Israel’s cuts of fuel and electricity to Gaza, set to escalate today, amount to collective punishment of the civilian population, and violate Israel’s obligations under the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today.
These cuts, which Israel says are intended to pressure Palestinian armed groups to end their unlawful rocket attacks against civilians in southern Israel, are having a grave impact on Gaza’s hospitals, water-pumping stations, sewage-treatment facilities, and other infrastructure essential for the well-being of Gaza’s population.
Starting today, Israel will reduce the electricity it sells directly to Gaza by 1.5 megawatts over the next three weeks. This adds to a series of Israeli measures since 2006 that have caused a 20 percent shortfall in Gaza’s electricity needs. The Israeli Supreme Court approved the most recent cuts last week, rejecting a petition by 10 Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups.
“Israel views restricting fuel and electricity to Gaza as a way to pressure Palestinian armed groups to stop their rocket and suicide attacks,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But the cuts are seriously affecting civilians who have nothing to do with these armed groups, and that violates a fundamental principle of the laws of war.”
Human Rights Watch said that indiscriminate Palestinian rocket and suicide bomb attacks against Israeli civilians constitute war crimes, but Israel’s attempts to suppress those attacks must not also violate international humanitarian law.
Israeli officials have implicitly acknowledged that the fuel and electricity cuts amount to collective punishment. “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,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on January 24.
Morever, Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said on January 18: “If Palestinians don’t stop the violence, I have a feeling the life of people in Gaza is not going to be easy.”
Israel normally sells to Gaza 120 megawatts of electricity per day, delivered by 10 feeder lines across the border. Gaza’s sole power plant currently produces 55 megawatts. Its full capacity is 100 megawatts, but a 2006 Israeli Air Force attack and subsequent fuel restrictions have prevented the plant from operating at capacity. An additional 17 megawatts come from Egypt.
The electricity that Israel sells to Gaza is paid for by taxes that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. In addition, the Israeli company Dor Alon sells the industrial fuel on which Gaza’s power plant depends. The funds for these purchases come from the European Union.
According to the United Nations, Gaza requires roughly 240 megawatts of power per day during the winter. The 48 megawatt deficit has forced the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company to institute rolling blackouts of up to eight hours per day in most areas. In addition to private homes, these blackouts affect hospitals, water pumps, schools and sewage-treatment facilities without distinction. Further cuts of industrial diesel fuel for Gaza’s power plant will make the deficit grow.
During power outages, hospitals and health clinics rely on generators that require regular diesel fuel, as do residential buildings. Restrictions on the supply of diesel in recent months and prohibitively high prices have limited the use of generators. Citing security concerns, Israel has restricted the import of spare parts to repair overused generators. At Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital, power surges following outages have caused equipment to break.
The problems have been exacerbated by a strike of the Gaza Petrol Station Owners Union, which from January 16 to February 5 refused to distribute some fuel sold by Israel out of protest to the cuts. The union deputy head told Human Rights Watch that, while they blocked delivery of gasoline for cars and regular diesel, which would affect generator use, they did not restrict cooking gas or the industrial diesel fuel used by the power plant. He said the union also delivered diesel fuel as fast as possible to all hospitals that requested it, but poor communication and mismanagement of government institutions at times made delivery difficult.
The authorities in Gaza also have obligations to ensure the well-being of the civilian population under its control, including facilitating the delivery of humanitarian supplies, Human Rights Watch said.
Israel claims the cuts are not depriving Palestinians in Gaza of their “essential humanitarian needs.” But Human Rights Watch, as well as major humanitarian agencies, says that civilians are paying a heavy price.
According to the UN’s top humanitarian official, UN Deputy Secretary-General John Holmes, Gaza in October already faced a “serious humanitarian crisis.” On January 29, the United Nations said that border closures and fuel and electricity cuts have had the following effects in Gaza:
• The World Food Program was unable to provide full food rations to 84,000 of its poorest beneficiaries;
• Around 50 percent of households in Gaza had access to running water for only four to six hours per day; and
• Due to a partially functioning wastewater system, up to 40 million liters of untreated sewage were being dumped daily into the Mediterranean Sea.
On January 25, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called the humanitarian situation in Gaza “critical.” A health worker for the ICRC said hospitals in Gaza were cold because the heating units had been switched off to conserve fuel, and the gas to cook meals for patients and staff was running low. One patient on a ventilator at Ahli Arab hospital died while the hospital switched from the power plant to its generator during a blackout.
