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(Jerusalem) – Donor countries at the October 12, 2014 conference on assistance to Palestine should press Israel to lift sweeping, unjustified restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip. The United Nations Security Council should reinforce previous resolutions ignored by Israel calling for the removal of unjustified restrictions.

Blanket Israeli restrictions unconnected or disproportionate to security considerations unnecessarily harm people’s access to food, water, education, and other fundamental rights in Gaza. Israel’s unwillingness to lift such restrictions will seriously hinder a sustainable recovery after a seven-year blockade and the July-August fighting that damaged much of Gaza, Human Rights Watch said.

“Donors who keep footing the bill to rebuild Gaza should insist that Israel lift unjustified restrictions that are worsening a grim humanitarian situation and needlessly punishing civilians,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “The Security Council needs to condemn Israeli restrictions that are unnecessary for security.”

Israel’s blockade of Gaza, reinforced by Egypt, has largely prevented the export and import of commercial and agricultural goods, crippling Gaza’s economy, as well as travel for personal, educational, and health reasons. The blockade has had a disastrous impact on the health and wellbeing of Gaza’s civilians, curtailing the delivery of food, medicine, fuel, and other necessities. Hundreds of thousands of people have little or no access to clean water. Hospitals, even before the recent fighting, were desperately overstretched. To the extent that the blockade went beyond justifications of military necessity, it constitutes unlawful collective punishment of the civilian population.

Israel has sought to justify its broad restrictions by citing security concerns. Since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, Israel has imposed blanket restrictions banning Palestinians in Gaza from traveling to the West Bank – including to study, work, or reunite with their families – instead of assessing any security concerns with individual checks. Since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, Israel has generally barred imports of steel rebar, gravel, and cement, which it considers “dual-use goods” that can be diverted for military uses. Palestinian armed groups did use building materials smuggled from Egypt to build military tunnels into Israel, but Israel’s security concerns could be met by a monitoring regime rather than a blanket prohibition on imports, Human Rights Watch said.

The hostilities in July and August significantly worsened a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. They left 108,000 people homeless, completely destroyed 26 schools and 4 primary health centers, and destroyed or damaged 350 businesses and 17,000 hectares of agricultural land, according to a UN assessment. Unemployment in Gaza, already at 45 percent, climbed even higher since the fighting, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reported.

Apparent Israeli attacks that repeatedly hit Gaza’s only power plant left it inoperable. Even when it was operating, fuel shortages triggered rolling power outages of up to 12 hours per day; current outages last 18 hours per day. Attacks also destroyed or damaged two major sewage treatment plants and 20 to 30 percent of sewage and water networks, leaving nearly half a million people without running water.

The Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas, based in the West Bank, prepared a reconstruction plan for Gaza that will be the basis for many donor pledges at the October 12 conference, to be held in Cairo. Separately, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is seeking to raise another US$570 million to meet its goal of nearly $1 billion to meet Gaza’s needs.

The only proposed change to Israeli restrictions on Gaza since the recent fighting relates to imports of construction materials for the private market. In mid-September, the Israeli and Palestinian governments agreed to a UN-assisted “temporary mechanism” to transfer construction materials into Gaza and ensure they are used for civilian purposes. Under the agreement, the Palestinian government will purchase construction materials from pre-approved vendors, track the materials from their source to secured warehouses to their destination, and update all information in a database accessible to Israeli authorities.

However, even if the agreement is implemented and achieves its stated goals of facilitating the construction of 5000 housing units and 120 other projects, it will still be grossly insufficient to meet Gaza’s reconstruction needs, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, the agreement would facilitate import materials to reconstruct water, sanitation, and power infrastructure, but does not address the need for a regular, sustained supply of water, fuel, and electricity to function.

The agreement also does not address the wider restrictions on the movement of people and goods imposed by Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. That includes a near-total ban on exports enforced by both Israel and Egypt which has crippled the economy, and a prohibition on almost all Gaza residents moving to or even visiting the West Bank.

“There is no plan on the table that adequately meets the basic needs of Gaza’s population, much less envisions a sustainable Gaza that is not perilously dependent on foreign donations,” Whitson said. “Donors should stop acquiescing to unjustified Israeli restrictions and insist on reconstruction plans that can be reasonably expected to meet Gaza’s humanitarian needs.”

