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Red Cross: Gaza Blockade Illegal

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has described Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip as a violation of the Geneva Conventions and called on the Israeli government to lift it.

The ICRC said goods smuggled through tunnels are often overpriced and of poor quality. (AFP) In a statement released on Monday, the organisation called the blockade "collective punishment", a crime under international law. It described Gaza as a territory plagued by frequent power cuts, a ruined economy, and a collapsed health care system.

"The closure imposed on the Gaza Strip is about to enter its fourth year, choking off any real possibility of economic development," the ICRC said.

"Gazans continue to suffer from unemployment, poverty and warfare, while the quality of Gaza's health care system has reached an all-time low."

Crippling shortages

Israeli officials insist that they provide enough "humanitarian aid" to cover Gaza's basic needs.

But the ICRC said the meagre list of goods allowed into Gaza doesn't meet the needs of the territory's 1.5 million inhabitants.

Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, the head of the ICRC's Middle East operations, told Al Jazeera that the organisation - which traditionally remains neutral - was reluctant to publicly criticise the blockade. But she said three years of quiet efforts to ease the embargo did not result in any progress.

"The result has not been what we expected, and we thought that after three years the situation was dire enough, serious enough, to speak out publicly to try to break this closure of Gaza," she said.

The shortages are particularly dire in Gaza's health care system, where the ICRC said more than 100 essential medicines - including chemotherapy and hemophilia drugs - are unavailable. Many basic medical supplies, like colonoscopy bags, are also barred from Gaza and routine blackouts cause damage to medical equipment.

"The state of the health-care system in Gaza has never been worse," Eileen Daly, the ICRC's health co-ordinator in Gaza, said.

"Thousands of patients could go without treatment, and the long-term outlook will be increasingly worrisome."

B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, released its own report on Monday documenting dire conditions in the Palestinian territories. The group noted that 95 per cent of Gaza's factories have closed, that 98 per cent of residents suffer from blackouts, and that 93 per cent of Gaza's water is polluted.

Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, on Sunday called for an end to the blockade.

Hamas criticised

The ICRC also criticised Hamas, the Islamic movement which controls Gaza, for preventing the ICRC from visiting Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in 2006. Shalit is entitled to visits from the Red Cross under international law.

"In violation of international humanitarian law, [Hamas] has also refused to allow him to get in touch with his family," the ICRC said.

But the bulk of the ICRC's criticism was directed at Israel's blockade. In addition to the health care problems, the ICRC noted that 40 per cent of Gaza's residents are not connected to a sewage system, and that restrictions on movement have driven many farmers and fishermen into poverty.

One-third of Gaza's farmland is located in a "buffer zone" controlled by the Israeli army, and boats are only allowed to fish within three nautical miles of Gaza's coast.

The ICRC demanded that both Israel and the Hamas government "allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage" of aid shipments to Gaza. Hamas has refused to accept 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid seized from the flotilla of aid ships attacked last month by the Israeli army.

The Israeli government announced on Sunday that a panel, chaired by former supreme court judge Yaakov Turkel, would investigate the flotilla attack.

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