PALESTINE: Gaza siege causing humanitarian disaster

On October 28, the Israeli defence ministry ordered the cutting of fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, half of whom are children. While Israeli government representatives claimed that they planned to cut supplies by 5-11%, fuel supplies were immediately cut by more than 30%, according to Palestinian officials.

Plans to cut electricity supplies to Gaza have been temporarily postponed by Israel's attorney-general, awaiting the outcome of a petition to Israel's Supreme Court by Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, who argue that the cuts constitute collective punishment of a civilian population — a war crime.

Israel states that the fuel cuts are in response to the firing of Qassam rockets into Israel from Gaza. The Israeli cabinet declared the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity" on September 19 and voted to "restrict the passage of various goods to the Gaza Strip and reduce the supply of fuel and electricity".

Under international law, Israel — as the occupying power — is responsible for the well-being of the population of the Palestinian territories it occupies. The "hostile entity" declaration by Israel was intended to absolve itself from this responsibility.

Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch group's Middle East division, said in an October 30 media statement, "A mere declaration does not change the facts on the ground that impose on Israel the status and obligations of an occupying power".

Since Israel bombed Gaza's only electricity plant in June last year, the people of the enclave are dependent on Israel for 60% of their electricity.

According to a report released by the World Bank last year, Gaza is experiencing the worst economic depression in modern history. Two-thirds of its residents are dependant on the UN for food to survive, and more than 80% of the population are trying to survive on less than US$2 a day.

A serious humanitarian crisis has already unfolded as a result of the siege Israel has imposed on Gaza since the victory of Hamas in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections.

Israel has tightened restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza has intensified since Hamas took full control of the territory following the US-Israeli-backed coup of Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas against the Hamas-led national unity government in June. The outcome of the coup was that Fatah, with Israel's support, took control of the West Bank while Hamas held Gaza.

Since September, Israel has dramatically cut the amount of food, medicine and other essential humanitarian supplies, according to the UN. The number of humanitarian convoys entering Gaza was down to 1500 in September, half the number allowed in in July.

Over recent weeks, Israel has resumed air attacks on the Gaza Strip, and former prime minister and current defence minister Ehud Barak said on October 30, "Every passing day brings us closer to a broad operation in Gaza".