Select Committee on International Development Eleventh Report


1  The humanitarian and security situation in Gaza

The security situation

4. On our last visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories we were unable to visit Gaza because the security situation there was unstable.[3] Eighteen months later we note that the security situation in Gaza has worsened. The Quartet Representative has himself been unable to go there.[4] John Ging, Director of Operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza told us that :

"From January of this year 344 Palestinians have been killed and 756 have been injured, and in those figures are the deaths of 60 undisputedly innocent children and a further 175 children injured. All of the danger that all of that amounts to for the civilian population here is pervasive; it is a reality in everybody's daily life."[5]

He also reported that the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel continues on an almost daily basis and that:

"These rockets terrorise the civilian population within rocket range of Gaza, and over 2,600 rockets have been fired this year so far. That has resulted in three Israeli civilians being killed and over 20 injured."[6]

5. The rapid deterioration of the security situation followed the takeover of Gaza by Hamas and the subsequent dissolution of the National Unity Government formed in February 2007. Under the Palestinian Unity Agreement Hamas and Fatah had agreed to share power and formed a government that included both parties. The formation of the Unity Government was intended to stem inter-factional fighting and persuade the international community to ease the boycott of the Palestinian Authority imposed since the Hamas election victory in January 2006. However the National Unity Government was not supported by the international community because Hamas still refused to accept the Quartet's three principles—to recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements. The Hamas position was known before its election and, while it is clear that acceptance of the three conditions is essential to concluding any final agreement and Hamas must recognise this, the Quartet's insistence on the principles as a precondition for any form of talks or engagement appears to us to present an unnecessary obstacle to practical progress.

6. It is arguable that if this National Unity Government had been given greater international support it could have provided a gateway for greater dialogue and negotiation and at the very least kept the Palestinians united. Instead continued disagreements between the parties and the building-up of Fatah security forces with the assistance of donors led Hamas to take control of Gaza in June 2007. There were reports of a controversial US sponsored plot to oust Hamas from power.[7] Our colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Committee made these comments in their Report on the Middle East:

"We conclude that the decision to boycott Hamas despite the Mecca agreement and the continued suspension of aid to the national unity Government meant that this Government was highly likely to collapse. We further conclude that whilst the international community was not the root cause of the intra-Palestinian violence, it failed to take the necessary steps to reduce the risk of such violence occurring."[8]

7. The international community withheld support for the National Unity Government—itself an attempt to establish a stable and functioning government in the territories—and bolstered one side against the other which increased tension between Hamas and Fatah. This build-up of tension was followed in June 2007 by the violent takeover by Hamas of the Gaza strip. We condemn this takeover which resulted in unnecessary deaths and a deepened rift between Hamas and Fatah.

8. Following the Hamas takeover, Israel declared Gaza a hostile entity and tightened further the sanctions it had imposed since Hamas won the January 2006 elections. This included dramatically restricting cross-border traffic for both goods and people. According to Crisis Group and the Red Cross, Israel prohibited imports of all but 18 basic goods.[9] The border crossings were permitted to operate only at greatly reduced capacity. John Ging, told us that while the smaller crossings were open on a number of occasions, the principal crossing point, Karni, had been closed since June 2007:

"In terms of the medical cases, the Erez crossing is the principal crossing for medical cases exiting Gaza, but the Rafah terminal has also been opened on a number of occasions to facilitate the passage of medical cases into Egypt or the return of those who were out in Egypt for treatment there. When it comes to the humanitarian supplies, the crossing at Sufa is functional for that purpose for food and other humanitarian supplies. The crossing at Kerem Shalom is also operational but, unfortunately, since the recent attack on that terminal—there has been extensive damage done—it is under repair at the moment, and so we are reduced to relying on the Sufa crossing. For fuel, there is a separate crossing, called Nahal Oz, so that is where all fuel supplies come through, when they come through, and the principal crossing point, which is Karni, has remained closed since the middle of June last year."[10]

9. Continued violence between the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and Hamas led Israel to close all crossings from Israel to Gaza including for food, fuel, medicine and humanitarian aid in January 2008 after a series of rocket attacks on nearby Israeli towns from Gaza.[11] This in turn led Hamas to breach the border with Egypt at the Rafah crossing permitting 700,000 Gazans to enter Egypt and stock up on goods.[12] The border was partly closed by Egypt on 28 January, reopened by Hamas and subsequently re-sealed on 3 February.

