Tough Menu to Swallow

The goal behind Israel's tight control of Gazans' dietary regime is definitely not improving their health.

Every time Gazans sit down for a meal, they face a depressing reality. The selection of foods available to them is dictated almost entirely by a harsh policy imposed by the Israeli government, which, as of late, has even refused to allow such innocuous-seeming foods as pumpkins, pasta or beans to cross the border.

The goal behind Israel's tight control of Gazans' dietary regime is definitely not improving their health. Rather, the government argues that allowing "luxury" foods into Gaza would only add to the popularity of Hamas' leaders, enabling them to better feed their constituency. But, in the eyes of many observers, Israel's policy of limiting foods that enter the Strip is almost tantamount to starvation, and comes dangerously close to collective punishment, both of which are not only illegal and immoral methods to use in pursuit of Israeli security, but also do little to improve that security.

The restrictive Israeli policy only encourages the opening of unofficial - and potentially more dangerous - routes into Gaza. When foodstuffs cannot enter the Strip through official channels, they are smuggled in through Hamas-controlled tunnels and thus mainly reach Hamas associates or those Gazans able to pay the smugglers' prices. The poor are left at the mercy of the fluctuations of a market in which supply is severely low and prices ever-rising.

Such a situation clearly contradicts the best interests of Israelis and Palestinians who want their societies to be open and egalitarian. Indeed, what long-term Israeli interest is served by having pregnant women and children suffer anemia, which causes well-documented damage to fetal and juvenile development? Limiting their access to iron does not improve Israeli security. Rather, it constitutes a gross violation of our own basic human values and the morality of Israeli society.

Can the experts please explain: Why does the Health Ministry recommendation for the diet of Israeli infants and toddlers - "soft fruit such as bananas and avocado, cooked chicken and beef, and cheese cubes" - not apply to Palestinian children? These particular items are all strictly forbidden from entering Gaza, while rice and a limited selection of meat and produce are the only food items in fact allowed to enter.

Several months ago, ministry officials approached the United Nations to consult with them about their dietary plan for the Gaza Strip. The UN officials - as one might guess - politely told them to go to hell, refusing to have anything to do with such a policy. The Israelis then turned to a Health Ministry dietician, whose advice might have led to the present policy according to which, as Israeli officials have stated, "the minimal requirements for the sustenance of Gaza Strip residents are being observed without inflicting a humanitarian disaster."

The participation of medical experts in drawing up the menus for Palestinians in Gaza - if they knew what policy their advice would help produce - is a grave violation of medical ethics. It is possible that the ministry's dietitian believed her advice would help prevent total starvation in Gaza, but by being involved in the "diet" policy she violated the obligation to act in the best interests of her patients, that is, the Palestinians whose nutrients she was prescribing. After all, Gaza is not suffering from a sudden drought or malnutrition brought on as a result of a natural disaster. We are speaking of deliberate deprivation via "a minimal diet" that can be stopped at any moment.

In 1845-1847, a parasite destroyed entire potato crops across Ireland. Years of British economic policies there had created a situation wherein potatoes were almost the only food the Irish consumed. And yet, even as widespread hunger ensued, Britain restricted the entry of humanitarian aid. For this reason the Irish still say that while it was a parasite that caused the blight of their crops, it was in fact the British who caused starvation. In the case of Gaza, it may be said that Israel inflicted both the destruction and starvation on the Strip's residents.

Among its own citizens, the Israeli government has encouraged blindness: Although we know that this policy will not and cannot serve our interests, although we know it is not the way to bring Gilad Shalit home, we still insist on imposing it. Because we don't want to make the difficult concessions that would bring him home.

In the end, it all boils down to a simple message that was repeated by some during and after Operation Cast Lead: While Israel may have the right to do something, it does not have the green light to do anything at all. We must ask ourselves seriously whether the menu for Gaza is truly a necessary security measure that Israel has a right to employ, or whether it is an unnecessarily vindictive policy that may, in the long run, actually endanger the state's security and morality. For me, this is a rhetorical question.

Hadas Ziv is the director of Physicians for Human Rights, Israel.