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Gaza-Egypt border witnesses pandemonium and human catastrophe

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(eTN) – What appears to be the gates of “hell” broken open at the Gaza-Egypt border see Egyptians taking control over a mass exodus of Palestinians “stampeding” through the Gaza Strip Thursday. Armed men block droves of women, men and children from moving deeper into Egypt.

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(eTN) – What appears to be the gates of “hell” broken open at the Gaza-Egypt border see Egyptians taking control over a mass exodus of Palestinians “stampeding” through the Gaza Strip Thursday. Armed men block droves of women, men and children from moving deeper into Egypt.

Across this tiny territory, 25 miles long and no more than six miles wide, a deep darkness descended 8pm on January 21st, as the lights went out for each of its 1.5 million Palestinian residents — the latest Palestinian suffering rising at fever pitch, rattling Middle East peace-broker Egypt.

Authorities did not attempt to reseal the breached border with the Palestinian territory. Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said Israel wants to relinquish all responsibility for Gaza, including the supply of electricity and water, now that Gaza’s southern border with Egypt has been opened.

United Nations’ undersecretary-general for political affairs, B.Lynn Pascoe, said the crisis in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel had escalated dramatically since January 15, due to daily rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli civilian residential areas by several militant groups from Gaza, and regular military attacks by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on and into Gaza. There were also tight Israeli restrictions on crossings into Gaza to end rocket fire. The IDF entered the Gaza Strip on January 15 and had been engaged in heavy battle by Hamas militants, including IDF air and tank operations. Hamas claimed responsibility for sniper and rocket attacks against Israel. Since then, more than 150 rocket and mortar attacks had been launched at Israel by militants, injuring 11 Israelis, and a sniper attack killed an Ecuadorian national on a kibbutz in Israel. Forty-two Palestinians had been killed and 117 injured by IDF, which had launched eight ground incursions, 15 air strikes and 10 surface-to-surface missiles this past week. Several Palestinian civilians had been killed in ground battles between IDF and militants, and in Israeli air strikes and targeted killing operations.

The UN Security Council expressed deep concern over the bloodshed, and appealed for an immediate cessation of violence and stressed the responsibility of all parties to meet their obligations under international humanitarian law and not to endanger civilians. Indiscriminate rocket and mortar firing on civilian population centers and crossing points was totally unacceptable. The secretary-general condemned it, adding that such attacks terrorized Israeli communities near Gaza, particularly in Sderot. They also endangered humanitarian workers at crossing points and had occurred regularly since well before Israel’s disengagement, causing civilian deaths and damage, school closures and high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder. More than 100,000 Israelis lived within range of standard Qassam rocket fire. But the UN expressed concern that IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit was still held captive in Gaza, and that Hamas continued to deny the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access and that there were allegations of smuggling of weapons and material into Gaza.

Gaza crossings had remained largely closed since the June 2007 Hamas takeover, except for imports to meet minimal humanitarian needs. Compared with the already precarious first half of 2007, imports into Gaza had dropped 77 percent and exports 98 per cent. Most Palestinians could not exit Gaza, except for some students, humanitarian workers and some, but not all, needy medical cases. Large United Nations construction projects that could bring jobs and housing to Gazans were frozen, because building materials were not available.

The entry of commercial humanitarian supplies required to meet the total humanitarian needs of Gaza was still not permitted, Pascoe said. In December, only 34.5 percent of basic commercial food import needs had been met. It was imperative that both commercial and international humanitarian assistance be allowed into Gaza. Israel must reconsider and cease its policy of pressuring the civilian population of Gaza for the unacceptable actions of militants. Collective penalties were prohibited under international law. UN’s secretary-general strongly supported the plan for the Palestinian Authority to man crossings into Gaza, particularly Karni. Early implementation of that initiative should be a priority, for the benefit of the civilian population of Gaza.

Requests by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to import bullet proof windows to protect its Gaza offices had been denied. To think, the UNRWA delivers a variety of services to improve living conditions and prospects for self-reliance. “It is impossible to sustain operations when the occupying power adopts an on and off, ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ policy towards Gaza’s borders. One example, this week we were on the verge of suspending our food distribution program. The reason was seemingly mundane: plastic bags. Israel blocked entry into Gaza of the plastic bags in which we package our food rations,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd, commissioner general for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

She added: “Without fuel and spare parts, public health conditions are declining steeply as water and sanitation services struggle to function. The electricity supply is sporadic and has been reduced further along with fuel supply over the past days, AbuZayd said. UNICEF reports that the partial functioning of Gaza City’s main pumping station is affecting the supply of safe water to some 600,000 Palestinians. Medication is in short supply, and hospitals are paralyzed by power failures and the shortage of fuel for generators. Hospital infrastructure and essential pieces of equipment are breaking down at an alarming rate, with limited possibility of repair or maintenance as spare parts are not available.”

Living standards in Gaza are at levels unacceptable to a world that promotes the elimination of poverty and the observance of human rights as core principles: 35 percent of Gazans live on less than two dollars a day; unemployment stands at around 50 percent; and 80 percent of Gazans receive some form of humanitarian assistance. Concrete is in such short supply that people are unable to make graves for their dead. Hospitals are handing out sheets as funeral shrouds, added the UNWRA spokeswoman.

On January 17, Israel increased fuel into Gaza pursuant to a petition before the Israeli High Court, but, on 18 January, as rocket fire intensified, it imposed a comprehensive closure of Gaza, halting the import of fuel, food, medical and relief supplies, he said. The Gaza power plant was shut down on Sunday evening, leaving all of Gaza, except Rafah, with daily power cuts of 8 to 12 hours. About 40 percent of the population did not have regular access to running water and 50 percent of bakeries were reported closed due to a lack of electricity and shortages of flour and grain. Hospitals were running on generators and had reduced activities to intensive care units only.

