Should Israel give the Palestinians more aid Yes, a blockade restricts human rights for citizens

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Over the past few weeks, Israel's policy of blockading the villages and towns of the West Bank and Gaza reached pernicious and horrifying heights. Closures, sieges and embargoes have been part of Israeli policy since the beginning of the al-Aksa intifada, and such blockades rapidly debilitate an already crumbling Palestinian economy.

But never before has their implementation been so cruel and senseless.

Residents in the territories have not been able to move beyond the limited perimeters of their homes. Children are prevented from attending school, people cannot get to work, the sick remain without medical care. Food supplies, already scarce, are dwindling. People are truly suffering, and innocent people are facing dire financial straits.

Collective punishment of civilians is a gross violation of human rights. The imposition of a "choking closure," or for that matter, a "breathing closure" (note the insensitivity of official terminology) is effectively strangulating millions of Palestinians and creating immense human misery.

The purposes of the closure policy are as ambiguous as they are counterproductive: Ostensibly, the blockade of Palestinians is meant to curb terrorist acts. Defense sources boasted that a specific attack was thwarted last week (although the perpetrators were not apprehended). But for every terrorist caught in such a net, tens are bred in the morass of hunger, anger and frustration evoked by these persistent restrictions.

On a broader level, if some policymakers actually entertained the notion that collective immobilization may end violence in exchange for bread, then the solidarity evoked by Palestinians in the face of growing impoverishment should disabuse them of such thoughts. Indeed, the simplistic barter equation bandied about to defend the closures has in all probability achieved the opposite: a growing desire to strike out against those who humiliate, oppress and harass. The closure, in reality, is a time bomb that can explode at any moment.

Others have suggested that the rationale behind the closure is to increase opposition to the Palestinian Authority and to undermine its leadership, in the hope of forcing a change in Palestinian policy. In other words, sealing off Palestinian civilians is seen as a way to break their will. But there is precious little evidence that such a process is occurring. To the contrary, financial despair and denial of autonomy make a powerful cement binding the Palestinians together against the occupation.

If the goal is to bring about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, then perhaps the time has come to analyze the implications of anarchy in the territories. For Israel, the breakdown of Palestinian institutions spells nothing short of disaster. People with nothing to lose, whose leaders are local activists and warlords, and who possess no central authority, constitute a clear and present danger for Israelis and for any viable future.

The events of the last few months should have driven home the obvious, that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, however problematic and erratic, do maintain a modicum of control in the West Bank and Gaza. They are, for better or for worse, Israel's adversaries and only viable negotiating partners.

Perhaps, at root, the sealing off of Palestinians is meant to show confused and fearful Israelis that something is being done to fight terrorism and stop the violence. But these are short-term measures to temporarily allay raw emotions. They will not solve the problem and, shortsighted as they are, do not help to manage the conflict in these very difficult circumstances.

The punishment of innocent people to achieve ill-conceived objectives cannot but backfire. In fact, the instinctive reactions of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer intimate, once again, that army actions may have become a substitute for a defined, well-conceived policy. In any country, even for a government in transition, such a vacuum is intolerable. This is all the more true for Israel today.

The damage wrought by the closure is unspeakable. Israel has exposed itself to justifiable international condemnation. It escalated the situation just prior to the Arab summit. It may invite, soon enough, what it has sought to prevent: international intervention in the conflict.

Above all, Israel has directly caused untold human misery. As long as the territories captured in 1967 are under Israeli control, Israel bears full responsibility for what occurs in those areas. Protestations notwithstanding, the paralysis of Palestinians is an Israeli action and the moral onus is Israel's to bear — a most shameful and ethically indefensible burden indeed. It should neither be excused nor condoned.

The blockades must be lifted and the policy of closures must be stopped now. Such a move is imperative for Israel's security, its international standing, its morality and its human face.