Israel/Egypt: Choking Gaza Harms Civilians

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Israel/Egypt: Choking Gaza Harms Civilians

US, EU, Security Council Should Demand Greater Access for Food and Fuel

JERUSALEM/GAZA - Israel should urgently end its unlawful restrictions on desperately
needed humanitarian aid and basic goods entering Gaza, Human Rights
Watch said today. Security concerns do not justify overly broad
limitations on the delivery of food, fuel, and other essential supplies.

Since the end of major military operations on January 18, 2009,
Israel has continued to block the entry of significant amounts of food,
fuel, cooking gas, and construction materials into Gaza, as well as
access by aid workers. The supplies and personnel are needed to
alleviate the suffering of civilians, many of whose homes and
workplaces were destroyed during Israel's recent military operation.

"Israel's major military operation destroyed many lives and
dramatically worsened Gaza's humanitarian crisis," said Fred Abrahams,
senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, who just spent two
weeks in Gaza. "Security concerns do not justify the collective
punishment of 1.5 million people by keeping out the aid and supplies
they desperately need."

Gaza's current needs are vast. Israel's 22-day "Operation Cast Lead"
damaged or destroyed more than 14,000 homes, 68 government buildings,
and 31 offices of nongovernmental organizations, according to the UN
Development Program (UNDP). Thousands remain homeless. The World Health
Organization says that almost half of the 122 health facilities it
surveyed were damaged or destroyed.

As of February 5, 88 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million people were
registered to receive food aid from the United Nations, with many of
them wholly dependent on this assistance, according to the UN Office
for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Israel continues to exercise full control of Gaza's borders and
airspace, with the exception of the Rafah crossing with Egypt. While
Israel is entitled to inspect goods going into Gaza, any restrictions
on relief should be for specific security reasons and not to block
genuine humanitarian aid. Overly broad restrictions on basic goods
violate international humanitarian law, which restricts a government
with effective control over a territory from blocking goods essential
to the survival of the civilian population.

The restrictions also violate Israel's duty as an occupying power to
safeguard the health and welfare of the occupied population, and amount
to collective punishment against the civilian population, Human Rights
Watch said.

Egypt has directly contributed to the worsening humanitarian crisis
by restricting humanitarian aid and personnel from entering Gaza
through the Rafah crossing, Human Rights Watch said. After opening the
border partially during the fighting, Egypt closed it again on February
5. Only Gaza residents needing outside medical attention are allowed to
cross, on a case-by-case basis.

Many goods are entering Gaza from Egypt clandestinely through the
network of cross-border tunnels that continue to operate, despite
ongoing Israeli military attempts to destroy them. Media reports
indicate that Egypt may be slowly clamping down on the illegal trade.

Human Rights Watch called on the United States and other influential
governments, as well as the European Union and UN Security Council, to
press Israel and Egypt to stop unlawfully restricting access for
essential supplies.

"The US is the key foreign donor to Israel and Egypt, so the Obama
administration should push for civilians in Gaza to get urgently needed
relief," Abrahams said.

Human Rights Watch also called on Hamas to stop interfering with
relief deliveries inside Gaza. In early February, Hamas seized food and
supplies intended for civilians from the UN and at least one
international humanitarian organization, but subsequently called the
seizures "a mistake" and returned the goods.

Despite Gaza's urgent needs and Hamas's attempts to control aid,
Israel's broad restrictions on the delivery of food, fuel, and other
goods appear without justification by any legitimate security concern.
Since January 18, for example, Israel has blocked shipments of
chickpeas, dates, tea bags, children's puzzles, and macaroni.

Israel also rejected a water purification system donated by the
government of France. According to Gaza's water utility, as of February
16, 50,000 residents had no access to piped water, and an additional
100,000 receive water every seven to 10 days. Shipments of spare parts
are needed before major repairs can be made, the utility said.

De-mining teams have been unable to destroy or isolate some
unexploded Israeli weapons because Israel has denied entry for needed
materials and equipment, OCHA reported on February 16.

According to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), 60 percent of
the 200,000 schoolchildren attending its Gaza schools are without a
full complement of textbooks because Israel has blocked shipments of
paper needed to print the books. The UN agency said that Israel also
blocked the material needed to make plastic bags for food distribution.

Humanitarian aid workers trying to enter Gaza have also faced
unnecessary restrictions imposed by Israel. According to OCHA, of the
178 requests it monitored in January from nongovernmental organizations
to enter Gaza at Erez, the main crossing for people entering Gaza,
Israel approved the entry of only 18 international staff from medical
NGOs, followed by a small number of unexploded ordinance clearance
technicians.

