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(Jerusalem) - International donors to Gaza's reconstruction and development should call on Israel to end its punishing blockade of the territory and to allow needed humanitarian assistance and normal commerce to resume, Human Rights Watch said today. Even after the enormous war damage to civilian life in Gaza, Israel continues to block desperately needed aid from entering the territory and to strangle Gaza's economy.

Representatives of prospective donor countries are convening in the Egyptian Sinai resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh on March 2, 2009, for a one-day conference. Human Rights Watch said that ending the blockade was absolutely critical to any prospects for reconstruction and economic recovery. Among those attending will be the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, Javier Solana.

"All the pledges of aid this conference is expected to produce will be worth next to nothing if the donors do not demand that Israel open the borders to commercial goods as well as humanitarian essentials," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "This unlawful blockade is the primary impediment to reconstruction and to the economic activity that is essential to any society."

Israel effectively controls Gaza's borders and airspace. Human Rights Watch said that the blockade, which has been in place since June 2007, after Hamas took control of Gaza, amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population, a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Israeli restrictions on the entry of goods should be strictly limited to weapons and items whose direct military potential clearly outweigh their civilian usage.

According to the United Nations, Gaza needs a minimum of 500 truckloads of humanitarian aid and commercial goods every day. Israeli authorities have told humanitarian agencies that they would allow up to 150 truckloads a day. However, the actual number has not exceeded 120, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The average in February has only been between 88 and 104, including grain shipped by conveyor belt at the Karni crossing.

Aid workers with operations in Gaza told Human Rights Watch that Israeli procedures since major hostilities ceased were making it virtually impossible to plan for aid deliveries more than 24 hours in advance. On several occasions Israeli authorities refused to allow passage of pre-scheduled aid shipments hours before they were supposed to arrive, they said.

Israel continues to block goods on trucks from entering Karni, the one border crossing point with sophisticated security screening equipment and the capacity to handle up to 750 trucks per day. Sufa crossing, which can also accommodate trucks on a smaller scale, also remains closed. Instead, Israel requires all trucks to enter through Kerem Shalom, located near Gaza's southern tip, where every item on trucks must be unloaded, inspected, repackaged and reloaded, with a "handling fee" of US$1,000 per truck.

In the weeks since heavy fighting ceased on January 18, Israel has arbitrarily refused entry to items like chickpeas, macaroni, wheat flour, notebooks for students, freezer appliances, generators and water pumps, and cooking gas, OCHA said.

Human Rights Watch researchers in Gaza observed several areas - including eastern Jabalya (Izbt Abd Rabbo neighborhood), Juhr al-Dik, Khuza`a, and al-Atatra - that had suffered extensive damage to homes and civilian objects during Israeli military operations that began on December 27, 2008. Across Gaza, researchers observed the wide-scale destruction of greenhouses and agricultural land, destroyed factories, a hospital burned by fire from white phosphorus shells, and the bombed Ministry of Justice building.

In total, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that the fighting in December and January damaged or destroyed 14,000 homes, 219 factories, 240 schools, and 31 nongovernmental organizations. Gaza's electricity generator sustained US $10 million in damage, and the water utility $6 million.

Restrictions on humanitarian aid and commerce need to be targeted, and not so broad as to block the movement of ordinary civilian goods, Human Rights Watch said. Israel has provided no security or other justification for its refusal to allow goods to enter or leave Gaza via the Karni crossing, or for its strict limits on what is allowed in and in what quantities. Nor has Israel provided any security rationale for its complete ban on any exports from Gaza for more than a year, with the exception of a one-time shipment of flowers to Europe in mid-February.

"If Gaza business people can ship one truckload of flowers for Valentine's Day, why can't they export flowers, or strawberries and oranges, every day?" Roth said. "Israel's blockade policy can be summed up in one word and it is punishment, not security."

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