Israel and the civil infrastructure in Gaza

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 30 June 2006.

Yesterday’s Guardian Leader on Israel’s military offensive in Gaza included the statement that the missile attack on the power plant made no military sense. I dispute this interpretation on the grounds that causing short-term civil chaos in urban communities makes violent resistance less likely. Whatever the rights or wrongs of Israeli policy, the targeting of power stations makes perfect military sense provided certain conditions are met. If it helps keep down the body count, and the Israelis are prepared to help with immediate post-offensive reconstruction, I would say that the attack on the Gaza power plant also makes humanitarian sense.

The Geneva Conventions forbid military activities that deprive non-combatant civilians of essential items and services. The question is: did the Israeli destruction of the power transformers breach the Conventions? Based on what has been reported so far, the answer is no. Gaza gets around 60 percent of its electricity from Israel, and although the loss of Gaza’s sole power station has caused serious inconvenience to the region’s 1.4 million residents, it should not make impossible the extraction and purification of water, and power supply to hospitals, as backup generators for such critical services are considered the norm in civilised societies. If it turns out that sufficient backup generators are not available in Gaza, and Israeli intelligence knew all along that this is the case, then I will revise my opinion of the Israeli action. But at the same time I would question the competence of the Palestinian Authority when it comes to organising critical infrastructure within their jurisdiction.

As long as backup generators are available – and in the case of the hospitals and some of the water pumps it is reported that they are – the impact of the the loss of the Gaza transformers will be more on domestic energy use, public lighting, telecommunications and broadcast media. Backup generators for critical systems run on diesel oil, and there is concern over the reserves currently available within Gaza. I would hope that after the initial stage of the military offensive is over, Israel will allow fuel to flow once again into Gaza. Otherwise the UN’s Jan Egeland is right to forecast a humanitarian crisis.

Even though there are legitimate concerns over the Operation Summer Rain offensive, Israel has no choice but to act resolutely in the face of acts of war against it by the Hamas-controlled nascent Palestinian state, and that includes the arrest and prosecution of Palestinian Authority cabinet members and officials involved in terrorist activities. Many now wonder how much control the Palestinian Authority has within the West Bank and Gaza, as it appears that Hamas’ military leader Khaled Mashal is pulling the strings from his base in Damascus, with support and funding from the Syrian and Iranian regimes.

Dealing with the threat from within the Palestinian Territories is one thing, but can Israel handle a wider military conflict involving neighbouring Muslim states? Probably, but it need not happen, and if it does it will only lead to more Arab and Israeli suffering. All it will take to end the war is for the Palestinians to cease military and terrorist activity against Israel, and for the elected and representative leadership of the Palestine people to fully recognise the State of Israel.