WASHINGTON - The U.S. section of Amnesty International sent an "urgent" letter Friday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling on her to end what it called Washington's "lopsided response" to the ongoing Israeli air strikes on Gaza that have reportedly killed more than 400 Palestinians, including scores of unarmed civilians.
While the letter also expressed concern about the rocket fire by Palestinian groups that has taken four Israeli lives in urban areas more than 30 kilometres from Gaza during the past week, it called Israel's campaign air campaign "disproportionate" and accused the Jewish state of violating international law.
"Without diminishing the responsibility of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups for indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians, the U.S. government must not ignore Israel's disproportionate response and the longstanding policies which have brought the Gaza Strip to the brink of humanitarian disaster," the letter declared.
"...Amnesty International USA is particularly dismayed at the lopsided response by the U.S. government to the recent violence and its lackadaisical efforts to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza," it stressed, noting that several recent reports by its London-based parent organization, U.N. aid agencies, Oxfam, CARE and other relief groups have described the situation in Gaza -- even before the latest outbreak of hostilities -- as the worst since Israel's 1967 conquest of the area.
The letter came amid growing international clamour, especially from European and Arab capitals, for an immediate ceasefire. So far both Israel and Hamas have rejected this option.
Hamas has said it would agree to a ceasefire provided Israel agrees to lift its effective economic blockade of the territory. Israel -- strongly backed by the White House -- has insisted that it will stop its offensive only when Hamas agrees to a ceasefire that, in Rice's words, "is durable and sustainable."
In its letter, Amnesty urged Washington to "go beyond rhetoric and exert concrete pressure on both parties to immediately cease unlawful attacks." Statements in recent days by both Rice and the White House have contributed to the impression that Washington wants to give Israel more time to weaken Hamas' leadership and infrastructure in Gaza, in hopes that the population there will turn against the party to the benefit of Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party.
Indeed, Israel has begun amassing tanks, artillery and troops in a number of areas just outside Gaza, possibly in preparation for a ground assault against specific Hamas targets.
In a new phase of its campaign, Israeli forces began striking the homes of Hamas leaders. An air attack Thursday killed a top cleric identified with Hamas' military wing, Nizar Rayyan, along with his four wives and nine children. The air assault reportedly struck at the homes of several other leaders again Friday in what some analysts here described as an effort to "decapitate" the Islamist group.
The European Union called Thursday for an "immediate and permanent ceasefire" that would include both an "unconditional halt to rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel and an end to Israeli military action."
On a trip to Europe Thursday, however, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni -- who, along with Defence Minister Ehud Barak, has gained in the public- opinion polls for the Feb. 10 elections since the Israeli offensive began -- rejected the demand as well as a French proposal for a 48-hour "humanitarian cease-fire."
An unidentified official travelling with Livni called the latter proposal "unrealistic", "hasty", and bordering on "offensive", adding that Israel was itself shipping in tonnes of humanitarian supplies, including food and medicine, despite reports of severe shortages and chaos in Gaza's few hospitals. The territory has been without power for two days.
"There is no humanitarian crisis, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce," Livni told reporters in Paris.
Amnesty's letter strongly disagreed with that assessment Friday, however, echoing a report issued Wednesday by Oxfam. "At present there is an urgent need for access to humanitarian aid, food and essential supplies -- as both aid agencies and residents of Gaza have long ago run out of provision reserves due to the Israeli blockade which has so restricted the flow of goods into Gaza for months," it said.
"The quantities which the Israeli army has allowed into Gaza in recent days are nowhere near what is necessary to meet the basic needs of the population of 1.5 million," it added.
Rice herself has voiced some concern about the humanitarian situation and has sought private assurances from Livni that more assistance will be delivered via U.N. and private relief agencies, according to a number of sources close to the administration.
The same sources say that Washington has also sought assurances that Israel will try to keep civilian casualties to a minimum and that there will be no repeat of the 1996 shelling of the southern Lebanese village of Qana in which some 106 Lebanese civilians trying to escape fighting between Israel and Hezbollah were killed by Israeli shelling.
But, as noted in the Amnesty letter, "the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world" and the way Israel's current bombing campaign is being carried out "is completely failing to meet" international legal requirements that all operations be "strictly necessary, proportionate and make every effort to discriminate between combatant and civilian."
In a statement released Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also criticised Israel -- as well as Hamas' rocket firings -- for failing to discriminate between legitimate military and civilian targets to minimise harm to civilians. It cited several aerial attacks carried out early in the campaign which "appear to be unlawful," including strikes against students leaving a U.N. training facility; against a "Hamas mosque" that also destroyed a nearby house; and several police stations and a police academy.
As it has in the past, HRW also charged that Israel's blockade of the territory amounted to "collective punishment against the civilian population, a serious violation of the laws of war."
In its letter, Amnesty called on Washington to immediately suspend its arms deliveries to Israel pending an investigation as to whether previously supplied weapons have been used to commit serious human rights abuses during the current assault.