GAZA: ‘A clear and present danger to civilians’ - joint-Israeli NGO and experts call for urgent humanitarian action open letter
To: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Defense Minister Ehud Barak
Chief of Staff Lieut. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi
OC Southern Command Maj Gen Yoav Galant
Atty Gen Menachem Mazuz
RE: Warning of a clear and present danger to the lives and well-being of tens of thousands of civilians
Since the beginning of the campaign in Gaza on 27 December, a heavy suspicion has arisen of grave violations of international humanitarian law by military forces. After the end of the hostilities, the time will come for the investigation of this matter, and accountability will be demanded of those responsible for the violations. At this point we call your attention to the clear and present danger to the lives and well-being of tens of thousands of civilians.
The level of harm to the civilian population is unprecedented. According to the testimony of residents of the Gaza Strip and media reports, military forces are making wanton use of lethal force which has to date caused the deaths of hundreds of uninvolved civilians and destroyed infrastructure and property on an enormous scale. In addition, Israel is also hitting civilian objects, having defined them as "legitimate military targets" solely by virtue of their being "symbols of government."
Caught in the middle are 1.5 million civilians in extreme humanitarian distress, whose needs are not being adequately met by the limited measures taken by the army. That distress is detailed in the Appendix to this letter. Its main points are as follows:
1. The fighting is taking place throughout the Gaza Strip, whose border crossings are closed, so that residents have nowhere to flee, neither inside the Gaza Strip nor by leaving it. Many are unable to escape from the battle zone to protect themselves. They are forced to live in fear and terror. The army's demand that they evacuate their homes so as to avoid injury has no basis. Some people who did escape are living as refugees, stripped of all resources.
2. The health system has collapsed. Hospitals are unable to provide adequate treatment to the injured, nor can patients be evacuated to medical centers outside of the Gaza Strip. This state of affairs is causing the death of injured persons who could have been saved. Nor are chronic patients receiving the treatment they need. Their health is deteriorating, and some have already died.
3. Areas that were subject to intensive attacks are completely isolated. It is impossible to know the condition of the people who are there, whether they are injured and need treatment and whether they have food, water and medicine. The army is preventing local and international rescue teams from accessing those places and is also refraining from helping them itself, even though it is required to do so by law.
4. Many of the residents do not have access to electricity or running water, and in many populated areas sewage water is running in the streets. That combination creates severe sanitation problems and increases the risk of an outbreak of epidemics.
This kind of fighting constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare and raises the suspicion, which we ask be investigated, of the commission of war crimes.
The responsibility of the State of Israel in this matter is clear and beyond doubt. The army's complete control of the battle zones and the access roads to them does not allow Israel to transfer that responsibility to other countries. Therefore we call on you to act immediately as follows:
1. Stop the disproportionate harm to civilians, and stop targeting civilian objects that do not serve any military purpose, even if they meet the definition of "symbols of government."
2. Open a route for civilians to escape the battle zone, while guaranteeing their ability to return home at the end of the fighting.
3. Provide appropriate and immediate medical care to all of the injured and ill of the Gaza Strip, either by evacuating them to medical centers outside of the Gaza Strip or by reaching another solution inside the Gaza Strip.
4. Allow rescue and medical teams to reach battle-torn zones to evacuate the injured and bring supplies to those who remain there. Alternatively, the army must carry out those activities itself.
5. Secure the proper operation of the electricity, water and sewage systems so that they meet the needs of the population.
Atty Fatmeh El-Ajou
Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel
Vered Cohen Barzilay
Amnesty International Israel
Dr Haim Yaakoby Bimkom
Planners for Planning Rights
Jessica Montell B’tselem
The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
Atty. Sari Bashi Gisha
Legal Center for Freedom of Movement Dalia
Center for Defence of the Individual
Prof Zvi Bentwich
Physicians for Human Rights Israel
Dr Ishai Menuchin
Public Committee Against Torture in Israel
Atty Michael Sfard Yesh Din
Volunteers for Human Rights
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