(Jerusalem, January 8, 2009) - Israel and Egypt should open their borders to permit humanitarian aid to reach Gaza and to allow civilians to seek safety from the conflict, Human Rights Watch said today, on the occasion of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, addressing the United Nations Security Council.
Earlier this week, Guterres called for strict adherence to humanitarian principles in the ongoing conflict in Gaza, including respect for the universal right of those fleeing war to seek safety in other states.
"There is no place safe from the fighting for civilians in Gaza at this time," said Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It is imperative that borders not be closed to people fleeing for their lives."
During the current fighting, Israel and Egypt have blocked the exit from Gaza of many severely wounded people in urgent need of medical treatment. Israel has permitted only a limited number of critically injured patients to enter Israel since the start of the current military operations. Egypt is also preventing timely evacuations of severely wounded from Gaza, despite pledges from Turkey and Qatar, among others, to receive the wounded at Egypt's Rafah border crossings and evacuate them to hospitals in third countries. Since the current offensive began, Egypt has reportedly let a total of 154 wounded persons through Rafah, including 54 wounded on December 30 and 31, 2008.
"For Israel and Egypt to continue blocking the evacuation of severely wounded people is not only unlawful but heartless," said Abrahams.
Ensuring access into Israel and Egypt for the war wounded as well as patients who received regular treatment outside Gaza prior to the current military operations is a serious concern, Human Rights Watch said. Even before the current fighting, medical facilities in Gaza could not provide many advanced services, such as cardiovascular surgery, neurosurgery, and advanced ophthalmology services.
"We strongly back High Commissioner Guterres' call this week that all of Gaza's borders be kept ‘open' for humanitarian purposes and ‘safe,' and that Palestinians seeking safety outside of Gaza should not be prevented from doing so," said Abrahams. "The UN Security Council should urge Egypt and Israel to keep their borders open to Palestinian civilians seeking temporary refuge."
Beyond fleeing the fighting, civilians are seeking refuge outside of Gaza because of the worsening humanitarian situation. A densely populated area, the Gaza Strip has a population of 1.4 million. One million are refugees, of whom 750,000 are dependent upon the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for food aid. This includes 94,000 particularly vulnerable "special hardship cases," including the chronically ill, the disabled, the elderly, and the very young. UNRWA told Human Rights Watch on January 6 that they and the agency's other beneficiaries last received regular food distributions on or before December 18, when UNRWA exhausted its warehoused food supply.
Israeli restrictions on fuel and industrial diesel have had a particularly grave impact, limiting the electricity that is required for Gaza's hospitals, water-pumping stations, sewage-treatment facilities, and other infrastructure essential for the well-being of Gaza's population.
"The impact of the armed conflict on the Palestinian population in Gaza has been magnified by months of an Israeli blockade that has caused severe shortages of food, water, electricity, and medicines," said Abrahams. "It's crucial that Israel lift its unlawful blockade of basic necessities immediately."
Despite its 2005 withdrawal of military forces and settlers from Gaza, Israel has maintained substantial control of Gaza's land, air, and sea borders.