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Israel/Gaza: Israeli Blockade Unlawful Despite Gaza Border Breach

Indiscriminate Palestinian Rocket Attacks Violate International Law

This week’s Gaza-Egypt border breach temporarily eased the humanitarian impact of Israel’s blockade, but Israel as the occupying power remains responsible for the well-being of Gaza’s 1.4 million residents, Human Rights Watch said today. Gazans remain almost completely dependent on Israel for fuel, electricity, medicine, food, and other essential commodities.

Human Rights Watch also called upon Palestinian armed groups in Gaza to stop their indiscriminate rocket attacks into populated areas in Israel in violation of international humanitarian law. The attacks have wounded 82 Israeli civilians in the past six months.

“Israel’s rightful self-defense against unlawful rocket attacks does not justify a blockade that denies civilians the food, fuel and medicine needed to survive, a policy amounting to collective punishment,” said Joe Stork, acting director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “Gazans can’t turn on the lights, get tap water, buy enough food, or earn a living without Israel’s consent.”

Some Israeli officials have suggested that the temporary breach in the Egypt-Gaza border means that Israel has relinquished all responsibility for Gaza. “We need to understand that when Gaza is open to the other side, we lose responsibility for it,” said Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai on January 24, 2008. “So we want to disconnect from it.”

Israel withdrew its military forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, but it still controls Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters, and land borders – with the exception this week of the Rafah border area with Egypt. Israel is Gaza’s primary supplier of electricity, which is essential for water availability and sewage treatment. In addition, Israel controls Gaza’s telecommunications network, its population registry, and its customs and tax revenues. Israeli security forces have frequently re-entered Gaza at will.

“The sudden opening of Gaza’s border with Egypt has changed, for the time being, only one of the many indices of Israel’s control over essential aspects of life in Gaza,” Stork said. “Israel remains responsible for the well-being of Gaza’s civilians.”

Aside from the fact that the irregular opening of Gaza’s border with Egypt may be temporary, any end to Israel’s legal responsibilities for the welfare of Gaza’s inhabitants would require an end to its effective control over the Gaza Strip, including its territorial waters and airspace, and its tax and customs revenues, Human Rights Watch said. It would also require a new infrastructure so Gaza’s residents can meet their requirements for fuel, electricity, cargo transshipment and the like through harbors, an airport, and over the 17-kilometer border with Egypt.

The border breach at Rafah began on January 23, after Hamas helped Palestinians break through sections of the wall and fence separating Gaza and Egypt, to the west of the official Rafah crossing, which remains closed. Tens of thousands of Palestinians – by some estimates hundreds of thousands – flooded into Egypt to acquire food, fuel, and essential supplies. Tens of thousands more entered Egypt the following day.

On January 25, Egyptian security forces attempted to control the entry of Palestinians from Gaza and re-seal the border, but Palestinians bulldozed a new opening. By the afternoon, the traffic was flowing unhindered again, with Palestinians driving into Egypt in their private cars.

Human Rights Watch on January 24 visited a makeshift market with Egyptian and Palestinian traders in the no-man’s land at the border, known as the Philadelphi Corridor. Palestinians bought cigarettes, cement, fuel, electrical supplies, generators, car parts, farm animals, and other goods in short supply in Gaza due to Israel’s drastic restrictions on imports dating back to June 2006.

Human Rights Watch observed four significant breaks in the border barriers. The largest of the breaches, near the former Israel Defense Forces post known as Salaheddin, was roughly 250 meters wide.

Egyptian border forces in riot gear have tried to maintain order on the Egyptian side. Additional Egyptian security forces manned checkpoints near the city of al-Arish, about 30 miles southwest of Rafah. The governor of northern Sinai, Gen. Ahmad `Abd al-Hamid, said Egypt would not allow Palestinians to travel beyond al-Arish.

On the Gaza side, Human Rights Watch saw uniformed Hamas-controlled security forces and members of the Qassam Brigades, the Hamas militia, in black uniforms and civilian clothes, randomly checking cars and individuals with goods purchased in Egypt. Members of the security forces told Human Rights Watch that they were primarily checking for illegal drugs.

Two Qassam Brigades members at the border told Human Rights Watch that they were not permitting arms to enter, but another said the restriction only applied to persons not known to be active in “the resistance.” The heavy traffic and lack of controls made it impossible for Hamas forces to check the vast majority of individuals and vehicles.

