Siege of Gaza

gazastripmapThe Gaza Strip right now is straining under a siege that denies even the entry of food to the point of pushing a besieged people into a state of malnutrition. A recent statement by the UN warns of food running out in the Gaza Strip and that UN deliveries of food to civilians are being denied entry. Israel has recently tightened sanctions on Gaza because of rocket attacks by Palestinians. Palestinian militants meanwhile claim that the rockets were in response to an Israeli raid.

There’s nothing new in today’s siege of Gaza

“The total blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has paralyzed the Palestinian economy, which is so vulnerably dependent on Israel and already severely weakened by frequent border closures, to such an extent that it is now in a deep recession, with millions of people severely impoverished and extremely food insecure.”

This is a statement from UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), from 16 April 2002. The same report informs us that: “malnutrition is on the increase, reflected in recent estimates of a 10.4 per cent increase in the incidence of low birth weights and a 52 per cent increase in the stillbirth rate in the West Bank.”

Also: “The United Nations food agency voiced ‘serious concern’ about the ongoing large-scale destruction of important Palestinian infrastructure, including farm assets such as stores, irrigation systems, greenhouses, water facilities, orchards, and even removal of topsoil from an estimated 8,000 hectares of land.”

And: “confiscation of agricultural land and water resources by Israel and estimates that freshwater resources available to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip amount to 112 cubic metres per person a year, compared to 377 cubic metres for Israel.”

Now, to something more recent; Israeli border closures of the Gaza Strip in January resulted in a backlog of 224 UN relief trucks by 29 January. These trucks were held back by Israel from entering the Gaza Strip and delivering food or general aid supplies.

The UN, EU, and international aid agencies have also been concerned that cutting off shipments of oil to Gaza, a repeated tactic, affects health facilities, refrigeration (needed for keeping already scarce foods and some medication), and harms an already crippled economy.

The BMJ medical journal published a survey in 2002 indicating that, in the Gaza Strip, “13% of children under 5 years old were suffering from short term malnutrition and almost 18% had long term malnutrition—compared with a level of about 2% in countries that the World Health Organization defines as having moderate malnutrition.” Things are bad when almost a third of children under 5 suffer from malnutrition.

I give only these few examples out of many available to indicate that the latest threat of malnutrition, power outages, health risks, and economic collapse resulting from an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is only the latest such incident in a long series.

Codes of war and the history of sieges

The history of sieges and blockades, over the millennia of warfare, is riddled with stories of human tragedy, starvation, and economic hardship. That, in fact, is the very point. A city or region is surrounded by a military force in order to deprive it of free transit (restricting the movement of enemy fighters, supplies and also civilians), to hobble communications, deprive it of an economy that could support resistance, and deprive it of food and water in order to erode or break the morale and body of the enemy. I agree with the political philosopher, Michael Walzer, that “siege is the oldest form of total war.”(1)

During the long history of sieges non-combatants have always been the first to suffer or die. This is because the defending military forces will always reserve the most secure position for themselves, and have first access to necessary supplies including food. This is simple military logic.

Therefore no attacking force can legitimately claim they expected any outcome other than the civilian population and infrastructure collapsing before a defending force would see substantial deterioration of its combat capabilities. As Walzer puts it, when besieging, expectation is not that fighters fall or suffer before civilians:

“Death and suffering of ordinary inhabitants… is expected to force the hand of the civilian or military leadership. The goal is surrender; the means is not the defeat of the enemy army, but the fearful spectacle of the civilian dead.” (2)

Military strategists, political leaders, and intellectuals who have attempted to establish an ethical code to sieges have often suggested the right to free exit by the civilian population. Without going into the pitfalls of this flawed and mostly ignored solution, it is an entirely different story when a siege is over an entire region as opposed to a single city. When a country or region is under siege, the right to free exit becomes a moot point since it would require the mass migration of civilians and the emptying of lands of non-combatants. This obviously is not a viable or just solution to ‘humanize’ a siege of the Gaza Strip.

Attackers during a siege often argue their innocence by claiming that enemy fighters have forced civilians into the front lines by taking defensive positions in urban centres. This assumes that the attacking force did not intend to gain from the slow starvation and economic strangulation that provides military and psychological benefits in war. Walzer references the British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart’s assertion that in the First World War the British blockade was a decisive factor in Germany’s defeat. Hart argues that “the spectre of slow enfeeblement ending in eventual collapse,” drove the enemy military to make desperate and disastrous military decisions. (3)

In the case of the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian combatants live within the densely populated region and could not leave it without en mass entering Israel, Egypt, or simply diving into the sea. These are obviously not viable options. It’s also not true to say that civilians were placed between the attackers and defenders in the case of this siege since the civilians were there already. The combatants and non-combatants are together trapped within Gaza. So in the case of an Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip it’s impossible to honestly assert that Palestinian fighters have pushed civilians into the zone of a siege and that therefore they must bear full responsibility. Both the Palestinian civilians and the fighters are restricted to their existing territory of Gaza and neither has the option to leave it.

Even if the systematic destruction of civilians is not part of a plan, then it’s obvious that the plan does nothing to safeguard or prevent their deaths.

A snake eating its own tail: reprisals do not work in this long conflict

In this latest tightening of the siege of the Gaza strip Israel says it is responding to Palestinian rocket attacks while Palestinian fighters claim they fired rockets in response to an Israeli raid.

Walzer quotes a critic of the rules of war as saying, “reprisals mean doing what you think wrong on the plea that someone else did it first.” (4)

In long wars all parties can argue that the other side committed a hostile act to deserve reprisal. Then each reprisal can be an excuse for one side or another to commit to their own act of reprisal. In this fashion, reprisal follows reprisal, wrong follows wrong, and moral constrains are eroded by the attacker’s claim that their extreme measures deserve exemption because their crimes are in response to another’s crimes. There’s something insidious in this, since the attackers committing an immoral act of war in the form of a reprisal often claim that their enemy is in fact responsible for the immoral outcomes of the reprisal itself. Essentially the attacker says, I know what I did is reprehensible but he made me do it.

In military history and the rules of war, reprisals have been used to dissuade an enemy from repeating an action that is seen to break the norms or codes of warfare. Sometimes this works, usually it does not.

Reprisals have been used from the beginning of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis going back to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Yet, peace has not been the result, nor have atrocities decreased. You cannot today seriously argue that peace is around the corner; there’s a lot of work ahead before that can happen and political solutions not military reprisals will help achieve this. Also, no one can seriously argue that the suffering of civilians has been reduced over the past 60 years as a result of reprisals. The often cited excuse that each reprisal is in response to another side’s reprisal is a clear indication that this strategy will not bring peace to Israel and Palestine. Therefore the recent Israeli implication that they be given an exemption from the suffering caused by the siege of Gaza because this is a response to an earlier Palestinian attack in which no damages or injuries were reported would be laughable if it were not so tragic.


1. Michael Walzer, 2000. ‘Just and Unjust Wars’, Basic Books, p. 160.
2. Ibid, p. 161.
3. Ibid, p. 172.
4. Ibid, p. 207.

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