The Pentagon vs. Palestine: Gaza Needs Peace, Jobs, Security and Water
May 5, 2016
Washington Newsletter / Friends Committee on National
The hypermilitarized US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to change. US military aid to Israel --now 20% of Israel's military budget -- is part of the problem. President Obama's 2017 budget allocates $3.1 billion in military assistance to Israel -- more than twice the aid to any other country. In Gaza, with the world's highest unemployment rate, families spend a third of their income on water. Gaza's drinkable water could run out by the year's end.
Opening the Door to Peace in Israel-Palestine
Washington Newsletter / Friends Committee on National Legislation
(May 2016 Issue) -- The hypermilitarized US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to change. Unconditional US military aid to Israel -- making up 20 percent of Israel's military budget -- is part of the problem. So is the fact that US policymakers too often view the security of Israelis and Palestinians as a zero-sum game, rather than focusing on the ways their security is interlinked. Israel's nearly half-century military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip endangers the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis.
Quakers have a long tradition of working alongside Jewish, Arab, and other communities in this region to oppose violence and support peace. In our lobbying in Washington, FCNL similarly strives to play that peace-building role, urging the US to condemn violence on all sides and to provide assistance that can prevent, de-escalate, and resolve the long-standing conflicts that affect the security and well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Where Are We Now?
In his fiscal year 2017 budget, President Obama proposes to spend $3.1 billion in military assistance to Israel. That's more than twice what he has proposed for any other country. This aid has entrenched Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza -- which the US officially opposes -- and made progress on long-term, sustainable solutions more difficult.
After decades of failed peace negotiations and violence, many in the US are pessimistic about progress toward a long-term solution to the conflict. One Quaker who has lived and worked in the region told FCNL staff: "It may take the changing of an entire generation before we can make real progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues."
Opportunities for Change
In the midst of this stalemate, FCNL is pressing for US policy steps that could have a big impact on people's lives, improve security, and decrease the divisions that are driving violent extremism.
A good first step would be to focus on the humanitarian needs of the people in the region. By the end of this year, people in Gaza will run out of drinkable water. In a visit to Gaza last fall, FCNL staff heard about the challenges of finding clean drinking water. They met families who were spending a third of their income on water that is safe to drink, in a place with the highest unemployment rate in the world.
Our staff saw -- and smelled -- where raw sewage gushed into the Mediterranean and underground, into Gaza's drinking water, the legacy of decades of war, blockade, and occupation.
The US should use its influence with the Israeli government to lift the blockade on Gaza, which would include ending the restrictions that prevent Gaza from accessing clean water. Israel needs to increase the amount of water and electricity it sells to Gaza and allow Gaza to rebuild its water and sewage infrastructure.
These immediate steps would avert a widening humanitarian catastrophe and prevent the violence that could accompany an even more severe water shortage. (See story below.)
As a second step, the US should support the work that many Israelis and Palestinians are already doing to build peace. As our lobbyist Kate Gould found in her travels, Israelis and Palestinians are working together to keep Israeli bulldozers from demolishing Palestinian homes to make room for settlements.
Right now, US policy is tying the hands of Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders through its support of military approaches that strengthen violent extremists on all sides. The US needs to amplify the many voices working for nonviolent solutions to the conflict.
As a third step, the US should work closely with the UN to engage all parties in the conflict. Learning a lesson from the successful Iran diplomacy last year, the US could engage the UN to mediate the conflict and recognize Palestinian statehood. The US should support UN peacemaking efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In addition, the US should publicly oppose actions by both Israelis and Palestinians that undermine peace-building efforts. The US has a particular responsibility to oppose violence when it is financed by US taxpayers.
As Israel expands its settlements -- Jewish-only residential areas built on Palestinian land occupied during the 1967 war -- the land available for a future Palestinian state diminishes. Settlements are illegal under international law, and US presidents since 1967 have opposed them.
Yet some in Congress want to treat settlements as part of Israel, implicitly recognizing their legitimacy. The US needs to reiterate its opposition to settlements and other actions that impede sovereignty for Israelis and Palestinians.
This conflict won't be solved overnight. Yet addressing it is critical not only to improve the lives of millions of Israelis and Palestinians but to unravel the knots of conflict that reach far beyond the region's borders.
Ten years ago, James Baker and Lee Hamilton's Iraq Study Group concluded that "All key issues in the Middle East -- the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism -- are inextricably linked." Today, by seizing opportunities to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, we can transform US engagement with the Middle East, and the world.
Gaza Is About to Run Out of Water.
How the US Can Help
The sludgy, orange-brown water running out of taps in Flint, Michigan has rightly prompted outrage among many people in the US This crisis exposed thousands of children to dangerous levels of lead and was entirely avoidable – if the right people had acted at the right time.
On the other side of the globe, another human-created catastrophe is brewing. In Gaza, home to 1.8 million people in an area about the size of Detroit, the only local source of groundwater will be completely contaminated by the end of this year.
What's Behind the Crisis?
This crisis is brought on by the nine-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. Israel imposed the blockade after the Palestinian armed group Hamas seized power by force.
Israel considers Gaza a hostile entity and severely restricts the passage of people and goods in and out of Gaza. This includes a limit on construction materials allowed into the territory, since Hamas could use them for military purposes. The blockade has led to an ongoing, and worsening, humanitarian crisis.
Israeli bombings over the past decade have destroyed much of Gaza's water, sewage, and electrical infrastructure. Fully repairing the infrastructure is virtually impossible due to restrictions on building materials.
