(Washington, DC) - US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should speak out forcefully against Israel's blockade of Gaza as unlawful collective punishment against the civilian population, Human Rights Watch said in a letter  to Clinton today. As the major political, military, and financial backer of Israel, the United States should press its ally to abide by international law, Human Rights Watch said.
The letter criticized last week's congressional testimony by Clinton, saying that she had seriously understated the extent and impact of the border closure. On April 22, 2009, Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that "the crossings are no longer completely closed [and] there are many items that are being transported through the crossings." She said the United States had "urged the Israeli government to open the crossings as much as possible commensurate with its legitimate security needs," but added that "a lot of what has been said was not permitted to cross is just not accurate."
"Secretary Clinton's comments make it sound like the Israeli blockade isn't causing much of a problem for civilians in Gaza," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division. "But our researchers on the ground have seen how restrictions on food, construction material, and even children's clothes are having an awful effect on civilians trying to rebuild from a devastating war."
In its letter to Clinton, Human Rights Watch recognized Israel's right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups, but said that Israel could not purposefully harm civilians as a way to pressure Hamas.
"Lawful means of self-defense against indiscriminate rocket attacks do not include the collective punishment of civilians in Gaza," Whitson said.
Israel's border restrictions are preventing the rebuilding of homes and schools that were destroyed or heavily damaged during Israel's recent three-week military operation, Human Rights Watch said. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have not yet carried out a March 22 Israeli cabinet decision to allow into Gaza the unrestricted import of food.
Some of the restrictions may be placing even Israeli citizens at risk, Human Rights Watch said. For instance, de-mining teams are still unable to bring into Gaza the explosives they need to destroy unexploded ordnance left over from the recent fighting. As a result, armed groups in Gaza apparently from Hamas appropriated roughly 5,000 tons of unexploded weapons that Israel had fired into Gaza, including high explosives, before de-mining teams could destroy the munitions.
Other restrictions are arbitrary and unjustified by legitimate security needs, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, for example, is awaiting Israeli approval for eight categories of educational items needed in Gaza, including musical instruments, math kits, and sports clothes.
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 the United States that are currently sitting idle.
On average, 132 truckloads of goods entered Gaza each day in March, one-quarter of them with humanitarian aid. This was 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, when Israel tightened its restrictions on the movement of goods.
Human Rights Watch also called on Clinton to press Egypt to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza to allow humanitarian supplies to enter from there. According to recent news reports, hundreds of truckloads of aid are rotting on the Egyptian side of the border.
Israel continues to exercise effective control of Gaza's borders and airspace, with the exception of the Rafah crossing. Israel's broad restrictions on the movement of goods violate its obligations as an occupying power to safeguard the health and welfare of the occupied population.
Israel may inspect goods entering and leaving Gaza, but restrictions should be for specific security reasons and should not be used to block basic goods and civilian necessities. Israel has consistently failed to provide specific security justifications for its refusal to allow many basic goods into Gaza.
"Washington should disassociate itself from unlawful Israeli policies that directly harm civilians," Whitson said. "Failure to do so suggests US support for a policy that violates international law."
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned  the unlawful rocket attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups against Israeli civilians and civilian property.