10. Despite the closure of the borders the violence continued. On 2 March IDF military operations in the Gaza strip resulted in the death of over 100 people including civilians. The UN Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) maintains a database of civilian protection. It notes that,

"Between 27 February and 2 March, 107 Palestinians were killed by the IDF and 250 were injured. During the same period two Israeli soldiers and one Israeli civilian were killed and 25 injured, mainly by Qassam rockets and Grad missiles fired by Palestinian militants towards Israel."[13]

The Israeli NGO B'Tselem notes that among the Palestinian dead were 54 civilians, 25 of whom were children. Oxfam told us that more Palestinian children had been killed in the first three months of 2008 than in the whole of 2007.[14] In the wake of the incursion Israel is reported to have said that this was not an isolated event and that operations against Hamas would continue.[15] Palestinian casualties since the Middle East Peace Conference at Annapolis in November 2007 are estimated at 490. This compares with 396 in the whole of 2007. The number of Israeli casualties since the Annapolis conference is 27. [16]

11. The blockade did not have its intended effect of halting the firing of rockets from Gaza—over 2000 rockets have been fired since the start of 2008 alone.[17] John Ging commented that the impact of the blockade was being felt by ordinary people and not by those firing the rockets. He further warned that the closure was crushing the population in Gaza and having a devastating effect on their psychological state.[18] DFID's view was that the closure was also part of a political strategy to get Hamas to sign up to the Quartet principles.[19] Unsurprisingly, this did not happen.

12. Tony Blair, the Middle East Quartet Representative, told us that he stood by his statement to the European Parliament that the current strategy towards Gaza was not 'clever' and that a new approach was required.[20] He suggested that the truce then being negotiated by Egypt might be such a strategy. A ceasefire has since been announced between Hamas and Israel which began on 19 June 2008, initially for a period of six months. Brokered by Egypt this ceasefire offers a new political opportunity which can be used by all parties to take the peace process forward. If the truce holds Israel has agreed to ease the current blockade which is preventing humanitarian and other supplies from entering Gaza and causing severe hardship. We discuss the implications of the truce for the peace process in Chapter 3.

13. The policy of seeking to isolate Hamas in Gaza has neither improved security nor caused Hamas to shift its position. The pattern of violence and retribution between IDF forces and Hamas militants has resulted in insecurity for Israelis and Palestinians. Innocent civilians have been killed on both sides although the death toll is by no means equal. As we noted in our previous Report, Israel has a right to security but the measures taken to ensure this should be proportionate. We also noted that the actions of both parties were damaging to the prospects for a peaceful settlement. We therefore wholeheartedly welcome the truce brokered by Egypt in June and call on all parties to abide by it and to accelerate the removal of the blockade on Gaza.

14. We also raised with the Quartet Representative the case of Wissam Abuajwa, a student from Gaza who was being refused exit from the territories by Israel to take up his environmental science studies in the UK.[21] We note that Wissam Abuajwa has now been permitted to leave Gaza to study in the UK.[22] Whilst the positive outcome in this individual case is very welcome, there are many other examples of Gazans being refused the chance to take up educational opportunities abroad. Restricting the ability of students to take up education would be disturbing in any circumstances. However, these cases illustrate how particularly unacceptable and counter-productive it is for Israel to adopt these practices in relation to Gaza as the skills and knowledge gained by students being able to take up their studies would both help them to take forward development in Gaza and increase the chances of peaceful co-existence between Israel and Palestine. We recommend that the UK Government increase its efforts to persuade Israel to allow students from Gaza and the West Bank to exit from those territories to take up courses for which they have been accepted in the UK and other countries abroad.

