As the ceasefire in Gaza is close to collapsing and UN aid workers run out of basic food supplies, humanitarian agencies warn that the Israeli siege is having a 'devastating' effect on the Palestinian population. Meanwhile, if Barack Obama is willing to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the top of his foreign policy agenda, securing a deal would make his a transformational presidency by redrawing the strategic map of the Middle East.
Malnutrition rising as Gaza 'faces disaster'
"The Israeli blockade of Gaza has led to a steady rise in chronic malnutrition among the 1.5 million people living in the strip, according to a leaked report from the Red Cross," The Independent reported. "It chronicles the 'devastating' effect of the siege that Israel imposed after Hamas seized control in June 2007 and notes that the dramatic fall in living standards has triggered a shift in diet that will damage the long-term health of those living in Gaza and has led to alarming deficiencies in iron, vitamin A and vitamin D. "The 46-page report from the International Committee of the Red Cross - seen by The Independent - is the most authoritative yet on the impact that Israel's closure of crossings to commercial goods has had on Gazan families and their diets. "The report says the heavy restrictions on all major sectors of Gaza's economy, compounded by a cost of living increase of at least 40 per cent, is causing 'progressive deterioration in food security for up to 70 per cent of Gaza's population'. That in turn is forcing people to cut household expenditures down to 'survival levels'. "'Chronic malnutrition is on a steadily rising trend and micronutrient deficiencies are of great concern,' it said. Al Jazeera said: "UN aid workers turned away thousands of Gaza residents from distribution centres on Saturday after supplies of rice, flour, sugar and oil ran out. "About 750,000 Palestinians in Gaza are eligible for food aid. "'All Palestinians depend on foreign aid because all the crossings are closed, there is no work, no jobs, there is nothing,' Myassar Abu Alaban, a Gaza resident, said. "'If aid is cut off to the people what can they do? Especially those with large families? This danger threatens three-quarters of the Palestinian population.'" BBC News reported: "The UK-based aid agency Oxfam has warned of catastrophe for Gaza and nearby areas of Israel if a truce agreed last June is not maintained. "Oxfam called on world leaders to do everything they could to break Israel's blockade of Gaza and urged Israel to resume supplies without delay." The Guardian said: "Hamas militants in Gaza fired several rockets into southern Israel yesterday and Israel kept its crossings into the territory closed, as a five-month ceasefire appeared to be collapsing fast. "Violence has returned to the Gaza Strip in the past 10 days. In two separate operations, Israeli forces have killed 10 Hamas gunmen. Hamas, and other militant groups, have responded with several days of rocket fire. Yesterday rockets, including longer-range Grad missiles, hit the Israeli towns of Sderot and Ashkelon. The Israeli military fired at rocket launchers in Gaza and two Palestinian gunmen were reported injured. "Israel kept its crossings into Gaza shut for the 10th consecutive day, meaning no food, humanitarian supplies or fuel were delivered. Gaza's sole power plant shut down on Thursday night bringing blackouts in Gaza City, although electricity delivered over power lines from Israel and Egypt continued to arrive." Dion Nissenbaum, a reporter for McClatchy Newspapers wrote on his blog: "With the five-month-old Israel-Hamas cease fire in Gaza facing its most serious challenge, the Israeli government is taking the rare step of barring journalists from going inside to see what's happening. "The new decision to prevent reporters from going into Gaza comes just as the Israel is stepping up its ground and air operations and the cease fire, set to expire next month, is facing the possibility of collapse. "The Israeli steps are drawing increasing criticism from reporters. "'We consider it a serious problem for freedom of the press,' said Steve Gutkin, chairman of the Foreign Press Association. 'We think that journalists have to be placed in a special category. A blanket ban on people going into Gaza should not apply to journalists. We serve as the window for the world into Gaza.' "While Israeli officials deny that the government is imposing a new policy of barring journalists from going into Gaza, that's exactly what they are doing." Haaretz reported on an effort that Hamas' newly-elected prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, made in 2006 to open a dialogue with President George W Bush. The effort to engage the US was made in a letter delivered by Dr Jerome Segal of the University of Maryland to Bush administration officials. "Haniyeh wrote in the missive, 'We are an elected government which came through a democratic process'. "In the second paragraph, Haniyeh laid out the political platform he maintains to this day. 'We are so concerned about stability and security in the area that we don't mind having a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and offering a truce for many years,' he wrote. "Haniyeh called on Bush to launch a dialogue with the Hamas government. "'We are not warmongers, we are peace makers and we call on the American government to have direct negotiations with the elected government,' he wrote. Haniyeh also urged the American government to act to end the international boycott 'because the continuation of this situation will encourage violence and chaos in the whole region'. "Upon his return to the US several days later, Segal gave State Department and NSC officials the original letter. "In his own letter, Segal emphasised that a state within the 1967 borders and a truce for many years could be considered Hamas' de facto recognition of Israel." The New York Times reported from the Israeli settlement of Rimonim in the West Bank and Jewish settlers who want to return to Israel. "Surrounded by hostility, living on land most of the world wants turned over to Palestinians for a state, they meet