Under international law, parties to an armed conflict that commit violations of the laws of war may be responsible to states or individuals for reparations for damage done. Donor-funded projects were among those destroyed or damaged in the recent fighting; donors should assess the damage caused by unlawful attacks and press the party responsible to pay for compensation and reconstruction. Such reparations could assist in the funding of new projects and deter future unlawful attacks, Human Rights Watch said.

The Security Council and other inter-governmental bodies have long called on Israel to ease its restrictions on Gaza. On August 15, European Union foreign ministers called for “a fundamental improvement in the living conditions for the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip through the lifting of the Gaza closure regime.”

The US government, which opposes the Hamas government in Gaza, has been reluctant to press Israel to lift the blockade. However, the Obama administration has said that returning to the status quo in Gaza would be unsustainable. Secretary of State John Kerry said on August 1 that Palestinians in Gaza “need to be able to ... move freely and share in the rest of the world, and to lead a life that is different from the one they have long suffered.”

The UN Security Council and donors should condemn Israel’s punitive closure regime and press Israel to tailor restrictions narrowly to explicit security needs, Human Rights Watch said. The Security Council and donors should press Israel and Egypt to allow the import of construction materials needed for reconstruction subject to monitoring, reverse the near-total blocking of exports from Gaza, and lift travel prohibitions against Gaza residents who pose no security risk. The Security Council should reinforce previous resolutions calling for the removal of unjustified restrictions that Israel has ignored. It should require Israel to pay compensation and reconstruction costs for civilian property, including internationally funded projects, that Israeli forces destroyed or damaged in unlawful attacks.

“US opposition to Hamas has long been allowed to trump concern for Israel’s punitive blockade of Gaza,” Whitson said. “As Israel’s closest ally and current president of the Security Council, the US should ensure that the current ceasefire translates into genuine relief for Gaza’s civilians.”

Israel’s Blockade of Gaza

Implementing the Ceasefire
The Israel-Hamas ceasefire announced on August 26, 2014, provides an opportunity to end Israel’s punitive measures against Gaza’s civilian population. Israel committed to allow humanitarian aid and reconstruction material into Gaza and to re-extend the fishing zone to six nautical miles off the coast.

Israel made virtually the same commitments after the previous round of fighting in November 2012, but then re-imposed a broad closure. The absence of condemnation from Israel’s US and EU allies has helped create an environment in which Israel can maintain the blockade without cost.

Punitive Restrictions
Israel grants permits allowing Gaza residents to exit through Erez crossing point only in the case of “exceptional humanitarian situations,” according to government policy, and to a small number of businesspeople. An average of fewer than 200 people per day were allowed out of Gaza via Israel in the first half of 2014, compared with 26,000 in the equivalent period of 2000, before the second Intifada, according to official Israeli and Palestinian data compiled by Gisha, an Israeli rights group. Israel has permitted only three students from Gaza to study in the West Bank in the past 14 years. For most of that time, Israel has also refused to process applications of residents of Gaza requesting to join spouses and family members in the West Bank.

In 2010, the Israeli Defense Ministry’s coordinator of government activities in the territories, Eitan Dangot, acknowledged that the purpose of Israel’s policy blocking the movement of Palestinians from Gaza to the West Bank was to pressure Hamas and support the Palestinian Authority.

Egypt’s military-backed government tightened restrictions on the movement of Palestinians through the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai after it took power in July 2013, cutting the number of Gaza residents passing through the crossing by two-thirds, to an average of 6,444 per month in the first half  of 2014, according to Gisha.

All movement of goods from Israel to Gaza takes place at Kerem Shalom crossing point. Israel tightly restricts the types and amount of goods that may enter Gaza, and currently allows construction materials to be brought in by only international organizations. Israel bans the sale of goods from Gaza in the West Bank and Israel.

At various times since Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, Israeli military authorities have limited the “daily humanitarian portion” of food they calculated that Gaza’s residents need, apparently following a policy to “put them on a diet,” as one senior Israeli official said in 2006. Israel has banned or restricted imports of items that pose no conceivable threat to Israeli security, including, among many others: tea, jam, lentils, and other goods it deemed “luxury items”; cooking gas; and radiotherapy equipment and medicines used in cancer treatments. It unjustifiably delayed for months or years imports of spare parts needed to repair Gaza’s damaged and decrepit electricity grid.

