The starvation diet for Gaza shows the blockade will fall

Recently-public documents about Israel's "diet" for Gaza reveal a ruthless determination to make life miserable there. But it won't work.

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Six and a half years ago, shortly after Hamas won the Palestinian national elections and took control of Gaza, a senior Israeli official described Israel's planned response. "The idea," he said, "is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."

Although Dov Weisglass was an adviser to Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of the day, few observers treated his comment as more than hyperbole, a supposedly droll characterisation of the blockade Israel was about to impose on the tiny enclave.

Last week, however, evidence finally emerged to prove that indeed this did become Israeli policy. After a three-year legal battle by an Israeli human rights group, Gisha, Israel was forced to disclose its so-called "Red Lines" document. Drafted in early 2008, the defence ministry paper set forth proposals on how to treat Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Health officials provided calculations of the minimum number of calories needed by Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants to avoid malnutrition. Those figures were then translated into truckloads of food Israel was supposed to allow in each day.

The Israeli media has tried to present these chilling discussions, held in secret, in the best light possible. Even the liberal Haaretz newspaper euphemistically described this extreme form of calorie-counting as designed to "make sure Gaza didn't starve".

But a rather different picture emerges as one reads the fine print. While the health ministry determined that Gazans needed a daily average of 2,279 calories each to avoid malnutrition - requiring 170 lorries a day - military officials then found a host of pretexts to whittle the number down to a fraction of the original figure.

The reality was that, in this period, an average of only 67 lorries - much less than half of the minimum requirement - entered Gaza daily. This compared to more than 400 lorries before the blockade began.

It does not need an expert to conclude that the consequence of this Weisglass-style "diet" would be widespread malnutrition, especially among children. And that is what happened, as a leaked report from the International Committee of the Red Cross found in 2008: "Chronic malnutrition is on a steadily rising trend and micronutrient deficiencies are of great concern."

Israel's protests that the document was merely a "rough draft" and never implemented are barely credible - and, anyway, besides the point. If the politicians and generals were advised by health experts that Gaza needed at least 170 lorry-loads a day, why did they oversee a policy that allowed in only 67?

There can be little doubt that the diet devised for Gaza - much like Israel's blockade in general - was intended as a form of collective punishment, one directed at every man, woman and child. According to the Israeli defence ministry, "economic warfare" would create a political crisis leading to the overthrow of Hamas.

Earlier, when Israel carried out its 2005 disengagement, it presented the withdrawal as marking the end of Gaza's occupation. But the "Red Lines" formula indicates quite the opposite: that in reality Israeli officials intensified their control, managing the lives of Gaza's inhabitants in almost-microscopic detail.

Who can doubt - given the experiences of Gaza over the past few years - that there exist in the Israeli military's archives still-classified documents setting out other experiments in social engineering? Will future historians discover that Israel also pondered the fewest hours of electricity needed by Gazans to survive, or the minimum amount of water, or the smallest living space per family, or the highest feasible levels of unemployment?

Such formulas may be behind the decisions to bomb Gaza's only power station in 2006; the refusal to approve a desalination plant, even though the Strip's underground water supply is threatened; the declaration of large swathes of farmland as no-go areas, forcing the rural population into overcrowded cities and refugee camps; and the continuing blockade on exports, destroying Gaza's business community and ensuring the population remains dependent on aid.

It is precisely these policies that led the United Nations to warn in August that Gaza would be "uninhabitable" by 2020.

In fact, the rationale for the Red Lines document and other measures can be found in an Israeli military strategy that reached its peak in Operation Cast Lead, the attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09.

The Dahiya doctrine was Israel's attempt to update its traditional military deterrence principle to cope with a changing Middle East, one in which the main challenge it faced was from asymmetrical warfare. The name Dahiya derives from a neighbourhood of Beirut that Israel levelled in 2006.

This "security concept", as the Israeli army termed it, involves the wholesale destruction of a community's infrastructure to immerse it so deeply in the problems of survival and reconstruction that other concerns, including fighting back or resisting occupation, are no longer practicable.

On the first day of the Gaza offensive, Yoav Galant, the commander in charge, explained the aim succinctly: it was to "send Gaza decades into the past". Seen in this context, Mr Weisglass' diet can be understood as just one more refinement of the Dahiya doctrine: a society refashioned to accept its subjugation through a combination of violence, poverty, malnutrition and a permanent struggle over limited resources.

This experiment in the manufacture of Palestinian despair is, it goes with saying, both illegal and grossly immoral. As cracks open in Israel's blockade, including the Qatari diplomatic mission this week, the experiment is also ultimately certain to be futile.

Jonathan Cook is an independent journalist based in Nazareth