Hamas security forces also established checkpoints at key intersections inside Gaza, checking cars. Human Rights Watch observed them arresting one man, apparently for drug possession.

Since Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority in March 2006, following its electoral victory the previous January, and especially after Hamas captured Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit that June, Israel has made it exceedingly difficult for Palestinians to leave Gaza. Following Hamas’s violent seizure of power in Gaza from rival Fatah forces in June 2007, Israel has arbitrarily blocked, delayed and harassed people with emergency medical problems who need to leave Gaza for urgent care. Some Palestinian patients unable to reach hospitals in Israel or Egypt have died.

Approximately 6,000 people with foreign citizenship, permanent foreign residency, work permits, student visas, or university admissions abroad, have been trapped inside the territory and denied exit permits for unspecified “security reasons.”

It remains unclear how many of these people left Gaza for Egypt in recent days and whether they will be able to travel beyond al-Arish to Cairo.

The border breach occurred five days after Israel imposed a complete blockade on the entry of goods into Gaza in response to continued Palestinian rocket attacks. An earlier breach of the same border, at the time of Israel’s military withdrawal in September 2005, was quickly repaired.

Israeli officials have said they would not allow the blockade to cause a humanitarian crisis. “We will not hit food supplies for children or medicines for the needy,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said this week.

“Israeli leaders have been playing word games, claiming that each new turn of the screw would not create a humanitarian crisis,” Stork said. “But the ordinary people of Gaza – those with no connection to militants – have been living such a crisis for more than a year as the economy collapses, the lights go out, and the sewage overflows.”

Statements by Israeli officials this week appear to acknowledge that the blockade amounts to collective punishment. Olmert on January 24 said: “There is no justification for demanding we allow residents of Gaza to live normal lives while shells and rockets are fired from their streets and courtyards at Sderot and other communities in the south.”

Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said that, “If Palestinians don’t stop the violence, I have a feeling the life of people in Gaza is not going to be easy.”

Israel slightly eased the blockade on January 23 after a wave of international criticism, agreeing to supply one week’s worth of fuel for Gaza’s sole electric power plant, but it limited supplies again soon after the border breach.

Approximately 60 percent of Gaza’s electricity is supplied commercially by an Israeli provider. Egypt supplies about 10 percent to southern Gaza, and Gaza’s sole power plant produces about 25 percent.

On the evening of January 20, the power plant had to stop production entirely due to the lack of industrial diesel fuel allowed in from Israel. Kanaan Obeid, deputy director of the Palestinian Energy Authority, told Human Rights Watch that the power plant had only enough fuel to last through January 27.

Israel’s calibrated restrictions on regular diesel, industrial diesel and benzene fuel began on October 28, 2007, in response to continued rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups. 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 medical and other services essential to the civilian population.

Intended to pressure Hamas to take action against the armed groups, the fuel cuts have had a direct impact on the well-being of the civilian population. Gaza residents are suffering increasingly serious disruptions to their daily lives from power cuts.

According to the United Nations, the electricity shortage caused at least 40 percent of Gazans being denied access to running water and a breakdown in the sewage system. Thirty million liters of raw sewage was released into the sea per day, a UN report said. Forced to rely on generators, Gaza hospitals reduced their services.

The UN World Food Program reported shortages of meat, wheat flour and frozen food. Between January 14 and 20, the humanitarian and commercial foods entering Gaza totaled only 31 percent of basic food needs.

Israel’s decision to limit fuel, and potentially electricity, to Gaza in retaliation for rocket attacks violates a basic principle of international humanitarian law, which prohibits a government with effective control over a territory from attacking or withholding objects that are essential to the survival of the civilian population, Human Rights Watch said. It also violates Israel’s duty as the occupying power to safeguard the health and welfare of the population under occupation.

On January 27, the Israeli Supreme Court will hear an appeal from Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, asserting that the electricity cuts amount to collective punishment in violation of international humanitarian law.

Egypt shares some of the blame for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, having largely kept its border with Rafah closed during the Israeli blockade, Human Rights Watch said. In the future, it should take steps to facilitate the flow of people and goods, especially humanitarian aid and emergency medical cases, while controlling the flow of arms and material used to attack Israeli civilians.

“The past three days prove that Egypt can contribute to alleviating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Stork said.

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