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(Jerusalem) – Israel should urgently end its unlawful restrictions on desperately needed humanitarian aid and basic goods entering Gaza, Human Rights Watch said today. Security concerns do not justify overly broad limitations on the delivery of food, fuel, and other essential supplies.

Since the end of major military operations on January 18, 2009, Israel has continued to block the entry of significant amounts of food, fuel, cooking gas, and construction materials into Gaza, as well as access by aid workers. The supplies and personnel are needed to alleviate the suffering of civilians, many of whose homes and workplaces were destroyed during Israel’s recent military operation.

“Israel’s major military operation destroyed many lives and dramatically worsened Gaza’s humanitarian crisis,” said Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, who just spent two weeks in Gaza. “Security concerns do not justify the collective punishment of 1.5 million people by keeping out the aid and supplies they desperately need.”

Gaza’s current needs are vast. Israel’s 22-day “Operation Cast Lead” damaged or destroyed more than 14,000 homes, 68 government buildings, and 31 offices of nongovernmental organizations, according to the UN Development Program (UNDP). Thousands remain homeless. The World Health Organization says that almost half of the 122 health facilities it surveyed were damaged or destroyed.

As of February 5, 88 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million people were registered to receive food aid from the United Nations, with many of them wholly dependent on this assistance, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Israel continues to exercise full control of Gaza’s borders and airspace, with the exception of the Rafah crossing with Egypt. While Israel is entitled to inspect goods going into Gaza, any restrictions on relief should be for specific security reasons and not to block genuine humanitarian aid. Overly broad restrictions on basic goods violate international humanitarian law, which restricts a government with effective control over a territory from blocking goods essential to the survival of the civilian population.

The restrictions also violate Israel’s duty as an occupying power to safeguard the health and welfare of the occupied population, and amount to collective punishment against the civilian population, Human Rights Watch said.

Egypt has directly contributed to the worsening humanitarian crisis by restricting humanitarian aid and personnel from entering Gaza through the Rafah crossing, Human Rights Watch said. After opening the border partially during the fighting, Egypt closed it again on February 5. Only Gaza residents needing outside medical attention are allowed to cross, on a case-by-case basis.

Many goods are entering Gaza from Egypt clandestinely through the network of cross-border tunnels that continue to operate, despite ongoing Israeli military attempts to destroy them. Media reports indicate that Egypt may be slowly clamping down on the illegal trade.

Human Rights Watch called on the United States and other influential governments, as well as the European Union and UN Security Council, to press Israel and Egypt to stop unlawfully restricting access for essential supplies.

“The US is the key foreign donor to Israel and Egypt, so the Obama administration should push for civilians in Gaza to get urgently needed relief,” Abrahams said.

Human Rights Watch also called on Hamas to stop interfering with relief deliveries inside Gaza. In early February, Hamas seized food and supplies intended for civilians from the UN and at least one international humanitarian organization, but subsequently called the seizures “a mistake” and returned the goods.

Despite Gaza’s urgent needs and Hamas’s attempts to control aid, Israel’s broad restrictions on the delivery of food, fuel, and other goods appear without justification by any legitimate security concern. Since January 18, for example, Israel has blocked shipments of chickpeas, dates, tea bags, children’s puzzles, and macaroni.

Israel also rejected a water purification system donated by the government of France. According to Gaza’s water utility, as of February 16, 50,000 residents had no access to piped water, and an additional 100,000 receive water every seven to 10 days. Shipments of spare parts are needed before major repairs can be made, the utility said.

De-mining teams have been unable to destroy or isolate some unexploded Israeli weapons because Israel has denied entry for needed materials and equipment, OCHA reported on February 16.

According to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), 60 percent of the 200,000 schoolchildren attending its Gaza schools are without a full complement of textbooks because Israel has blocked shipments of paper needed to print the books. The UN agency said that Israel also blocked the material needed to make plastic bags for food distribution.

Humanitarian aid workers trying to enter Gaza have also faced unnecessary restrictions imposed by Israel. According to OCHA, of the 178 requests it monitored in January from nongovernmental organizations to enter Gaza at Erez, the main crossing for people entering Gaza, Israel approved the entry of only 18 international staff from medical NGOs, followed by a small number of unexploded ordinance clearance technicians.

