November 20, 2008

November 20, 2008
Dear Prime Minister Olmert,
We are writing to express our deep concern about Israel's continuing blockade of the Gaza Strip, a measure that is depriving its population of food, fuel, and basic services, and constitutes a form of collective punishment.

The latest measures, a complete closure of all Gaza border crossings since November 5, are part of an ongoing policy by your government that has prevented the normal flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza since January 2006. It has contributed to a humanitarian crisis, deepened poverty and ruined the economy. We urge your government to abandon this policy.

Your government states that this latest blockade was in response to Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel, in which two Israel civilians were injured (on November 14 and 16), and over a dozen others treated for shock. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned deliberate and indiscriminate Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli communities as violations of the laws of war. We recently sent a letter to Hamas leaders calling on them to renounce such attacks, and arrest and prosecute those who carry out or encourage attacks on civilians.

However, violations of the laws of war by one party to a conflict do not justify violations by the other. As such, illegal attacks by Palestinian armed groups do not justify an illegal Israeli response. Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, an occupied territory under the Fourth Geneva Convention, constitutes collective punishment in violation of the laws of war.
While your government has eased the restrictions for one day on November 17 the humanitarian situation in Gaza is now critical as the borders remain closed. Food distribution by the United Nations to 750,000 people—half of Gaza's population—was forced to a halt last week, and remains severely disrupted.

Israel permitted 30 trucks to enter Gaza on November 17, delivering just eight trucks of food aid for the United Nations relief agency distribution centers, enough to feed 20,000 people. Those supplies are now almost gone, according to UN officials. The agency has to import at least 15 truckloads of food daily to meet the territory's needs. Food stocks in three UN warehouses have also been emptied.

Gaza’s main power station needs over 21 million liters of industrial diesel before it can restart power production, according to the relief agency. Gaza is currently suffering widespread power shortages with power cuts of up to 16 hours a day. On average 650,000 people–over a third of the population—are without power at any one time amid rolling power cuts throughout the territory.

The fuel and power shortages have disrupted the pumping of water from 80 percent of Gaza water wells according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Twenty percent of the population has access to water for six hours five times a week. Forty percent have access to water four days a week, and the remaining 40 percent have water for just three days a week.

No wheat grain has entered Gaza for 16 days, prompting Gaza's largest flour mill al-Philistiniya to close, according to OCHA. A lack of cooking gas has closed 28 out of 47 pita-bread bakeries in Gaza, and bread is being rationed. There are no bakeries in production in Rafah in the south of Gaza.

The latest closures have compounded the already severe effects of a longer term blockade your government implemented when Hamas took full control of Gaza in June 2007. Other restrictions have been in place since December 2005, when Hamas won legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Over the last year, this policy has deepened poverty in Gaza and cut its industrial production by over 90 percent, according to the World Bank. The Palestinian Federation of Industries estimates that as a result of import restrictions and the inability to export, only 23 of the 3,900 industries in Gaza are operating, six of which produce wheat flour, one clothing, and the remainder food processing.

These restrictions are impacting a population that is already among the poorest in the world. Close to 70 percent of the population lives in deep poverty, according the UN relief agency, UNRWA. (The agency defines deep poverty as a family of six persons or more living on income of less than US$467 per month.) Egypt has been complicit in the blockade by keeping its borders with Gaza closed for much of the past year, in cooperation with your government.

Israel made a commitment in June to ease some of these restrictions – but the movement of goods into Gaza and people in and out the territory remains a fraction of what it was when borders were last opened for free trade. October’s imports represented only 21 percent of the December 2005 level (13,430 truckloads), that is prior to the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, and 26 percent of the May 2007 level, immediately before the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, according to OCHA. Exports from Gaza are not allowed by your government.

In September and October, Egypt and Israel allowed around 6000 pilgrims, hospital patients and some businessmen to pass through the Rafah and Erez border crossings. However, the Israeli and Egyptian governments have prevented over 800 students from leaving the territory to study abroad. Restrictions on freedom of movement for the large majority of the population remain in place, preventing their access to work, healthcare, and family outside of Gaza.

Even though Israel withdrew its permanent military forces and settlers in 2005, it remains an occupying power in Gaza under international law because it continues to exercise effective day-to-day control over key aspects of life in Gaza. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel is obliged to ensure the provision of food and medical supplies to the civilian population to the fullest extent possible.

We urge your government to immediately lift restrictions on the flow into Gaza of food, medicines, and other supplies essential for the well-being of the civilian population and to cease all measures that amount to collective punishment of the civilian population, including disruptions to the electricity supply and fuel cuts. We also urge your government to respect the right to freedom of movement, especially for those who need to travel for reasons of health or education.

We look forward to your response to this matter.

Yours sincerely,

SarahLeah Whitson
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch