Like so many other disagreements between people, the question of whether or not there is a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip is primarily a semantic one.
There is no authoritative definition of what a humanitarian crisis is, although in some cases it is so obvious that it is indisputable. For example, in situations of widespread starvation among a population caused by factors such as drought or war, it is obvious that the population is facing a humanitarian crisis.
By that extreme standard, there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, although the reason for this is that some 80 percent of the population receives relief, mainly basic foodstuffs, from the United Nations and other aid agencies.
Additional food supplies, as well as many other goods that are not obtainable otherwise, are smuggled via the tunnels into the southern Gaza town of Rafiah.
According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there is no shortage of most basic commodities in the Gaza Strip and anything can be brought in through the tunnels, although most Gazans do not have enough money to purchase these goods. The great catastrophe is not starvation, but the fact that 80% of the population are charity cases. In OCHA's eyes, Gaza is not Somalia, but there is a crisis of human dignity there.
The Israeli government, of course, denies that there is a humanitarian crisis of any sort in Gaza. When the human rights organization Gisha petitioned the High Court of Justice against the government’s decision to drastically reduce the amount of electricity and fuel that it would allow into Gaza a few months after the Hamas takeover in June 2007, the state argued that it was providing sufficient energy to maintain the minimum humanitarian level, as obliged by law.
The High Court ruled accepted the state’s position and ruled that there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The state allegedly calculates not only the minimum necessary amount of energy that Gazans need, but also the minimum nutritional level they must have to survive. According to a detailed newspaper report that appeared last year, officers of the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) meet once a week to determine which and how much food will be allowed into the Gaza Strip during the coming seven days.
Their decisions are based, in part, on a Red Lines document which includes four pages of detailed charts detailing the number of grams and calories of every type of food allowed into Gaza, the report said. At the end of the document, printed in large letters, is the warning, “The stability of the humanitarian effort is critical for the prevention of the development of malnutrition.”
In a letter to Gisha, COGAT spokesman Guy Inbar said that “there is no such official document such as the one you request. It is possible that your request in this regard refers to one of several drafts of internal headquarters papers which were written on the topic… COGAT evaluates the needs of the Gaza population periodically.”
Avraham Bell, a member of the law faculty of Bar-Ilan University, wrote two years ago that Israel is under no obligation to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza.
“International law does not require Israel to supply Gaza with fuel or electricity or, indeed with any other materials, goods or services,” he wrote in an article published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “Article 23 of the Fourth Geneva Convention permits states like Israel to cut off fuel supplies and electricity to territories like Gaza. It only requires Israel to permit passage of food, clothing and medicines intended for children under fifteen, expectant mothers and maternity cases.”
In fact, aside from certain amounts of electricity, Israel does not directly supply humanitarian goods itself but allows UN trucks carrying them to cross its border into Gaza.
Even when it comes to food, OCHA maintained in a study published in August 2009 that Gazans are suffering from what it calls “food insecurity.” According to the organization, 1.1 million of Gaza’s 1.5 million population is food insecure, up from just over half in 2008.
“The main causes of food insecurity are the increase in poverty, the destruction of agricultural assets, and the inflation in prices of key food items,” it wrote.
“There has been a gradual shift in the diet of Gazans from the high-cost and protein-rich foods, such as fruit, vegetables and animal products, to low-cost and high-carbohydrate foods such as cereals, sugar and oil, which can lead to micro-nutrient deficiencies, particularly among children and pregnant women.”
But OCHA and other human rights organizations warn that even if there
is no starvation in Gaza, other aspects of life are in grave crisis.
For example, there is a severe housing shortage in Gaza.
Operation Cast Lead severely damaged the industrial sector in Gaza,
which had already been badly hit by the blockade imposed by Israel in
June 2007. According to a study published by the Palestinian Trade
Center and the Palestinian Federation of Industries, 44% of a sample of
324 industries in Gaza were totally damaged during the fighting. Those
that resumed production afterwards, rehired only 23% of their original
Overall, more than 40% of Gaza’s workforce, amounting to 140,000 people, is unemployed.