Thirty million liters of raw sewage were pumped into the Mediterranean Sea, due to the breakdown of sewage pumping equipment. Earlier, Palestinian demonstrators who tried to force open the Rafah border crossing were dispersed by Egyptian security forces, and injuries had been reported. Pascoe said the United Nations had been actively involved, through interventions by the Secretary-General and others, in seeking an urgent easing of the blanket closure of Gaza. Today, Israel had reopened two crossings for fuel and the delivery of humanitarian supplies by international organizations, but it was not yet clear whether the crossing would stay open. He strongly urged Israel, at a minimum, to allow for the regular and unimpeded delivery of fuel and basic necessities. Approximately 600,000 liters of industrial fuel would be delivered, with a target of 2.2 million liters throughout the week. That amount, however, would only restore the electricity flow to what it had been at the beginning of January. That could mean widespread cuts in the Gaza Strip. In addition, benzene was still not being allowed in Gaza. Unless supplies were allowed in, the stocks of the World Food Program (WFP), which relied on benzene, would be depleted by Thursday morning.

Amjed Shawa, Gaza coordinator of the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations’ Network, said: “The Israeli occupying forces have imposed a total siege over 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza including preventing the supply of essential food, electricity and fuel. Meanwhile, as this humanitarian crisis develops, Israeli forces are conducting ongoing killings, assassinations and air attacks. All aspects of civil life and its basic necessities have now been paralyzed — surgical operations and medical aid are suspended at hospitals, whilst raw sewage is spilling into the streets, forewarning of an impending humanitarian and environmental catastrophe,” said Shawa referring to the spillage of sewage into the Mediterranean. Thirty million liters is three tons of garbage out to sea.

Expressing concern over this extremely fragile humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, Pascoe strongly urged Israel during a Security Council meeting to allow regular and unimpeded delivery of fuel and basic necessities to the Palestinian area. However, Pascoe condemned the escalation of rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza by Hamas militants into Israel in recent days. He acknowledged Israel’s security concerns in the wake of those attacks, but said they did not justify disproportionate steps by the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that endangered Palestinian civilians. “Israel must reconsider and cease its policy of pressuring the civilian population of Gaza for the unacceptable actions of militants. Collective penalties are prohibited under international law,” he said adding, “Israel must also thoroughly investigate incidents leading to civilian casualties and must ensure adequate accountability.”

Commercial and international humanitarian aid must be allowed into Gaza, he said, adding that in December only 34.5 percent of Gaza’s basic commercial food import needs had been met. Moreover, the Palestinian Authority should be allowed to man crossings into Gaza, particularly the Karni crossing. He cautioned that the current upsurge in violence could thwart peace prospects in what should be a year of hope and opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to reach agreement on a two-state solution.

Yahiya Al Mahmassani, permanent observer of the League of Arab States, said the dangerous and deteriorating situation in Gaza required that the Council take immediate action to put an end to the aggression. Israel must reopen border crossings to allow in humanitarian aid and guarantee the rights and protection of civilians in accordance with international law. He expressed deep concern over the deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation in the area. The Palestinian economy was at the point of complete collapse, because of Israeli practices.

Mahmassani said: “Many Palestinian families were struggling just to survive. Infrastructure, education and health services were inadequate. Palestinians were experiencing increasing social and economic hardship. The forceful seizure and razing of land, the confiscation of homes, harsh limits on transportation and frequent closures were evidence that Israel was ignoring all international humanitarian norms and values. Aid could not reach people in need due to the closures, which could lead to an unprecedented humanitarian disaster in the region that would have severe consequences and would threaten the Annapolis process. Israel’s occupation was the main reason for the conflict. There must be a solution based on international law and relevant Council resolutions.”

Images we are getting from southern Gaza, with men and women pouring into Egypt in order to buy essential supplies such as food and medicines that are nowhere to be found because of days of total closure and black out in the Gaza Strip, are the natural result of inhuman siege, said Luisa Morgantini, vice-president of the European Parliament. “This is the predictable outcome of a policy of isolation, not only towards Hamas, but also the one and a half million Gaza inhabitants, a policy that the European Union has also supported by endorsing de facto the embargo decided by Israel. Hamas risks to become stronger as a result of this situation, not weaker as can be seen by all the demonstrations that took place in the Islamic world during these cold and dark days in Gaza. People pouring into Egypt and people returning to Gaza after forced exile bringing any kinds of goods, show all of us the tragedy of a besieged but never resigned population, a population that has seen women in the front line of the demonstration struggling and being harshly repressed yesterday: these are the non-violent actions that should be supported and in which all Palestinians should gain renewed strength and unity.”

On Saturday, January 26, 2008, a humanitarian convoy of supplies headed by peace and human rights organizations will go from Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beer Sheva to the Gaza Strip border, decked with signs ‘Lift the Blockade!’ The convoy will meet up at 12.00 noon at Yad Mordechai Junction and all will then travel together to a hill which overlooks the Strip, where a demonstration will take place at 13:00. The convoy will contain sacks of flour, food supplies and other essential products, especially water filters. Water supplies in Gaza are polluted, with nitrates at a level ten times the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization.

Organizers of the convoy will appeal to the army for immediate permission for the goods to be allowed into the Strip, and are prepared for an ongoing campaign next to the border crossings, together with a public and judicial appeal; nearby kibbutzim, which are within the range of the Qassam rockets and mortars, have offered their warehouses for storage of the convoy’s goods. A simultaneous demonstration will be taking place in Rome, Italy, as well as demonstrations in various cities in the US, at the initiative of San Francisco-based Jewish Voice for Peace.

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