The UN reported that the average number of truckloads per day entering Gaza reached 117 during the week of February 4-10. This was far below the daily average of 475 truckloads in May 2007, just prior to Israel’s intensification of the border closure after Hamas’s takeover of Gaza from Fatah.

Israel also continues to restrict supplies of industrial diesel fuel used to generate electricity, keeping Gaza’s only power plant operating at two-thirds capacity and exacerbating Gaza’s already severe electricity shortage. Israel blocked all petrol, diesel, and cooking gas into Gaza between February 8 and 14, OCHA said. Electricity cuts contribute to widespread water access problems.

Israel claims to facilitate aid shipments, but Israeli officials have repeatedly said they will not allow any aid that they determine bolsters or legitimizes Hamas. Citing security concerns, Israel continues to prevent delivery of many construction materials, including cement, steel, and glass, which prevents aid agencies from starting desperately needed reconstruction. Israel has also blocked money transfers into Gaza, although it recently allowed the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority to transfer US$43 million to pay the salaries of officials on its payroll.

Israel’s refusal to allow exports from Gaza for more than one year has contributed heavily to the territory’s economic collapse, Human Rights Watch said. In a one-time exception on February 11, Israel announced it would allow the shipment of 25,000 cut flowers from Gaza headed for the Netherlands in time for Valentine’s Day.

“Israel’s choke-hold on Gaza has destroyed the territory’s economy and is having long-lasting and devastating effects on the lives of Palestinians,” Abrahams said. “Hamas’s actions cannot be used to justify policies that harm the civilian population.”

Egypt’s restrictions on the movement of goods and people into Gaza through the Rafah crossing have worsened the situation, Human Rights Watch said. According to Egyptian medical officials, Egypt allowed 1,003 wounded Gazans to enter Egypt for medical care during the three weeks of fighting, as well as the delivery of some aid to Gaza and the entry of humanitarian workers. But Egypt closed the border on February 5 without specifying a date or conditions for opening it again.

The Egyptian government has also detained without charge Egyptian activists who campaigned for the government to open the Rafah crossing. On February 3, the country’s High Administrative Court supported the government’s position that Egyptian activists could not transport medical and other aid to Gaza, and that these could only be transferred “through official channels.”

Hamas has also hindered the delivery of aid and supplies. According to the UN relief agency, on February 3 Hamas police seized over 3,500 blankets and 406 food parcels after the agency’s personnel refused to give those supplies to the Hamas-run Ministry of Social Affairs. Two days later, Hamas seized 200 tons of rice and flour from the agency’s aid trucks at the Kerem Shalom crossing, causing the agency to suspend all aid deliveries. On February 6, a Hamas official said its forces had seized the aid “by mistake.” The agency renewed aid deliveries on February 9, after Hamas returned the aid and gave assurances that seizures would not happen again.

An official with an international humanitarian organization working in Gaza told Human Rights Watch that in early February Hamas had confiscated one of its aid shipments, though it was subsequently returned. Hamas retracted an initial demand that the organization provide information about the Palestinian groups that would distribute the aid.

“Hamas should not confiscate or otherwise interfere in the delivery of aid,” Abrahams said. “Such actions only raise concerns that aid to Gaza won’t reach the civilian population in need.”

International humanitarian law requires parties to a conflict to allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid to the civilian population. Parties are required to allow the free passage of food relief to civilians at risk; starvation of the civilian population may not be used as a method of warfare. A party may take steps to control the content and delivery of humanitarian aid, such as to ensure that consignments do not include weapons. But it may not refuse consent on arbitrary grounds.

Israel remains an occupying power in the Gaza Strip because it continues to exercise effective control over Gaza’s airspace, sea space, and land borders, as well as the territory’s electricity, water and sewage systems. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power is obligated to ensure the health and well-being of the civilian population to the fullest extent possible.

A deliberate refusal to permit access for relief supplies can constitute collective punishment or an illegal reprisal against the civilian population. The prohibition on collective punishment does not just refer to criminal penalties, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, “but penalties of any kind inflicted on persons or entire groups of persons, in defiance of the most elementary principles of humanity, for acts that these persons have not committed.”

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