The UN reported that the average number of truckloads per day
entering Gaza reached 117 during the week of February 4-10. This was
far below the daily average of 475 truckloads in May 2007, just prior
to Israel's intensification of the border closure after Hamas's
takeover of Gaza from Fatah.

Israel also continues to restrict supplies of industrial diesel fuel
used to generate electricity, keeping Gaza's only power plant operating
at two-thirds capacity and exacerbating Gaza's already severe
electricity shortage. Israel blocked all petrol, diesel, and cooking
gas into Gaza between February 8 and 14, OCHA said. Electricity cuts
contribute to widespread water access problems.

Israel claims to facilitate aid shipments, but Israeli officials
have repeatedly said they will not allow any aid that they determine
bolsters or legitimizes Hamas. Citing security concerns, Israel
continues to prevent delivery of many construction materials, including
cement, steel, and glass, which prevents aid agencies from starting
desperately needed reconstruction. Israel has also blocked money
transfers into Gaza, although it recently allowed the Ramallah-based
Palestinian Authority to transfer US$43 million to pay the salaries of
officials on its payroll.

Israel's refusal to allow exports from Gaza for more than one year
has contributed heavily to the territory's economic collapse, Human
Rights Watch said. In a one-time exception on February 11, Israel
announced it would allow the shipment of 25,000 cut flowers from Gaza
headed for the Netherlands in time for Valentine's Day.

"Israel's choke-hold on Gaza has destroyed the territory's economy
and is having long-lasting and devastating effects on the lives of
Palestinians," Abrahams said. "Hamas's actions cannot be used to
justify policies that harm the civilian population."

Egypt's restrictions on the movement of goods and people into Gaza
through the Rafah crossing have worsened the situation, Human Rights
Watch said. According to Egyptian medical officials, Egypt allowed
1,003 wounded Gazans to enter Egypt for medical care during the three
weeks of fighting, as well as the delivery of some aid to Gaza and the
entry of humanitarian workers. But Egypt closed the border on February
5 without specifying a date or conditions for opening it again.

The Egyptian government has also detained without charge Egyptian
activists who campaigned for the government to open the Rafah crossing.
On February 3, the country's High Administrative Court supported the
government's position that Egyptian activists could not transport
medical and other aid to Gaza, and that these could only be transferred
"through official channels."

Hamas has also hindered the delivery of aid and supplies. According
to the UN relief agency, on February 3 Hamas police seized over 3,500
blankets and 406 food parcels after the agency's personnel refused to
give those supplies to the Hamas-run Ministry of Social Affairs. Two
days later, Hamas seized 200 tons of rice and flour from the agency's
aid trucks at the Kerem Shalom crossing, causing the agency to suspend
all aid deliveries. On February 6, a Hamas official said its forces had
seized the aid "by mistake." The agency renewed aid deliveries on
February 9, after Hamas returned the aid and gave assurances that
seizures would not happen again.

An official with an international humanitarian organization working
in Gaza told Human Rights Watch that in early February Hamas had
confiscated one of its aid shipments, though it was subsequently
returned. Hamas retracted an initial demand that the organization
provide information about the Palestinian groups that would distribute
the aid.

"Hamas should not confiscate or otherwise interfere in the delivery
of aid," Abrahams said. "Such actions only raise concerns that aid to
Gaza won't reach the civilian population in need."

International humanitarian law requires parties to a conflict to
allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian
aid to the civilian population. Parties are required to allow the free
passage of food relief to civilians at risk; starvation of the civilian
population may not be used as a method of warfare. A party may take
steps to control the content and delivery of humanitarian aid, such as
to ensure that consignments do not include weapons. But it may not
refuse consent on arbitrary grounds.

Israel remains an occupying power in the Gaza Strip because it
continues to exercise effective control over Gaza's airspace, sea
space, and land borders, as well as the territory's electricity, water
and sewage systems. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying
power is obligated to ensure the health and well-being of the civilian
population to the fullest extent possible.

A deliberate refusal to permit access for relief supplies can
constitute collective punishment or an illegal reprisal against the
civilian population. The prohibition on collective punishment does not
just refer to criminal penalties, according to the International
Committee of the Red Cross, "but penalties of any kind inflicted on
persons or entire groups of persons, in defiance of the most elementary
principles of humanity, for acts that these persons have not committed."

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