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(Jerusalem) - Israel should immediately allow humanitarian groups broad access to Gaza and the evacuation of the wounded to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch also urged the UN secretary-general, who is to visit Israel on January 15, to take urgent steps to help alleviate the suffering of Gazan civilians.

Nineteen months of a highly restrictive blockade and two weeks of intense military operations have left Gazans in desperate need of food, water, electricity, and sanitation. Medical care is woefully inadequate to deal with the thousands wounded in the fighting. Civilians have nowhere to flee the aerial and ground attacks engulfing the territory.

"Israel and Egypt need to open their borders to allow a regular flow of food, medicine and fuel into Gaza, and to evacuate those needing urgent medical care," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "A daily three-hour humanitarian ‘pause' is woefully insufficient to help all the wounded and supply Gaza's civilian population, which has already endured severe deprivation for the past 19 months."

According to the 27-page report, "Deprived and Endangered: Humanitarian Crisis in the Gaza Strip," Gaza's civilians are facing dire shortages of food, water, cooking gas, fuel and access to medical care. Human Rights Watch said that United Nations agencies have only been able to reach a small portion of those dependent on aid - which includes more than 80 percent of the population - since the Israeli offensive began on December 27, 2008. The electricity supply has slightly improved in recent days but remains low, and in some places open sewage is spilling into the streets. The ongoing fighting is preventing many families from leaving their homes to purchase food or obtain food aid. Children, who make up 56 percent of Gaza's residents, are especially vulnerable. 

According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, as of January 12, Israeli attacks in Gaza had killed at least 910 Palestinians - both civilians and combatants - and wounded another 4,250. More than 292 children and 75 women are among the dead; more than 1,497 children and 626 women had been wounded. According to the UN, more than 40 percent of the dead and 50 percent of the wounded are women and children.

Israel has taken some positive steps in recent days, but the steps are vastly inadequate in relation to the magnitude of the crisis, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch called on the Israeli government to dramatically expand the humanitarian effort, with more trucks allowed into Gaza every day, more crossings opened, and greatly improved internal distribution within Gaza.

"Gaza was in the midst of a humanitarian crisis even before this fighting started due to Israel's unlawful blockade, aided by Egypt's cooperation in keeping its border with Gaza closed," said Roth. "And now it is facing a catastrophe."

The wounded are getting only rudimentary care from facilities that lack equipment, material and personnel. Hospitals have been running full-time on generators since December 30, when Gaza's only power plant stopped functioning, and in some hospitals, generator fuel is running low. According to humanitarian agencies and medical officials, many patients are needlessly dying because of a lack of timely medical care. A key problem has been the inability to transfer seriously wounded persons out of Gaza. According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, at least 413 wounded were in critical condition as of January 11.

Human Rights Watch released its report just prior to a visit in the region by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will be in Israel on January 15. In a letter to the secretary-general, Human Rights Watch urged him to take urgent steps to help alleviate the suffering of Gazan civilians and to announce an international investigation into alleged violations of the laws of war by both Israel and Hamas.

An international investigation would be an important way of demonstrating that the United Nations is deeply concerned about the fate of victims of this conflict. Because Israel has blocked the media and human rights groups from entering Gaza, only an international investigation stands a chance at this critical moment of uncovering key facts and reducing abuses.

"The UN secretary-general's visit is an opportunity to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the need for protecting civilians," said Roth. "He needs to lean on all actors, protect civilians, and ensure accountability. Only an impartial international investigation can achieve that."

Human Rights Watch also called upon the Israeli government to:

  • Take all possible measures to facilitate the work of humanitarian and medical agencies.
  • Support humanitarian corridors and other measures to facilitate access of medical and humanitarian personnel, and civilians fleeing the fighting. Open border crossings for the evacuation of the wounded out of Gaza. Facilitate the transfer of the wounded to hospitals in Gaza and then, if necessary, to referral outside Gaza.
  • Take all necessary steps to ensure that forces do not attack humanitarian aid personnel and their facilities, supplies, and transportation.

Human Rights Watch urged both Israel and Hamas to support efforts by the United Nations to create areas that have a dramatically enhanced capacity to protect civilians from the ongoing hostilities and to take all feasible measures to avoid military operations near such areas, such as UN schools and other places accommodating displaced persons.

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