By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 15, 2007; A01
GAZA CITY -- The batteries are the size of a button on a man's shirt,
small silvery dots that power hearing aids for several hundred
Palestinian students taught by the Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children in
Now the batteries, marketed by Radio Shack, are all but used up. The few
that are left are losing power, turning voices into unintelligible
echoes in the ears of Hala Abu Saif's 20 first-grade students.
The Israeli government is increasingly restricting the import into the
Gaza Strip of batteries, anesthesia drugs, antibiotics, tobacco, coffee,
gasoline, diesel fuel and other basic items, including chocolate and
compressed air to make soft drinks.
people, to beggar status, unable to maintain an effective public health
system, administer public schools or preserve the traditional pleasures
of everyday life by the sea.
"Essentially, it's the ordinary people, caught up in the conflict,
paying the price for this political failure," said John Ging, director
of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, which serves the majority
refugee population. "The humanitarian situation is atrocious, and it is
easy to understand why -- 1.2 million Gazans now relying on U.N. food
aid, 80,000 people who have lost jobs and the dignity of work. And the
list goes on."
Israeli military and political leaders say the restrictions are prompted
by near-constant rocket and small-arms attacks and concerns over what
uses Palestinian gunmen might have for some materials entering Gaza,
particularly fuel and batteries.
The Israeli cordon tightened in June, when Hamas, a radical Islamic
movement at war with Israel
seized control of Gaza. Israeli officials have insisted to the Bush
administration that no humanitarian crisis would result from the
sanctions imposed on the territory.
But for Gazans, caught between Israel's concrete gun towers and the
Mediterranean, the sense of crisis is pervasive as they struggle to keep
their homes intact, buy essential food from a shrinking and increasingly
expensive stock, and educate their children.
"I hold every man, woman and child in Israel responsible for this," said
Geraldine Shawa, 64, the Chicago-born director of the Atfaluna Society.
A tall, imposing woman who has lived in Gaza for 36 years, Shawa has
watched the fortunes of her pupils squeezed in recent months by what she
calls Israel's practice of collective punishment.
Israeli military officials said last week that 2,000 rockets had been
launched from Gaza toward Israel this year, killing two Israelis,
wounding many others and instilling fear across the southern region.
Since the U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Md., last month,
Israeli airstrikes and ground forces have killed 26 Hamas gunmen, the
Islamic organization says, as well as at least four Palestinian civilians.
Hamas's military wing is not behind most of the rocket attacks, for
which smaller armed groups generally assert responsibility. But Hamas
leaders do little to stop the firing of the rockets and rarely, if ever,
On Tuesday, Israeli tanks rolled into the central Gaza city of Khan
Younis. Six armed Palestinians from the Popular Resistance Committees, a
militant splinter group, and the radical Islamic Jihad organization were
killed in fighting. Israeli officials labeled the operation "routine."
"I hold each of them responsible, just as they obviously seem to hold
all of us responsible," Shawa said of the Israelis. "If the Israeli
government really has the power and the desire to change, well, this is
pushing me in exactly the opposite way -- over the edge."
*An Isolated Collective*
Moamen Ayash, a frail, 6-year-old Palestinian boy in navy blue slacks
and a pressed dress shirt, walked to the whiteboard at the front of his
tidy classroom to work through some simple sign phrases.
Moamen has not had a working hearing aid for three months. Israeli
military officials said they had no idea the batteries were not being
The inability to hear even the faintest sounds, which hearing aids
sometimes make possible for the deaf, hinders children such as Moamen
from acquiring spoken language.
Because few of the estimated 20,000 Gazans suffering from hearing loss
know even rudimentary sign language, the deaf here represent an isolated
collective, dependent for funding largely on the kindness of strangers
and the proceeds of their own crafts shop.
Their condition resembles in some ways the larger estrangement of Gaza,
a fenced-in, chaotic jumble of squalid refugee camps set amid
rubble-strewn dunes that might someday be perches for resort hotels
overlooking the turquoise sea.
Work is rare. Food is scarce. Gasoline is so hard to come by that
Mahmoud al-Khozendar, 49, has hung an effigy of a man in a suit above
the empty gas pumps at his station. The sign pinned to the hanging man's
chest reads: "The Man in Charge."
Israel delivers electricity to Gaza that provides roughly 60 percent of
the territory's energy. An Israeli Supreme Court decision is expected
any day on whether the supply can be reduced as punishment for the
rocket fire from Gaza, which Israel evacuated in the fall of 2005 after
nearly four decades of military occupation.