Years of Israeli restrictions, and Egypt’s destruction in 2013 of nearly all the smuggling tunnels that had been used to supply Gaza with many commercial goods, had a devastating impact on Gaza’s economy. As of June 2014, more than half of Gaza households were unable to obtain adequate food – even though two-thirds of Gaza residents received food assistance, according to OCHA. The UN reported before the recent fighting that the contamination of Gaza’s aquifer, its rapidly growing population, its decrepit infrastructure, and other factors, meant it would not be “a livable place” by 2020.

In 2010 Israel agreed to ease some restrictions – including on imports of food – under international pressure following the killing by Israeli forces of nine civilians on a ship trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. However, OCHA found that the reforms did not lead to any “significant improvement” for Gaza residents. Some measures were too modest, while others were never implemented. Israel left in place restrictions on Gaza exports to the West Bank and Israel.

Restrictions on Construction Materials
On September 16, 2014, the UN special coordinator in the region, Robert Serry, told the Security Council that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had agreed to a “temporary mechanism” for delivering increased reconstruction materials to Gaza under UN monitoring.   

The agreement’s annex states an intention to facilitate the construction of 5,000 housing units and 120 larger projects, such as factories and schools, over one year. Approximately 18,000 homes are uninhabitable from the recent fighting, and another 5,000 homes that had been destroyed during previous Israeli military operations were never rebuilt. Population growth in Gaza has created a shortage of 71,000 additional homes and 250 schools, according to UN estimates. The agreement would facilitate import materials to reconstruct water, sanitation, and power infrastructure, but does not address the need for a regular, sustained supply of water, fuel and, electricity to function.

The agreement requires the UN and the Palestinian government to satisfy Israel’s concerns that construction materials are not diverted for military purposes, but does not place any responsibility on Israel to ensure that civilian construction needs are fulfilled. Under the agreement, the UN, the Palestinian government, and Palestinian businesses are required to track construction materials at each step – from source, transfer, and storage to end-use for an intended civilian purpose – ensuring Israel’s security concerns are met.

But the agreement grants the Israeli authorities discretion to deny imports to Gaza, and does not contain an enforcement or dispute-resolution mechanism to deal with wrongful rejection of goods by Israel. Nor does the agreement require Israel to increase capacity at Kerem Shalom, the sole operating crossing point for imports of construction materials into Gaza, or address Israel’s other restrictions on Gaza. Under the agreement, Israel effectively retains the authority to determine what can be built in Gaza.  

Israel already requires end-use monitoring for the building materials it allows donors to import to Gaza for humanitarian projects. However, Israel took an average of 19 months to approve humanitarian construction projects, and it froze dozens of such plans for years, according to the UN. If Israel permitted its one commercial crossing with Gaza to import the maximum current capacity of construction materials, it would take Gaza 20 years to adequately address its housing needs after the recent conflict, without accounting for population growth, humanitarian agencies that focus on shelter and housing reported.

A recent EuropeAid evaluation of EU development support to Palestine concluded that the EU’s flow of aid – €2.5 billion over the last five years – “has reached its limits in the absence of a parallel political track” that addresses these and other constraints.

A fundamental change in Israeli policy, rather than exceptional emergency measures, is needed for donor countries to confidently contribute to Gaza’s reconstruction, since unexpected Israeli restrictions undermine international investment in Gaza, Human Rights Watch said.

Restrictions on Exports
Gaza’s economy formerly relied on exports to Israel and the West Bank. After Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, Israel restricted exports, and barred them altogether after Hamas violently retained control over Gaza in 2007. Monthly exports from Gaza during the first half of 2014 amounted to less than 1 percent of levels before 2006.

Since 2010, Israel has allowed only an extremely limited amount of goods produced in Gaza to transit through Israel en route to third markets. It does not, however, allow access to those same goods to Israeli or West Bank markets, in order to “separate Gaza from West Bank merchants, who are allowed to sell in Israel” or to prevent Hamas from “hid[ing] things in the merchandise that scanners can’t detect.”

Donor countries, including the Netherlands and the US, have donated advanced scanning equipment to allow relatively rapid monitoring of goods at Gaza’s border crossing to ensure military materiel is not smuggled in or out. Yet Israel refused to use these scanners to allow Gaza exports, because doing so would contradict Israel’s policy of isolating Gaza from the West Bank, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, which cited “Defense Ministry officials.” 

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