Dear Secretary Clinton,
I am writing in regard to your April 22 comments on Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Your characterization of Israel's policy greatly understates the extent and impact of the border closure, which amounts to the collective punishment of Gaza's civilian population - a serious violation of international law. Instead of downplaying the consequences of this blockade, we ask that you use the influence of the United States and your office to press Israel to end this policy which purposefully punishes civilians as a way to pressure Hamas. We also urge you to press Egypt, which has largely cooperated with Israel's blockade, to allow humanitarian assistance through the Rafah crossing, which it controls.
Human Rights Watch recognizes Israel's right to defend itself against attacks by Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, and we have consistently condemned the continuing rocket attacks against Israeli civilians and civilian property. But lawful means of self-defense do not include harming civilians in Gaza. In our view, the United States - Israel's most important political, military and financial backer - has an obligation to strongly criticize and disassociate itself from policies that constitute unlawful collective punishment.
At a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on April 22, in response to questions from Rep. Keith Ellison about the situation in Gaza, you replied that "the crossings are no longer completely closed [and] there are many items that are being transported through the crossings." You said that you had "urged the Israeli government to open the crossings as much as possible commensurate with its legitimate security needs." However, you added, "there are many items that are being transported through the crossings" into Gaza, and "a lot of what has been said was not permitted to cross is just not accurate."
Your suggestion that the blockade of Gaza is not as severe as "what has been said" seems to reflect a desire to minimize the severity of the blockade which continues to exact an enormous toll on Gazan civilians. Human Rights Watch researchers recently conducted a fact-finding mission in Gaza and saw firsthand this harmful impact, especially on women and children. Months after Israel's 22-day military campaign, vulnerable civilians continue to bear the brunt of severe restrictions on basic necessities and other needed supplies.
For example, Israel's border restrictions, which it tightened 22 months ago, are preventing the reconstruction of civilian structures and property that were destroyed or heavily damaged during the recent hostilities. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that the fighting destroyed or badly damaged 21,000 residences, and thousands of people remain homeless today because of Israel's ban on building materials, including concrete.
Other restrictions are even more arbitrary and unjustified by legitimate security needs. UNICEF, for example, is currently awaiting Israeli approval for eight categories of educational items needed in Gaza, including musical instruments, math kits, and sports clothes. Israeli media and human rights groups report that during the past month, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) prevented an Israeli vegetable growers' association from shipping pumpkins, kiwis and avocados to Gaza. The entry of food into Gaza continues to be highly restricted, as the IDF has not implemented a March 22, 2009 Israeli Cabinet decision promising to permit food to enter Gaza on an unrestricted basis.
In some cases, the Israeli restrictions on what can enter Gaza are placing even Israeli citizens at risk. According to the United Nations Mine Action Service, de-mining teams are still unable to bring into Gaza the explosives they need to destroy unexploded ordinance left over from the war. As a result, armed groups in Gaza apparently from Hamas have appropriated approximately 5,000 tons of unexploded weapons that the IDF had fired during the fighting, including high explosives, before de-mining teams could destroy the munitions. The explosives in these weapons might be used against civilians in Israel.
As you know, 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 entering Gaza, any restrictions should be for specific security reasons and not to block humanitarian aid or other necessary civilian goods. Overly broad restrictions on such 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 civilians.
Israel has consistently failed to provide specific security justifications for its refusal to allow many basic goods to enter Gaza, or its restrictions on the types and quantities of civilian goods allowed in.
Security concerns also fail to explain Israel's refusal to open the Karni or Sufa crossings. If fully opened, the Karni crossing could securely process more aid shipments per day than any other crossing, thanks to security scanners donated by USAID that are currently sitting idle. Nor has Israel provided any security rationale for its ban on exports from Gaza for more than a year, with the exception of several truckloads of flowers to Europe.
The civilians affected by Israel's blockade include Gaza's 750,000 children. The Israeli offensive destroyed seven schools in northern Gaza and damaged 157 others, according to OCHA; meaningful repairs cannot be made unless Israel permits building materials to enter Gaza. According to UNRWA, 14 percent of water samples in Gaza are contaminated, and the number of cases of children under three years old with acute diarrhea passed the "alert" level in March. More than 22,000 children in Gaza still have no access to piped water.
The needs of the war-wounded and the chronically ill are also of notable concern. As of April 21, the UN reported that 65 "essential drug items" were still out of stock at Gaza's Central Drug Store, including medicines for chronic diseases. In February, Human Rights Watch interviewed a double-amputee who suffered "phantom pain" from his missing legs; his cousin, a pharmacist, said he needed pain medication that was not available.
On average, 132 trucks with goods entered Gaza each day in March, one-quarter of them with humanitarian aid. This marks an improvement of 17 percent from February, but remains far below the 475 daily trucks that entered Gaza prior to Hamas's takeover in June 2007. According to recent news reports, hundreds of truckloads worth of aid are "rotting" on the Egyptian side of the border.
The humanitarian aid and reconstruction material entering Gaza is far from enough, and US pressure is needed to ensure that Israel meets its obligations under international law, and that Egypt assists humanitarian deliveries to a civilian population in need.
Madame Secretary, the civilians of Gaza are suffering as a consequence of Israel's crippling blockade. Rather than minimizing their suffering, we hope you will use your influence to press Israel to end its blockade, and that your public comments will reflect this concern.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and North Africa division