gaza food shortage 298.8.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
It is not easy to concentrate the mind and write about the humanitarian situation in Gaza at a time when even the Tel Aviv area, where I live, is under the threat of Hizbullah rockets fired from Lebanon.
But humanitarian issues - not just in Gaza, but in Lebanon and Israel too - are without doubt an integral part of the current conflict. It is a test of our own humanity that we not ignore them, even when the fog of war is thick.
At the time of writing Israel was avoiding launching attacks on Lebanon that would cut the electricity there and render it more difficult for Hizbullah to muster its ordnance and logistics and fire rockets southwards, killing Israelis; because destroying Lebanon's electricity production potential would increase Lebanese civilian suffering.
We cannot ignore the suffering, but we also cannot ignore the circumstances and the behavior of Palestinian authorities who refuse humanitarian aid for the most cynical of reasons.
THERE ARE two dimensions at play here.
First, some of the humanitarian suffering in Gaza and Lebanon is a deliberate act on Israel's part. It is intended to generate mass public pressure on the respective governments to force the Islamic militants to release the three IDF soldiers snatched from Israeli territory and end rocket attacks.
Some Israeli attacks on Palestinian and Lebanese civilian concentrations reflect the fact that terrorists and their ordnance and command centers are also there; Israel, once attacked on its own territory by Hamas and Hizbullah, has relaxed its own rules about hitting these mixed targets and is striking back, thereby inevitably causing additional civilian suffering even though, unlike Hamas and Hizbullah, that is not its objective.
TWO PRIME examples are the death of nine members of the Abu Salmiya family in Jabaliya, north of Gaza city, on the night of July 11-12, because the Hamas military leadership, the real target, was conferring in the basement of their house; and the heavy bombing of the southern Beirut neighborhood where Hizbullah maintains its headquarters.
Human suffering as a means of pressuring Hamas and the Lebanese authorities hasn't worked in Gaza, and may not in Lebanon, both because the authorities are too weak to act and because Hamas authorities in Gaza and Hizbullah in southern Lebanon are part and parcel of the terrorist problem, not the humanitarian solution.
Large portions of the respective populations support them regardless of their dismal situation. In some instances of Israeli military activity there may be room to reconsider whether the cumulative humanitarian and political damage doesn't outweigh the military benefit of reducing terrorist freedom of maneuver and strengthening Israel's deterrence.
The Israel Defense Forces and Israel's political leaders are aware of this calculation. Thus far, significant international pressure on Israel has not built up in this regard.
THIS REFLECTS three factors. Most of the developed world and even many Arab regimes recognize the imperative Israel faces in dealing a heavy blow to the Islamists - their enemy, too - on two of its borders, whatever the costs. And they recognize Israel's effort in many cases to limit humanitarian suffering.
Finally, the deliberate use of rocket fire against civilians by Hizbullah and Hamas reflects the asymmetrical nature of Arab-Israel warfare at this juncture in history. By definition, it invites a disproportionate response. Thus far, much of the world appears to have understood this.
THAT EFFORT brings us to a second dimension - one in which Palestinian Islamist authorities are playing a nefarious role in perpetuating the Gazan humanitarian crisis.
After last August's unilateral withdrawal Israel was prepared to invest over $100 million in improving the passages into and out of Gaza. But militant Islamists preferred to attack the passages, keeping them closed.
The international community invested in developing the agricultural hothouses the settlers left behind, but the fruits and vegetables ended up rotting because the passages at Karni and Erez had to remain closed for security reasons.
Abandoned Gaza Strip settlements that were going to be turned into new housing complexes were instead taken over by armed gangs.
Israel tried to bypass the security problems dictating the closure of some of the crossings by offering to open other, alternative crossings, at Kerem Shalom and Sufa, for the introduction of humanitarian aid to Gaza.
On July 12, the United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory reported that the offer had been rejected by the Hamas-dominated PA.
MOST RECENTLY, 5,000 Gazans returning from Egypt were stranded on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, which was closed due to the fighting that followed the abduction of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit. Some were ill, returning from medical treatment in Egypt; eight died waiting.
Israel agreed at an early stage to repatriate all 5,000 if they entered Gaza, without even an Israeli security check, via the Kerem Shalom Israel-Egypt-Gaza terminal. Again Hamas authorities in Gaza refused, solely for political reasons.
Recently, too, the European Union began to activate a fund for Palestinian humanitarian aid that is channeled directly to the needy, bypassing Hamas officials who are still boycotted because of their refusal to accept minimal conditions for interacting with Israel and the international community. Israel agreed to this program for alleviating Palestinian suffering.
But in early July it was reported that PA Health Minister Basim Naeem had asked Palestinian hospital directors not to cooperate with the program's intention of paying cash allowances directly to government doctors and nurses.
TURNING TO humanitarian suffering due to heavy rocket attacks on the Israeli population, something revolutionary has happened. The Olmert government has escalated its response to Hizbullah and Hamas even though it recognizes this will cause widespread civilian casualties in Israel. It has determined that public patience and determination in the face of such large-scale terrorism are part and parcel of our deterrent image.
Hamas leader Hasan Nasrallah, in his provocative public statements, is betting the Israeli public will break. He is wrong.
The writer is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications (www.bitterlemons.org), where this article first appeared. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to prime minister Ehud Barak.