The United Nations Human Rights Council should use today’s special session on the Occupied Palestinian Territories to help end serious international law violations by all parties to the conflict, Human Rights Watch said today. Of particular concern is Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza, which under the current occupation amounts to collective punishment against civilians.
Human Rights Watch also expressed strong concern about indiscriminate Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza that have wounded at least 82 Israeli civilians over the last 6 months. The Hamas authorities have done nothing to stop these attacks.
“Civilians in Gaza are paying a heavy price as both Israel and Palestinian armed groups flout the laws of war,” said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “Palestinian rocket fire into civilian areas can’t justify the Israeli blockade against Gaza’s civilians.”
In response to rocket attacks on Israel from Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, Israel has sharply restricted the flow of people and goods into and out of the territory. Basic goods and fuel are in short supply and the prices of many items have dramatically increased. The local economy is suffering considerable damage from an export ban, and 80 percent of Gaza’s families now rely on humanitarian aid. Israel has also threatened to reduce the supply of electricity.
On January 23, 2008 thousands of Palestinians in Gaza broke through the Rafah crossing into Egypt. Egypt had previously said it could not open the border, without providing any reasons. Today, President Hosni Mubarak told reporters border guards were ordered to let unarmed Palestinians enter to buy food.
Israel is also arbitrarily blocking and delaying people with emergency medical problems who need to leave Gaza for urgent care, and some patients have died, Human Rights Watch said. Approximately 6,000 people with foreign citizenship, permanent residency, work permits, student visas or university admissions abroad, have been denied exit permits for unspecified “security reasons.”
On October 28, 2007, Israel began limiting supplies of fuel into Gaza, decreasing the amounts of diesel, industrial diesel, and benzene. In November, the Israeli Supreme Court approved the fuel cuts but ordered the state to halt proposed electricity cuts until it could prove that such cuts would not harm services essential to the civilian population.
Intended to pressure Hamas to suppress the rocket fire, the fuel cuts are having a direct impact on the well-being of the civilian population, impairing the provision of essential services, such as drinking water, sewage pumps and hospitals.
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about civilian casualties during military operations involving the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza
“The situation in Gaza won’t improve unless both the Israelis and the Palestinians take steps to change the reality on the ground,” de Rivero said. “The Human Rights Council should stop its one-sided condemnations of Israel and adopt an approach aimed at alleviating the suffering of all affected civilians.”
In a statement to the Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch called on the Council to:
• Urge Palestinian armed groups to end their unlawful rocket attacks on civilians in Israel;
• Urge Hamas to exert its authority to end these attacks;
• Urge Israel to immediately lift its restrictions on the flow into Gaza of medicines, food 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;
• Urge Israel to respect the right to freedom of movement, especially for those who need to travel for reasons of health or education;
• Request the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health to undertake an urgent mission to Gaza to assess the current state of the health system and the impact of the Gaza closures on the health of the civilian population;
• Urge Egypt to keep open the Rafah crossing for humanitarian purposes, ensuring that arms and other military material that Palestinian armed groups might use against civilians are not allowed to pass.
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.
Human Rights Watch said that Egypt has also contributed to the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Gaza by closing its border with Gaza at Rafah. In December 2007, Egypt allowed up to 3,000 pilgrims out of Gaza through Rafah for the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. Two weeks later, after some delay, Egypt allowed the pilgrims to pass through Rafah back into Gaza. Egypt has not permitted the exit of emergency medical cases or students attempting to resume their studies abroad.