The humanitarian impact

15. The impact of the closure of its borders has been devastating for Gaza. The partial, and sometimes complete, closure of the crossings has meant that basic goods including fuel and medicine have not been getting into the territory in sufficient quantities and people, including those in need of medical attention, have not been able to get out. In April John Ging told us that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was "shocking and shameful". He said the entire civilian population was feeling the effect of the sanctions: "It is a struggle for every family to cope and it is one that they are losing." [23]

THE EFFECTS OF FUEL SHORTAGES AND CLOSURE

16. In written evidence DFID said that the Gaza Power Station was receiving only 70% of the industrial diesel it needed.[24] Evidence from UNRWA documents the reductions in fuel supplies:

"In March of this year 3.8 million litres of diesel fuel and 340,000 litres of benzene was transferred from Israel into Gaza. Compare this with over 9.1 million litres of diesel and 1.4 million litres of petrol that was supplied in August 2007. So in March Gaza received only 23% of the benzene and little more that 40% of the diesel that it had received a few months ago."[25]

17. DFID writes that constant power cuts are damaging electrical equipment and putting an increasing strain on medical infrastructure. As a result:

"There is an increasing need for patients to be referred out of Gaza for treatment elsewhere, as medical services no longer have the capacity to deal with difficult cases. 20-30 emergency medical cases are entering Israel through the Erez crossing each day, and Egypt is allowing some urgent medical cases to be admitted through Rafah. However, a number of patients have died while waiting for permission to leave Gaza for urgent treatment."[26]

John Ging told us that in April the UN had run out of fuel and had to suspend its food distribution for three days.[27] DFID also notes that:

"In Gaza 20-30% of wells are not operating properly due to intermittent access to electricity and a lack of fuel. 20% less water is being produced. 90% of tap water is polluted. Even when there is some electricity the pumps are unable to provide water to high-rise buildings, leading to some households going without water for days."[28]

As a result of these measures public health has been put at risk. Solid waste collection has ceased in many parts of Gaza, sewage is overflowing into lagoons in residential areas and into the sea.[29] Tony Blair commented on the appalling state of sewage facilities in Gaza in his evidence to us.[30]

18. Nine Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups condemned the fuel restrictions in a press release on 13 May 2008.[31] They stated that in January 2008 the Israeli Supreme Court unlawfully authorized fuel restrictions while requiring minimal supplies to be made available. However the severe cutbacks in fuel from 9 April had violated even these minimal requirements.

19. The severe restrictions on the passage of goods have had a cumulative, detrimental impact and life in Gaza is a daily struggle, even to get enough to eat. DFID notes that:

"The World Food Programme (WFP) needs to import 150 food aid trucks per month in order to meet basic Gazan needs. Although it has faced considerable difficulties in recent months, it is achieving this. The collapse of the commercial and agricultural sectors has reduced wages. As of September 2007, 70% of non-refugee households earned less than $1.20 per person per day. At the same time, severely restricted imports have increased the price of almost every imported commodity. As a result 1.1 million Gazans, three-quarters of the population, depend to some extent on food aid. The WFP provides food aid for 300,000 non-refugees, while UNRWA provides food for 850,000 refugees. This covers only 60% to 80% of calorific need. The shortfall has to come from commercially bought items, which have been hindered by restrictions on imports."[32]

20. In March 2008 a group of NGOs published a report which said that "the severity of the situation [in Gaza] has increased exponentially since Israel imposed extreme restrictions on the movement of goods and people in response to the Hamas take-over of Gaza and to indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israel."[33] The report went on to outline in detail the gravity of the situation in terms of the rise of unemployment, the lack of basic medical supplies, blackouts, economic collapse and the denial of emergency treatment outside Gaza. It referred to the situation in Gaza as a "humanitarian implosion".