A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) on January 21 expressed deep concern. “Whilst the frequency of electricity cuts and limited power available to run hospital generators is extremely serious for all hospital services, its impact is particularly felt in intensive care units, operation theatres and emergency rooms,” the report said. As of January 21, three out of the 11 Ministry of Health hospitals were facing “severe shortages of fuel,” the WHO said.
On February 6, Human Rights Watch visited the al-Nasser Pediatric Hospital and the Psychiatric Hospital in Gaza City. Both facilities were facing average daily blackouts of nine hours, forcing them to rely on backup generators. The pediatric hospital had enough diesel fuel to run its generator for nine hours. The psychiatric hospital had enough fuel for four hours of generator use.
On January 25, the pediatric hospital ran out of diesel fuel entirely, the director said. The hospital had to close the X-ray department, diagnostic lab, and its four general pediatric wards, keeping open only the intensive care unit and the department with incubators, thanks to a smaller reserve generator.
A diesel truck that the hospital uses to transport food, laundry, and blood samples has not been in operation for the past week, the director said.
The deputy head of the petrol station owners’ union said the hospital had not contacted the union to request a delivery.
“The impact on civilians in Gaza is clear,” Stork said. “Children, the mentally ill, and others with no connection to armed groups are suffering from the Israeli cuts and mismanagement by Gaza authorities amidst the confusion, and at least one person has died.”
Israel’s pressure on Gaza’s civilians began after Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority in March 2006, following its electoral victory the previous January. Since then, Israel has increasingly limited the flow of people and goods into and out of the territory.
Israel further clamped down on the movement of goods and people after Hamas violently seized power in Gaza from Fatah in June 2007. Israel also imposed restrictions on people with emergency medical needs who need care only available outside Gaza. The border closures have forced 85 percent of Gaza’s factories to close or to operate at less than 20 percent of their capacity, frozen 95 percent of construction projects, and driven unemployment to record highs. Eighty percent of the population relies on food aid.
The Israeli government says the border closures and fuel and electricity cuts are in response to ongoing indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel by Palestinian armed groups. On February 3, in the first suicide attack in a year, a suicide bomber from Hamas killed a 73-year-old Israeli woman and injured 11 in a shopping area in the town of Dimona. Israel retaliated the next day by killing nine Hamas militants in Gaza.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned suicide-bombing attacks that target civilians as war crimes.
According to the latest statistics provided by the United Nations, during the third week of January, Palestinian armed groups in Gaza fired 147 Qassam rockets and 82 mortars toward Israel, injuring three Israeli civilians. During that same time, Israeli military operations from the ground and air killed 23 Palestinians and wounded 70 inside Gaza. At least seven of the dead and 40 of the wounded were civilians, although the information from the UN was inadequate to determine whether those casualties resulted from any Israeli violations of international humanitarian law.
Human Rights Watch said that cutting fuel or electricity to the civilian population violates a basic principle of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which prohibit a government that has effective control over a territory from attacking or withholding objects that are essential to the survival of the civilian population. Such an act would also violate Israel’s duty as an occupying power to safeguard the health and welfare of the population under occupation.
Israel withdrew its military forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Nonetheless, Israel remains responsible for ensuring the well-being of Gaza’s population for as long as, and to the extent that, it retains effective control over the area. Israel still exercises control over Gaza’s airspace, sea space and land borders, as well as its electricity, water, sewage and telecommunications networks and population registry. In addition, Israeli military forces can and have re-entered Gaza at will.
Article 55 of the Fourth Geneva Convention places a duty on an occupying power to ensure the food and medical supplies of the population, as well as to permit and facilitate the consignments of humanitarian relief. In the conduct of a conflict, each party must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief to civilians. A deliberate refusal to permit access to these supplies in response to military action can constitute collective punishment or an illegal reprisal against the civilian population.
Collective punishments are prohibited as a matter of customary international law in all forms of conflict. Under article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs occupations, collective punishments and all measures of intimidation are explicitly prohibited. Reprisals against civilians and their property are also prohibited under both customary law and the Fourth Geneva Convention.
“Israel should understand the danger of policies that appear to justify the targeting of civilians,” Stork said. “Having suffered so much from such attacks, it should reject anything that suggests that the targeting of civilians is acceptable.”
