other critical services such as health and education.
Recently, UNRWA indicated that 87 percent of residents live below the poverty line, and severe movement restrictions have caused unprecedented levels of unemployment, with 80 percent of residents depending on food aid. Young people—Gaza’s majority—have now lived through multiple assaults, and the youngest among them know no other political reality aside from the crippling blockade. For the most part, they have no way out of Gaza and suffer from a lack of opportunities there.
Of the sectors most targeted by the occupation and blockade are agriculture and fisheries. Gaza’s borders with Israel are surrounded by restricted access zones (commonly known as buffer zones) that cut deep into the distressed Palestinian territory’s farmland. Farmers who enter these areas—that is, who go to their own farmland—risk being shot from nearby towers. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) has documented that the restricted access zones accounts for 17 percent of Gaza’s land, making about 35 percent of all farmland unavailable to Palestinians. Both Israeli and international law prohibit the restricted access zones, but the practice of patrolling them with guns and tanks nonetheless persists.
Similarly, at sea, Israel has imposed an offshore no-go zone in which fishers are subject to arbitrary shootings and confiscation of boats. This area fluctuates unilaterally at the whim of Israeli authorities, and is always far less than the 20 nautical miles designated for Palestinians in the Oslo Accords—which is only 10 percent of the 200 nautical miles granted to a given state under International Maritime Law. The impacts have devastated what was once a vibrant fishing community.
Palestinian Social Movements Persist, Resist
Against such an imposing backdrop, Palestinian social movements and human rights organizations in Gaza and their international allies are working together in a careful balancing act that attends to humanitarian relief, sustainable development, and movement building needs.
One such group, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), a Grassroots International partner, has been in the process of constantly redefining itself to meet the needs of the Palestinian people. It was founded in 1986 by a group of volunteers and agronomists, on the brink of the first intifada that would prove to reshape resistance to occupation. Since then UAWC has bridged the needs of those living in the increasingly cantonized West Bank with those in the Gaza Strip, which is progressively penned off. In doing so it has garnered a raft of supporters, from the European Union to the Landless Workers Movement of Brazil.
“All of our work is part of a bigger project, and it is one of freedom…”
“All of our work is part of a bigger project, and it is one of freedom,” said Saad Ziada, an UAWC leader in Gaza. “We want to have an open sea, and to be able to practice our work without acts of terror and killing,” he explained over the phone.
One of UAWC’s most important global connections is La Vía Campesina, the radical agrarian movement that brings together peasant struggles transnationally. In fact, UAWC is the first Middle Eastern member organization of La Vía Campesina and serves as an anchor for the global movement as it works to build alliances in the greater Middle East and North Africa.
“The solidarity we feel from our brothers and sisters in La Vía Campesina gives us more power,” offered Saad. “As Palestinian farmers and fishers, we have high hopes that being a part of this movement will advance our struggle and support our rights,” he added.
In Palestine, the 50-year anniversary of Israeli occupation and decade of near-total blockade in Gaza is a time of looking back on difficult historical moments in which rights enjoyed in most parts of the world vanished. At the same time, it is an opportunity to look forward to a future in which they will be restored and advanced. Even though states and political parties have continually neglected such a political project, social justice movements inside and outside of Palestine are acting as its guardians.