quietly in Jewish settlements like this one, plotting the future. But these besieged West Bank settlers, widely viewed as an obstacle to peace, want only one surprising thing: to get out. "While the vast majority of settlers vow never to abandon the heart of the historic Jewish homeland - these ancient and starkly beautiful hills whose biblical names are Judea and Samaria - thousands of other settlers say they want to move back to within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. "They say the West Bank settlement enterprise - at least that part beyond the barrier of wall and fence Israel has been building - is doomed and their lives are at risk. Many say something else as well: The Israeli occupation of land claimed by the Palestinians is wrong and they want no part of it. But their houses are worthless, and they are stuck. They want help. "'I came here 25 years ago to live in the countryside and raise my family,' said David Avidan as he sat in a neighbour's living room here one recent evening to discuss an exit strategy. 'We wanted to resettle the whole land of Israel,' he added. 'But now when I see how our soldiers treat Palestinians at the checkpoints, I am ashamed. I want us to get out of here. I want two states for two people. But I can't get any money for my house and I can't leave.' "There are 280,000 settlers in the West Bank (200,000 more Israeli Jews live in East Jerusalem, also captured in 1967), and the vast majority are firmly committed to staying and oppose a Palestinian state here. But 80,000 of them live beyond the barrier, and surveys indicate that many would leave. If they did, others might follow voluntarily." Haaretz reported that: "Relations between Israel and Britain remained strained on Thursday over Downing Street's intention to label products manufactured in West Bank settlements, a week before the expected arrival of British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, David Miliband, to the Middle East. "Miliband, who will visit Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Lebanon next week, is expected to talk to Israeli officials over the settlements in the West Bank and his country's proposed plan to label products manufactured in them. 'This initiative is a serious and substantial problem in relations between the two countries, and is generating a sense of crisis,' a senior diplomat in Jerusalem said. "Over the past few weeks Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has spoken to Miliband and tried to persuade him to cancel the plan, by equating it to the initiative by UK academics to ban their Israeli counterparts. The British Secretary of State responded that the policy did not amount to an embargo on products made in the West Bank, but was merely an attempt to enforce previous trade agreements between the two countries." BBC News added that: "Mike Bailey from Oxfam says that it is not good enough [to label goods as having been produced in the West Bank]. "'The settlements on the West Bank are illegal under international humanitarian law and that creates a lot of problems for the Palestinians that live there. "'Consumers that are buying produce that are grown in illegal settlements need to have that information so that they can make an informed choice.' "The Foreign Office seems inclined to agree. "British officials have now tabled a proposal at the European Council, the EU forum for member states, calling for discussion on possible ways to tighten the policing of the rules on import duty and change them on labelling, so that consumers can make 'an informed choice between Palestinian goods and settlement goods'." In The Financial Times, Philip Stephens was in no doubt about what should be at the top of Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda. "[The Israel-Palestinian conflict] is the issue that more than any other shapes attitudes in the region towards the US. On almost everything else, probably the best the incoming president can hope for is to damp the fires. A deal between Israel and the Palestinians would change the game. "Yet here Mr Obama has promised least. True, he has made the right noises about throwing his authority behind a two-state solution. There is talk of the appointment of a special US envoy to take a permanent seat at the negotiating table. As yet, however, Mr Obama has given little sign that he is ready to invest the energy and political capital to broker a deal.... "The early years of his presidency will be his best, and quite possibly the last, chance to broker a two-state solution. Facts on the ground - demography, the West Bank barrier, Israeli settlements across swathes of the West Bank, Palestinian radicalism in Gaza - are steadily undermining the bargain that would give Israel security and the Palestinians a state. "For all the formidable obstacles to an agreement, Mr Obama's heritage and the nature of his victory has bestowed as much authority among Israelis, Palestinians and in the wider Arab world as any US president can ever expect. This precious political capital will diminish over time. "A serious and even-handed effort to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians would disarm the most serious charge against US policy in the region: that everything it does is rooted in double standards. "A deal would not settle all the problems and conflicts. Nor, of itself, would it repair the relationship between the west and much of the Islamic world. Al Qa'eda and its affiliates would find plenty of other reasons to attack America. Yet the creation of a Palestinian state would change profoundly the dynamics of the Middle East. It would make possible much that now seems beyond all reasonable reach. "Brokering such an accord would be tough and thankless. Mr Obama might well fail in the attempt. But there lies the existential choice for Mr Bush's successor. Does he want to patch things up? Or does he want to redraw the strategic map of the Middle East and thereby set a new direction for America's role in the world? That, in the final analysis, is what will mark out the difference between a competent and a transformational presidency." firstname.lastname@example.org