The responsibility to ensure humanitarian access

21. Israel has obligations under international humanitarian law to ensure the health and welfare of the population under occupation. In its response to the Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee the Government said, "We consider that Israel's obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention 1949 continue to apply in respect of Gaza."[34]

22. Most observers regard the humanitarian situation in Gaza as unacceptable. The joint NGO report noted, "The current situation in Gaza is man-made, completely avoidable and, with the necessary political will, can also be reversed."[35] The Secretary of State told us that the situation in Gaza was bleak and that the closure of the borders was the key causal factor:

"We judge the partial closure of the Gaza crossings since Israel declared Gaza a hostile entity in September 2007 in response to the Qassam rocket attacks to be the principal cause of the deterioration, although other factors, including the ongoing violence, have contributed to the deterioration that I have described."[36]

The UK Government noted that the closures are creating additional costs for donors seeking to meet humanitarian needs. The World Food Programme calculated that these costs would amount to US$6 million over the two years from September 2007 to August 2009 if the borders remained closed.[37]

23. Crisis Group writes that while at times protesting the boycott, outside actors did little to challenge it.[38] Oxfam commented:

"The international community's response to the grave reality in both Gaza and the West Bank has been wholly inadequate. Despite a number of strong statements, the UK government should have acted more robustly, undertaking practical steps, to secure the opening of the Gaza crossing points and address settlement expansion in the West Bank."[39]

24. When asked about the UK response to the situation the Secretary of State said:

"I can assure the Committee that we continue to raise directly with the Government of Israel the concerns reflective of the situation on the ground both in private and public. I and the Foreign Secretary David Miliband have issued three public statements on 11 and 21 January and 8 February specifically related to the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the issue of movement and access that you describe. I can assure you that in addition to those public comments these are matters we continue to press directly with the Israeli authorities."[40]

25. In December 2007 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) published a report on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The ICRC was unusually critical of Israel's policy.[41] It said that Israel's harsh security measures came at an expensive humanitarian cost, leaving those living under occupation with enough to survive, but not enough to live a "normal and dignified life". The report also said:

"There should always be a sound balance between Israel's security concerns and the protection of the rights and liberties of the Palestinians living under occupation. So far, the balance between legitimate Israeli security concerns and the right of the Palestinian people to live a normal life has not been struck."[42]

26. A number of NGOs have accused Israel of pursuing a policy of collective punishment. The NGO Al Haq said,

"Israel's current policy in the Gaza Strip amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip as prohibited under international humanitarian law. In rendering a decision allowing the fuel and electricity cuts to continue, Israel's highest judicial body effectively stripped the civilian population of the Gaza Strip of the protections provided under international humanitarian law, and limited Israel's obligations exclusively to those rules related to ongoing hostilities. In light of the severe distortions of Israel's international legal obligations in relation to the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, the decision can only be viewed as a politically influenced endorsement of Israel's policy of collective punishment."[43]

Oxfam expressed similar concerns:

"The EU has also failed to stop Israel withholding fuel from Gaza's power plant. Oxfam believes the UK and European Union must not be party to the collective punishment of Gaza's population and have obligations as High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention to ensure these restrictions are removed." [44]

27. From its three public statements it is clear that the UK Government does not support Israel's decision to reduce the supply of fuel and close the crossings into Gaza.[45] Moreover the Government acknowledges that the closure is also part of a political strategy to isolate Hamas. In these statements the UK Government expresses its concern about the humanitarian impact of this strategy but often stops short of explicit condemnation of the closures and the restrictions.[46]

28. The Quartet at its 2 May meeting also expressed continuing concern over the closure of major Gaza crossing points and called for humanitarian and emergency assistance without obstruction.[47] By far the strongest statements from the international donor community have come from the UN. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights referred to the Israeli actions as collective punishment.[48] The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Sir John Holmes said:

"Whatever the provocation and illegality of the rockets, the effective Israeli isolation of Gaza is not justified, given Israel's continuing obligations to the people of Gaza. It amounts to collective punishment and is contrary to international humanitarian law."[49]

The EU External Relations Council has called on Israel to "fulfil its obligations to Gaza" in terms of the continuous provision of essential goods and services,[50] while the External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero Waldner also condemned the blockade as collective punishment.[51] Neither the Quartet nor the UK Government has used this term. Nevertheless, we regard Israel's treatment of Gaza as a hostile entity, the scale of the military attacks and the intensity of punitive border restrictions as amounting to collective punishment.

29. Blocking civilian access to humanitarian supplies is an unacceptable practice which should not be condoned. While minimal humanitarian supplies have generally been allowed entry these fall short of requirements. At other times the borders have been closed to all such supplies. We believe the UK Government and the Quartet should not only have more assertively condemned the blockade of Gaza but should have exerted much greater diplomatic pressure on the Government of Israel to lift the blockade in practice. It is clear to us that ways must be found to ensure full humanitarian access and the current truce offers an important opportunity for this. We appreciate that Israel needs to ensure that its security is not compromised but we do not accept that the crossings should be closed for political objectives.

HAMAS' RESPONSIBILITIES

30. As Israel has obligations so too does Hamas. John Ging told us he thought that Hamas recognised its responsibilities and was facilitating humanitarian access for the UN agencies in Gaza:

"The de facto reality here is that Hamas are in control of the security situation in Gaza. Therefore, it is their responsibility, as long as they choose to be the de facto power here, to ensure an environment where the humanitarian agencies can freely operate, and in the case of ourselves they are discharging that responsibility."[52]

31. In April 2008 militants attacked the area near the Nahal Oz crossing where fuel normally enters the Gaza strip causing supplies to be further disrupted.[53] Tony Blair said that he thought Hamas could be more helpful by ensuring that attacks on crossings ceased,

"A strategy of deliberately targeting the crossings at the same time as saying to those of us in the international community that this is a humanitarian catastrophe you cannot really justify."[54]

The Britain-Israel Parliamentary Group has also reported that Hamas has caused some obstructions: "There is evidence that Hamas has exacerbated humanitarian suffering in Gaza in order to create international pressure on Israel."[55] Disrupting humanitarian supplies through attacks on border crossings is also an unacceptable practice and should not be condoned. With the current truce in place we call on Hamas to ensure that rocket fire into Israel ceases and to do all in its power to ensure the safe transfer and distribution of humanitarian supplies in Gaza.

A HUMANITARIAN ACCESS CELL

32. DFID told us that they were considering supporting a UN humanitarian access cell in Gaza which would monitor the crossings, anticipate needs and ensure access for humanitarian goods.

"We are looking to fund up to £800,000 to provide seven plus one UN officials to be on call 24 hours a day, to anticipate when people will need to use the crossings and to make sure that liaison with Israelis is effective, proactive and done in advance so that people can get through. We were particularly concerned about the benefits this could have for emergency medical cases where in the past people have been stuck at places like Erez unable to get across and unable to receive treatment"[56]

The Director of the Middle East and North Africa Directorate at the FCO, John Jenkins, elaborated on the importance of ensuring a UN response:

"To have a practical impact on the ground there needs to be a collective international response, in particular through the UN, which with UNRWA has the most significant international presence in Gaza, and the EU which has the most significant level of donor funding available, together with other willing donors including regional partners like Egypt which has a major role to play in the southern Rafah crossing."[57]

We have been informed that DFID and the UN will fund the access cell although budget discussions are still continuing. It is intended to be operational by October 2008. DFID has written to say that,

"The UN is confident that this will improve its capacity to address access problems efficiently, to improve the flow of humanitarian goods into and within the OPTs, and to reduce the time and resources spent on these issues by humanitarian agencies and NGOs.   The creation of the team does not prejudice efforts to reopen the crossings into Gaza and improve access throughout the OPTs."[58]

We support the proposal to develop a UN humanitarian access cell for Gaza as a matter of urgency. We wish to be kept informed of its start date and its full remit. We agree that it should not prejudice efforts to reopen fully the crossings into Gaza.