Israel’s Energy-Supply Cuts to Gaza
Israel’s policy of reducing Gaza’s electricity began in June 2006, after a Palestinian armed group from Gaza captured the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. On June 28, the Israeli Air Force fired eight missiles at Gaza’s sole power plant, rendering the plant’s six transformers inoperable. Israel subsequently delayed or blocked the delivery of material needed to repair the plant. Today, the plant is capable of producing at 80 percent of its former capacity (80 megawatts per day out of an original capacity of 100 megawatts).
The pressure intensified after Hamas took control of Gaza by force in June 2007. On September 19, the Israeli cabinet declared Gaza a “hostile territory” and decided to restrict “the passage of people to and from Gaza” and to reduce supplies of fuel and electricity.
On October 28, a group of 10 Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, seeking an injunction against the fuel and electricity cuts, which they said, among other concerns, amounted to collective punishment. The court rejected the injunction request as it applied to deliveries of fuel, and Israel began to reduce its deliveries of EU-funded diesel fuel to the power plant from 2.2 million liters per week to 1.75 million liters. At the time, the power plant had 3.5 million liters of reserves to compensate for the reduced supply in diesel fuel.
On November 29, in an interim decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the fuel cuts could continue because they would not cause a humanitarian crisis. At the same time, it requested more information from the state before the electricity cuts could proceed.
On January 5, the low level of industrial diesel fuel reserves at the power plant forced a reduction in output. On January 18, following a surge in fighting between Israeli forces and armed Palestinian groups, Israel fully closed its borders with Gaza, denying the delivery of all food, medicine, and fuel, including humanitarian aid. On January 20, the reserves ran out and the plant stopped production altogether for two days. Two days later, the plant restarted at partial capacity after Israel allowed restricted fuel and limited humanitarian deliveries. On January 23, Hamas helped Palestinians break through sections of the wall and fence separating Gaza and Egypt, to the west of Rafah, allowing tens of thousands of Palestinians to flood into Egypt, where they bought goods, many of them essential, including fuel. Egyptian forces, with cooperation from Hamas, resealed the border on February 3.
The temporary border breach did not change Gaza's near-total dependence on Israel for fuel and electricity, nor could it, given the time it takes to develop alternative energy supplies. Israel still allows fuel deliveries to come only through its Nahal Oz crossing with Gaza.
On January 30, the Supreme Court issued its final ruling on the human rights groups’ petition, saying the fuel and electricity cuts could proceed, because it understood that the state was going to “fulfil the essential humanitarian needs in the Gaza Strip.”
The ruling garnered little media coverage in Israel because that same day the Winograd Commission, which looked into Israel’s conduct of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, released its much-anticipated final report.
The Supreme Court ruling said the state could do the following:
• Order a reduction of up to 5 percent on three of 10 power lines (1.5 megawatts total) in the electricity sold to Gaza by Israel’s electric company;
• Restrict the amount of industrial diesel for Gaza’s power plant to 2.2 million liters a week (the plant needs 3.5 million liters per week to operate at capacity);
• Cut supplies of gasoline to Gaza to 75,400 liters a week (compared with 400,000 liters a week delivered in October 2007); and
• Cut supplies of diesel fuel to 800,000 liters a week (compared with 1.4 million in October 2007).
The Supreme Court accepted without challenge the state’s proposal to maintain a “minimum humanitarian standard,” which has no basis in international humanitarian law. Israel has never defined what constitutes Gaza’s minimum humanitarian needs, nor how it will determine if those needs were not being met. The government’s proposal is also not the appropriate standard for such a long-term occupation as Gaza’s.
The court had said that two Palestinian utility officials, Rafiq Maliha, project manager at Gaza’s Power Generating Company, and Nedal Touman, an official from Gaza’s Electrical Distribution Company, could testify at the January 30 hearing regarding the affidavits they had submitted about the effects of the cuts on their operations. But on that day, the Israeli military prevented them from crossing into Israel in time to testify.
Rafiq Maliha told Human Rights Watch that both men arrived at the Erez crossing at 7:30 a.m. on the day of the hearing, but they were not allowed to cross into Israel until 11:30 a.m.
“When we arrived in Jerusalem, the court session was over and we were unable to give our testimonies,” Maliha said. “We were going to show the court the needs of the station from a technical side and explain for them that the amounts of fuel are insufficient for normal functioning of the station.”