Thank you Mr. President,

Even though it withdrew its permanent military forces and settlers in 2005, Israel remains an occupying power in Gaza under international law because it continues to exercise effective day-to-day control over important aspects of Gazan life. Israel has the obligation to protect its population from rocket attacks from Gaza, but it also must ensure the safety and well-being of the Gazan population under its occupation. The irregular breach of the Rafah crossing on the Egypt-Gaza border yesterday by thousands of residents in need does not in itself change Israel’s legal obligations towards that population.

In her statement yesterday, the High Commissioner highlighted the numbers of reported deaths which took place in Gaza in December and early January due to the conflict. Human Rights Watch is likewise concerned by civilian casualties during military operations involving Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. We remind all parties to the conflict of their obligations under international humanitarian law to distinguish between combatants and civilians and to take all possible precautions to minimize civilian casualties.

The strict Israeli restrictions on the transfer of individuals and goods into and out of Gaza – aimed at putting pressure on Hamas – are a form of collective punishment against the civilian population in violation of international humanitarian law. Israel’s decision to limit fuel, and potentially electricity, to Gaza in retaliation for rocket attacks also amounts to collective punishment against the civilian population and is worsening the humanitarian crisis.

At the same time, Palestinian armed groups in Gaza continue to violate international humanitarian law by indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel, wounding at least 82 Israeli civilians over the past six months. The Hamas authorities have not stopped these attacks. Since June 2007, Hamas-controlled security forces have also engaged in torture and other mistreatment of persons in custody, many of them members or supporters of Fatah. In the West Bank, Fatah-run security forces have done the same to members and supporters of Hamas.

The closure of Egypt’s border with Gaza in Rafah until yesterday also contributed to the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Gaza. The sudden breach of the border, a result of humanitarian conditions in Gaza, underlines the need for Israel to lift its restrictions on the flow of essential civilian goods, and for Egypt to keep open the Rafah crossing for humanitarian purposes.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Council to:

• Urge Israel to immediately lift its restrictions on the flow into Gaza of medicines, food and other supplies essential for the well-being of the civilian population;
• Urge Israel to cease all measures that amount to collective punishment of the civilian population, including disruptions to the electricity supply and fuel cuts;
• Urge Israel to respect the right to freedom of movement, especially for those who need to travel for reasons of health or education;
• Request Israel to report at the March session of the HRC regarding the steps taken to implement these recommendations;
• Request the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health to undertake an urgent mission to Gaza to assess the current state of the health system and the impact of the Gaza closures on the health of the civilian population.
• Urge Palestinian armed groups to end their unlawful rocket attacks on civilians in Israel;
• Urge Hamas to exert its authority to end these attacks;
• Urge Hamas to cease the torture and ill-treatment of detainees by the Qassam Brigades and Executive Force and bring to justice those responsible for abuses;
• Urge Egypt to keep open the Rafah crossing for humanitarian purposes, ensuring that arms and other military material that Palestinian armed groups might use against civilians are not allowed to pass.