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Gaza Again Plunged into Darkness, Hunger as Israel Blocks Fuel, Food to Suffering Population

StoryNovember 12, 2008
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Gaza’s humanitarian crisis has worsened in the aftermath of Israel’s latest blockade of fuel and food. We speak to Diana Buttu, a former lawyer for the Palestinian Authority, and Reverend Edwin “Eddie” Makue of the South African Council of Churches, a veteran of South Africa’s apartheid struggle. They are on an “anti-apartheid” speaking tour across the US for the next two weeks. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The United Nations refugee agency, which distributes food to half of Gaza’s 1.5 million people, has warned that it will run out of food in a day if Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip does not stop. It called the blockade “a physical as well as a mental punishment.”

Israel is now allowing limited amounts of fuel after Gaza’s sole power plant came to a halt Monday, plunging the area into darkness. But Israel is still blocking food deliveries, and aid agencies estimate the new supply of fuel will run out within a day and a half.

An Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that began in June has been disrupted following the imposition of the blockade, and Israel’s foreign ministry has accused Hamas of exploiting the situation for political gain. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that a violent confrontation with Hamas was inevitable.

    PRIME MINISTER EHUD OLMERT: [translated] We’re in no hurry, but we know very well that the moment of confrontation will eventually come. The question is not whether there will be a confrontation, but when it will take place, under what circumstances, and who will control these circumstances, who will dictate them, and who will know to exploit the time from the beginning of the ceasefire until the moment of confrontation in the best possible way.

AMY GOODMAN: The Bush administration has strongly backed Israel’s stranglehold on Gaza. It’s unclear whether the policy will change under an Obama White House. Obama’s first major appointment was to select Congress member Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. On foreign policy, Emanuel is thought to represent the right wing of the Democratic Party, vocally backed Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its 2006 attack on Lebanon.

Emanuel’s father, Benjamin Emanuel, was a member of the Irgun, a right-wing group that carried out attacks on Palestinians in the years leading up to Israel’s establishment as a state in 1948. [Benjamin Emanuel] recently made some controversial comments on his son’s appointment. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper last week, Rahm Emanuel’s father said, “Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he be? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House.”

We’re joined now in our firehouse studio by two internationally recognized human rights advocates. Diana Buttu is a Palestinian Canadian lawyer. She used to work with the Negotiations Support Unit of the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO. Reverend Edwin “Eddie” Makue is General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa from 1982. In 2005, he traveled to the Palestinian territories to monitor the elections. They are both on an anti-apartheid speaking tour across this country for the next two weeks.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Diana Buttu, I wanted to start with you on Rahm Emanuel’s father’s comment, its significance.

DIANA BUTTU: It is. It’s a very significant comment, not just because it’s coming from his father, but the fact that Rahm Emanuel himself has not backed down from this comment. He hasn’t made any statements separating himself or distancing himself from his father’s comments. And his voting record in the past in Congress leaves a great number of Palestinians and people who are concerned about Israel’s occupation of Palestine — leaves a number of us concerned.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the situation right now in Gaza, this latest crisis, what triggered it, and what are the prospects for being able to end it?

DIANA BUTTU: Well, very interestingly enough, last week, as people here were celebrating the election victory of Barack Obama, Israel used that opportunity to go into the Gaza Strip and kill six Palestinians and kidnap another six Palestinians. And since that time, the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire has actually come to a halt.

I think that we’re going to continue to see much more violence, primarily because of the fact that Israel is now leading up to an election. And as has been the case with every election in Israeli history, each candidate tries to use his or her strength to demonstrate just how strong they are and how much they’re going to fight the Palestinians, rather than demonstrate how much they’re going to try to bring peace to the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what about Ehud Olmert, who is about to step down, but is still the prime minister, saying you’ve got to give up the land, which is remarkable, given what his position has been as prime minister? What’s the significance of this?

DIANA BUTTU: I think it’s very interesting that all of these politicians are now coming forward and saying this. You know, twenty years ago, Amy, you wouldn’t have been able to find an Israeli politician who would say that they have to get out of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Today, the numbers are increasing.

The question then becomes, how are they going to withdraw? Are they going to withdraw and have equality for the Palestinians being in the form of an equal state? Or is it going to be equal rights? I haven’t heard any of these politicians come forward and mention the idea of equality.

That said, I think that Olmert’s comments are very telling, but I think that any prime minister who’s going to come into power after Prime Minister Olmert is going to face the same problem, which is, the Israeli political system is driven in such a way that it ends up rewarding right-wing extremist parties. That’s the way they form coalitions. And these right-wing extremist parties end up getting a lot of money from the government in order to fund and continue to build settlements. If they don’t get the money, the coalition will break. And as been the case over the course of the past few decades, the only way that governments fall in Israel is either a corruption scandal or a failure to pass the budget. So all of these politicians know very well that the way to move forward is to keep the — to placate the right, and I fear that they’re going to continue to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see change with the Obama administration?