In November 2015, Dr. Mahmoud Daher, Head of the World Health Organization's Gaza sub-office, warned that "almost all of the water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption."
With a 43 percent unemployment rate -- the world's highest -- many Palestinians in Gaza cannot afford to purchase water. Yet their options are to spend that money or expose themselves to serious health consequences.
Why Should Israel Act?
Israel's stated reason for the blockade is to protect its citizens. In the past 15 years, rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza have killed 44 Israeli soldiers and civilians. The blockade, however, has provided a rallying cry for violent Palestinian extremist groups, and an ever-worsening water crisis will only give them more traction.
On a practical level, a water-driven public health crisis will affect Israelis as well as the Palestinians in Gaza. Gaza sewage has already ended up on Israel's beaches and could ultimately contaminate Israel's water supply as well. If a water-born pandemic such as polio or cholera were to break out in Gaza, it would quickly spread to Israel.
Groups such as EcoPeace, which brings together Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian environmentalists, are also pushing for action out of wider concerns for the environment and health of all people living in the region.
As the International Committee of the Red Cross has said, by continuing the blockade, "the whole of Gaza's civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility." A collective punishment approach only perpetuates the cycle of violence that has been at work in the region for generations.
Some Israeli military leaders are beginning to see the futility of this strategy. Amos Yadlin, the former Israeli Defense Force Chief of Military Intelligence, recommended that "Israel must engage in non-military activities to prevent a confrontation."
Yadlin noted that "this must be done through Israeli contributions toward a better economic and political reality in the Gaza Strip, which will make it more difficult for Hamas to violate a ceasefire."
With the Israeli military occupation of Gaza entering its fiftieth year, the international community has the opportunity to help the people of Gaza address their looming water crisis.
This issue could provide momentum that opens the door to a broader easing of the blockade on Gaza, and a broader conversation about how the US can play a constructive role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What Should the US Do?
The US is the largest funder of Israel's military occupation, paying for one-fifth of the Israeli defense budget. This investment gives the US leverage to influence Israel's actions.
We urge the US to take these three steps:
1. Press Israel to double its sale of water to Gaza. Without clean groundwater, Gaza's drinking water must come through the blockade, from Israel or Egypt.
Israel increased water sales in March 2015, but the amount is still not sufficient to meet the need of Gaza's growing population, half of whom are children. As a band-aid for the crisis, the US should support an increase in Israel's water sales to Gaza.
2. Press Israel to increase its electricity sales to Gaza: Lack of sewage treatment contributes to groundwater contamination and compounds water shortages in Gaza. The World Bank built a large-scale sewage plant in Gaza, but it needs more power to operate than Gaza has available under the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
3. Press Israel to allow Gaza to rebuild its water and sewage infrastructure: Rebuilding this war-ravaged infrastructure is essential for Gaza address its own basic needs for water, sanitation, and any prospect for a functioning economy.
Israel doesn't have full control over Gaza's water crisis. In our conversations with the White House, State Department, and USAID, officials have talked about engaging with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to address this crisis.
The US and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization and do not have regular diplomatic relations with the group. Peace negotiations will eventually require engaging Hamas, but Gaza can't wait for that breakthrough to have access to clean water.
FCNL advocates for the US to urge Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza. The UN warns that unless "herculean efforts" are taken, Gaza may become uninhabitable by 2020, in large part because of the water crisis. The landscape in Gaza is already defined by massive piles of rubble from demolished homes and factories, the legacy of years of bombings, with no materials to rebuild.
The lack of opportunity is as damaging to people in Gaza as the lack of construction materials. "The worst part about the occupation is isolation," Bassam Nasser, the Gaza field manager for Catholic Relief Services, told FCNL's Kate Gould this fall when she visited Gaza.
It is difficult to visit Gaza, and almost impossible for people who live there to leave. Violence and extremism thrive in such environments, where poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness are rampant.
To secure a just and lasting peace that upholds the shared needs and security of all parties, the first step is to show the possibility for progress toward that goal. Addressing the water crisis is a way to open to door to a change in relations between Israel and Gaza.
How the US Can Influence Israeli-Palestinian Peace
The long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict drives violence and fosters unrest far beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine. There are no quick fixes; however, there are steps that can help move towards peace.
The US's close relationship with Israel and influence in the region mean that our government can make a difference in the lives of Palestinians and Israelis and help pave the way for a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict.
1) Condemn All Violence and Amplify Peacebuilders' Voices
Violence perpetrated by Israelis and Palestinians simply leads to more violence in an ever-growing cycle of conflict. Congress needs to speak out against any violence -- and to acknowledge the work many Israelis and Palestinians are doing to end the occupation and advance a just peace for all.
See our suggestions of groups and tours to highlight this work and share this information with your members of Congress: fcnl.org/peacebuilders
2) Help Prevent an Even Greater Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza
The 1.8 million people living in Gaza will run out of drinkable water by the end of this year. Israel's blockade of the territory means that urgent Israeli action is essential to address the catastrophic public health crisis in Gaza. The US should press Israel to increase the amount of water and electricity it sells to Gaza and allow Gaza to rebuild its water, sewage, and electrical infrastructure.
3) Continue to Oppose Israeli Settlements
Israeli settlements are Jewish-only communities built on Palestinian land occupied during the 1967 war. They are illegal under international law.
The US, along with the UN and nearly every country in the world, condemns settlements. Yet some in Congress want the US to treat Israeli settlements as part of Israel proper. Congress should reject all these efforts to legitimize settlements. See updates on this legislation: peacenow.org
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