Human Rights Watch/Middle East calls on the government of Israel to take immediate steps to lift unprecedented measures confining residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in their cities and towns by military force.

An intensification of the long-standing policy of "closure", these new measures reduce whole communities to a form of town arrest, imposing hardship on hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. That hardship seems wholly disproportionate to the security gains that these measures might provide Israel toward the objectives of apprehending the individuals thought resonsible for the bombing or preventing future attacks inside Israel. One senior Israeli security official, insisting on anonymity, told the Washington Post that Israel's strategy was to ensure that every Palestinian "realizes this is going to have a very negative effect on the well-being of the entire population." By blocking the movement of people and goods, including food and medical supplies, Israel is indiscriminately punishing entire communities and violating its obligations as an occupying power under international humanitarian law to ensure that the food and health needs of the population can be met and to refrain from imposing collective penalties.

As a result of the internal closure, doctors and nurses as well as Palestinians seeking medical treatment have been unable to get to hospitals and clinics. Officials of Ahli Hospital in Hebron told Human Rights Watch that their medical staff had been reduced by more than 60 percent. On the second day of the closure, a vehicle carrying a four-year-old boy injured in an automobile accident was delayed at a checkpoint for three hours, and the boy died before reaching Ahli Hospital, according to Palestinian human rights workers and hospital officials. Farmers are blocked from getting to their fields, many of which are in areas under Israeli control, and from securing supplies and credits in the cities under the Palestinian Authority. Fieldworkers from Palestinian human rights organizations report growing shortages in food markets in the West Bank, while in Gaza the inability to export has led to severe losses for agriculturalists. Classes at Bir Zeit University have been suspended since neither students nor teachers can reach the school.

Since July 30, according to the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, at least sixteen Palestinian homes have been demolished by the Israeli authorities on the grounds that they lacked requisite building permits. In at least some of these cases, several Palestinian human rights organizations report, the closure has prevented homeowners and their lawyers from mounting legal challenges to the demolition orders.

This total closure is an intensified version of the general policy of closure that Israel has imposed on the occupied West Bank and Gaza since March 1993. Human Rights Watch has documented ways in which this general closure, now more than four years old, has caused protracted hardship and, in some cases, humanitarian crises and avoidable deaths.

Human Rights Watch again urges the government of Israel to refrain from imposing restrictions on Palestinian movement between and within the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, except when the measures imposed are tailored to preventing specific acts or threats against Israeli security. Such restrictions must be weighed against Israel's obligation as an occupying power to attend to the welfare of the population under its rule.

Human Rights Watch further reminds all governments of the international community of their obligations as High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure that Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement between and within the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, comply with international law and Israel's continuing obligations toward the population under occupation. The United States in particular, in light of its extensive assistance to the government of Israel, should strongly urge Israel to end any measures that violate international humanitarian law and cause severe hardship to the Palestinian population.

In 1996, Human Rights Watch/Middle East issued a report on Israel's closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that discusses Israel's continuing obligations toward West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, including those living in areas under Palestinian self-rule. Human Rights Watch/Middle East has also repeatedly condemned suicide bombings against civilians inside Israel, most recently in a statement issued on July 30.