In the rank, crowded wards of Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, the dispensary
is out of 85 essential medicines and close to using up almost 150 others.
Dialysis treatment has been cut back from three to two times a week for
even the most critically ill kidney patients, roughly 900 in all. A
stack of nearly two dozen blood-cleaning machines gathers dust in a
corner, awaiting spare parts that Palestinian doctors say have not been
allowed through the border crossings between Gaza and Israel.
The minister of health, Bassem Naim, said in an interview last week that
he is husbanding a two-week stock of anesthetic at a time when Israel is
threatening to mount a broad military offensive into Gaza to end the
"They have turned Gaza into an animal farm -- we only are allowed to get
what keeps us alive," he said.
Since June, Naim said, more than three dozen Palestinians seeking
treatment for cancer and other critical illnesses at Israel's more
advanced hospitals were rejected for passage by Israeli security
agencies. The Israeli nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights
estimates the number of rejections "in the tens."
According to Naim, at least 29 patients have died since June, including
12-year-old Tamer al-Yazji, who Palestinian health officials said was
denied entry into Israel after developing acute complications from
encephalitis. Of the patients who approached Physicians for Human Rights
for help, seven died before being granted passage to Israel, according
to the organization.
"What do you call sending dozens of Gaza patients to a slow death
because they are refused treatment?" Naim said. "That's not a
humanitarian crisis. That's a war crime."
Maj. Peter Lerner, Israel's military liaison for international
organizations working in Gaza, said 8,000 Gazans have been permitted to
enter Israel for medical care since June.
It is not a risk-free venture for Israel. In 2004, a Palestinian woman
detonated an explosives vest near the main Erez Crossing, killing four
Israelis and herself. A year and a half later, a 21-year-old Palestinian
woman passing through Erez for medical care at Soroka hospital in
southern Israel was discovered smuggling a 20-pound bomb, which she
unsuccessfully attempted to detonate.
"Hamas should be held accountable to the Palestinian people in Gaza,"
Lerner said. "They can't fire rockets in the morning and expect the
crossings to be open for the sick in the afternoon."
*Blackouts and Shortages*
When Israel withdrew 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza along with the
soldiers protecting them, Israeli leaders said the strip could become a
prosperous proving ground for a future Palestinian state.
But since the rocket attacks from Gaza began -- killing a total of 13
Israeli citizens since the start of the most recent Palestinian uprising
in September 2000 -- the frequent closure of crossings to Israel has
choked the export-reliant Palestinian economy.
Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in January 2006, trounced the
U.S.-backed Fatah movement in Gaza in June. The violent takeover, which
Hamas swiftly consolidated politically and culturally, cemented the
The political divide is widening between the West Bank, where the
U.S.-backed administration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas of Fatah is in control, and Hamas-run Gaza. The two regions were
once envisioned as the twin territories of a Palestinian state.
Now rolling blackouts have begun across the strip, partly because the
Palestinian Authority refused for days last week to pay the Israeli
company that supplies fuel to Gaza. The strip was receiving only about
24,000 gallons of diesel fuel a day, the lifeblood of the private-sector
economy. Before June, the strip received nearly 80,000 gallons of diesel
The Authority has paid its bills, but Israel has limited daily diesel
deliveries to Gaza to about 50,000 gallons, some of which is used by the
Hamas government and security forces. In addition, Israel sends 80,000
gallons a month directly to the U.N. agency for refugees to ensure that
its operation continues.
Lerner, the Israeli military liaison, said this week that he would
contact the International Committee of the Red Cross to make sure
hearing-aid batteries would be allowed through the crossings.
A spokeswoman for the Atfaluna Society said none had been received so far.
The restrictions have also hampered the society's vocational programs,
which use well-equipped wood shops, weaving looms and pottery studios.
Thread for traditional Palestinian embroidery, wood for painted boxes
and pottery glazes mostly remain on the far side of the backlogged
Israeli border crossings.
"We may have enough for another month," said Mohamed al-Sharif, 36, who
supervises the classes. "Then we will run out again."
Trucks carrying tobacco and coffee usually have low priority in the
lines backed up at the crossings. Israeli military officials say they
try to push 60 to 70 trucks through a day, despite frequent rocket and
In the meantime, Gazans improvise. "We've bought 20 tons of coffee from
every store here we could find," said Riyadh Haigar, owner of the
popular Delice Coffee Shop. "Maybe it'll last a month. Then we close the