WORLDPOST

Gazans in Peril

02/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So much as been written about the fighting in Gaza and its political and military consequences, but surely not enough has been written about the terrible humanitarian conditions that have befallen its unfortunate non-combatant inhabitants.

Every party -- yes, any party remotely involved in instigating or failing to prevent the latest outbreak of war in Gaza -- is partly the cause as well as the source of any durable solution to this growing humanitarian calamity -- and there are not enough fingers to point. Debating whether Hamas is justified in firing missiles into Israel or whether Israel is justified in its response is really not this blog's principal focus, please. Neither is the plight of Israel's southern cities and its inhabitants who have been terrorized far too long by Hamas' brand of war-like coexistence.

My goal, however treacherous, is to set aside the political blame game that has characterized the debate, and to focus on the terrible civilian conditions inside Gaza with the hope that the plight of Gazans will foster expedited preparation for an emergency international relief effort to address the humanitarian crisis that grips Gaza now and which will surely get far worse in the days ahead.

Whenever Gaza's guns go silent, tens of thousands of Palestinians caught in the crossfire between Hamas militants and Israeli forces will haltingly emerge from the rubble to survey the terrible destruction that has befallen them as winter rains add more misery to the situation.

Entire blocks of stores and homes have been destroyed; services have been disrupted; and families have endured a barrage of fire and counterfire rendering what passes as normality in Gaza a distant memory. If Gaza was destitute and replete with misery before the latest Middle East war, it surely will face an even bleaker existence in the days ahead.

Conditions throughout Gaza were bad enough for its inhabitants before the fighting -- an economic blockade by Israel, and Hamas' Islamic extremist economic disorder had collectively transformed Gaza into a state of perpetual depression.

But things have gone from very bad to much worse in recent days as fighting has escalated.

At this hour, Gazans have almost no electrical power, and are under almost a round-the-clock blackout. Store shelves are empty, urgent medicine is in short supply, and only a few homes have running water since there is no fuel to run the water pumps. Sewage is flowing in the streets, and medical authorities, who cannot cope with the flood of civilian victims, are concerned that this witch's brew will breed a terrible post-conflict pandemic of assorted maladies that will only lead to more deaths. Under such conditions, most would flee becoming refugees again, but in Gaza there is nowhere to run. The borders are sealed and there is no escape.

The human tragedy that has befallen Gaza's Palestinians -- Hamas supporters or not -- warrants every American to take cognizance because of its consequences for a durable Middle East peace. Americans are seeing very little of the human misery in Gaza since Israel has restricted media access. But regional Arab television stations are showing enough disturbing images to enflame the Arab street.

The harsh conditions in Gaza are undoubtedly going to get far worse before they get better, particularly if Israel presses ahead with its ground offensive if Hamas refuses to accept an Egyptian cease fire proposal that is being considered right now by representatives of all sides to the conflict in Cairo.

And as surely as the humanitarian crisis grows, I am concerned that Israel, rather than Hamas, will engender more hatred against it from among Gaza's citizens for what has been wrought on them. That, too, is yet another sorrowful consequence to the fighting.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which is the international humanitarian assistance pipeline for Palestinians will be even more short-funded and taxed to launch and administer an emergency humanitarian relief operation, so a global emergency relief operation facilitated by Israel and Egypt will be vital to supplement what relief agencies have haltingly been able to accomplish during the fighting.

And who will fund such a relief operation? That remains to be seen. Traditionally, the Palestinians have in the best of times received precious little in the way of international assistance over the years, but here, too, regional politics must give way to the plight of Gaza's Palestinians first. Wealthy oil-producing regional states should consider forming a relief consortium supplemented by international donations, including assistance from Israel and Egypt to lay the groundwork for expedited logistical facilitation.

Urgent planning by international relief agencies and donors for such an effective and sustainable relief operation must begin NOW and not when a cease-fire is achieved. By that time, too many more Palestinians will have fallen victim.

The inevitable question lingers: what will become of the hundreds of thousands of Gaza's Palestinians who surely will find themselves still ruled by Hamas when Israeli forces inevitably withdraw from Gaza? Unfortunately, there is no place for them to go in the short term...and they will be forced to remain in Gaza to confront the aftermath of the fighting.

Under pre-war conditions, the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of Gaza's borders had already rendered Gaza's economy a disaster, compelling Gazan's to funnel smuggled consumer goods through the network of tunnels underneath the Gazan-Egyptian border that also served as Hamas' underground missile railroad route. The blockade by both Egypt and Israel cannot continue. If a cease-fire is achieved -- and its chances of remaining durable are questionable -- a better solution must be found to end the economic noose that is strangling Gaza's faltering economy and enable unfettered relief to its citizens.

As much as I believe that Hamas in its current incarnation constitutes an insurmountable roadblock to Palestinian statehood, Hamas will probably remain in control of Gaza despite Israel's hopes that Hamas would just collapse. For that reason, Israel will have to consider ending its economic blockade of Gaza PROVIDED Hamas ceases its missile attacks on Israel and stops smuggling them into Gaza under some form of supervised border control that is "bullet proof." An end to weapons smuggling and missile launches in return for a lifting of the blockade seems to me to be the best that anyone can hope for given the utter lack of common ground that Hamas and Israel share.

In the final analysis, the people of Gaza and Israel's southern cities deserve a concerted international diplomatic and humanitarian response to relieve the suffering on both sides of Gaza's borders. That will require a sustained round-the-clock diplomatic search for a modicum of common ground between Hamas and Israel to get a cease-fire in place as rapidly as possible.

For the sake of those whose suffering is taking a turn for the worse as each hour passes, the urgency to get to a diplomatic solution in Cairo takes on a whole new meaning.