DIANA BUTTU: It really depends on who he’s going to put in into the administration, and I’m a little bit worried that we’re going to see the same faces that we saw under the Clinton era: Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, so on and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel.

DIANA BUTTU: Precisely. I’m concerned that there are going to be people who were formally affiliated with the pro-Israel lobby that are going to be put into place to work on the Obama administration. More importantly, I’m concerned that this is going to be item number twenty on Obama’s agenda, and because it’s so far down on the agenda, that I don’t think that we’re going to see any change anytime soon. That’s what I’m afraid of.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the question of the relationship with Hamas? Obviously, during the Bush administration the attitude was no dealing whatsoever with those who were elected by the people. Your sense whether this will change at all?

DIANA BUTTU: I don’t think it will change, although it should change. There is a very interesting article that came out in Haaretz, which is an Israeli paper, just two days ago. The person interviewing members of Hamas is an Israeli journalist named Amira Hass. And in the interview, Hamas came out very clearly and said that what they want to see is they want to see a two-state solution. So there is no longer the pretext there for not talking to Hamas. But, unfortunately, we continue to put our head in the sand.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Reverend Eddie Makue, how did you end up going to the Palestinian territories, to the Occupied Territories, from South Africa?

REV. EDWIN MAKUE: The leading or the majority political party in South Africa at the moment is the African National Congress, and they are also the party in government. They have had an historic relationship with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. And when Yasser Arafat passed on, there was the need to have the elections there, and the South African government felt that it’s going to be important that we also look at bringing in civil society organizations in the observation of that election process, because we know that very often election results are disputed. And it is against that background, but very importantly also that we, in terms of our faith, have an historic relationship with that particular region of the world, looking at it as the holy land. And we are very disturbed at the fact that while there’s all this talk in the world about peace, we find that we in the faith communities will preach peace, very often experiencing great difficulty in actually realizing peace for people in that important region.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in South Africa itself, you’ve been undergoing a political crisis in recent months. There was the decision of President Mbeki to resign. And your council has raised questions as to how the ANC is handling this issue of the presidency. Can you talk about that?

REV. EDWIN MAKUE: We already started expressing our concerns towards the buildup of the ANC’s conference that happened at the end of December last year in Polokwane, where we noticed that there was a lot of name-calling, what we in theological terms prefer to call the politics of disgrace. And we are mindful that it is important that we continue to nurture a democratic culture and that we allow people to establish political parties, political formations, as they wish.

And therefore, the recalling of President Mbeki a month or so ago was something that we observed with concern, particularly in light of the fact that there is a national election that should be held around about April, May of next year. But as the faith communities and as the Council of Churches in the country, in particular, we have been engaging with various political leaders in South Africa, making sure that we do not go back to where we were in the period building up to the first democratic elections in 1994, where our country was plagued by a lot of violence and intolerance.

AMY GOODMAN: And one of the great South African anti-apartheid ambassadors, you could say, cultural ambassadors, was Miriam Makeba, died a few days ago. Her significance?

REV. EDWIN MAKUE: We are pained when we look at how we as a nation are losing people that have played a very meaningful role in the international campaign to focus attention on apartheid, as it has been experienced in South Africa at that time. And Miriam Makeba selflessly used her skills as an artist to promote the cause for justice in South Africa. And I’m sure if she could hear us now, her spirit continues to identify also with the struggle against the apartheid that we’re experiencing in Palestine.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in the situation in Zimbabwe, your government has been very instrumental in trying to reach some kind of an accord there. Your sense of how that is going to work out in the next few months?

REV. EDWIN MAKUE: We have always expressed very grave concern at the notion of silence diplomacy, as being practiced by our former president Thabo Mbeki. We are very worried about the levels of violence and suffering and the hunger and poverty that’s escalating in Zimbabwe at the moment. And we feel that it is imperative that an urgent solution be found for the crisis in Zimbabwe, and we continue to urge the political leadership in SADC and also in the African Union to do something meaningful to bring that particular crisis to an end and are saying to the political leadership in Zimbabwe, forget about the politicking and look at the interest of the people of the land.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a few seconds left. But, Diana Buttu, where are you going on this “Separate Is Never Equal” tour?

DIANA BUTTU: We’re going to eleven cities. We were already in Washington, D.C. and in New York. We’re going to be going tomorrow to Dearborn and then Milwaukee, onto Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Louisville, Atlanta. We’ll be at the School of the Americas Watch vigil on November 22nd and ending up in Sterling, Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Diana Buttu, Palestinian Canadian lawyer, used to work with the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization; and Reverend Edwin Makue, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches.

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