3   International Development Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2006-07, Development Assistance and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, HC 114, paragraphs 9--12, 19. Back

4   Qq 114, 117. See also "Tony Blair cancels Gaza trip over death threats," The Daily Telegraph, 15 July 2008. Back

5   Q 3 Back

6   Q 3 Back

7   "US plotted to overthrow Hamas after election victory", The Guardian, 4 March 2008 Back

8   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2006-07, Global Security: the Middle East, HC 363, para 50 Back

9   Crisis Group, Ruling Palestine I: Gaza under Hamas, 19 March 2008, p 1.  Back

10   Q 11 Back

11   "Israel closes crossings with Gaza", 18 January 2008, www.bbc.co.uk  Back

12   Ev 44  Back

13   UN OCHA, Gaza humanitarian situation report: escalation in violence 27 February to 3 March, www.ochaopt.org Back

14   Q 54 Back

15   "Israel warns it will be back as Gaza incursion is finally ended", The Independent, 4 March 2008 Back

16   Number of Palestinians and Israelis killed as a result of direct conflict, December 2007 to June 2008 inclusive. Data from UN OCHA OPT, Protection of Civilians database, www.ochaopt.org Back

17   Q 3 Back

18   Q 26 Back

19   Q 68 Back

20   Q 109 Back

21   Qq 113-114 Back

22   "After eight years, Wissam Abuajwa walks to freedom and to an education", The Independent, 15 July 2008 Back

23   Q 3 Back

24   Ev 46 Back

25   Ev 115 Back

26   Ev 46 Back

27   Q 3 Back

28   Ev 47 Back

29   Ev 115 Back

30   Q 142 Back

31   News release, "Human Rights Groups petition Supreme Court", 13 May 2008. Back

32   Ev 47 Back

33   Christian Aid et al, The Gaza Strip: a humanitarian implosion, March 2008. Back

34   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of the Session 2006-07, Global Security: the Middle East, Response of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Cm 7212. Back

35   Christian Aid et al, The Gaza Strip: a humanitarian implosion, March 2008. Back

36   Q 62 Back

37   HC Deb, 29 April 2008, col 324W Back

38   Crisis Group, Ruling Palestine I: Gaza under Hamas , p 3. Back

39   Ev 84 Back

40   Q 62 Back

41   ICRC, Dignity Denied in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, November 2007.  Back

42   ICRC, Dignity Denied in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, November 2007. Back

43   Ev 55 Back

44   Ev 84 Back

45   Ministerial Statement on Fuel Cuts in Gaza, 11 January 2008, www.dfid.gov.uk ; "Miliband and Alexander express concern over impact of electricity cuts", 21 January 2008, www.britemb.org.il; Ministerial statement on Electricity Supplies to Gaza, 8 February 2008, www.dfid.gov.uk Back

46   Ibid. Back

47   Statement by the Middle East Quartet, 2 May 2008. Back

48   Address by Ms Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Occasion of the 6th Special Session of the Human Rights Council, 23 January 2008. Back

49   "Middle East Peace Process needs changes on the ground to succeed - UN Envoy", UN News Service, March 2008. Back

50   Council conclusions on the Middle East peace process, 2846th External Relations Council Meeting, 28 January 2008. Back

51   "EU slams Israel's collective punishment in Gaza", 21 January 2008, www.eubusiness.com Back

52   Q 25 Back

53   Q 62 Back

54   Q 113 Back

55   Ev 69 Back

56   Q 63 Back

57   Q 64 Back

58   Ev 54 Back


 
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