NEW YORK (AFP) — Israel's blockade of Gaza denies 1.4 million Palestinians the food, fuel and medicine they need to survive, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday, calling it collective punishment and a violation of international law.
The US-based international rights group also said in its annual report for 2007 that indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel by Palestinian militants in Gaza also violate international law.
HRW said that for the first time since the West Bank and Gaza Strip were occupied in 1967, more Palestinians were killed in inter-factional fighting than by Israeli attacks.
"The Israeli and Western economic embargo of Gaza, Israel's almost total closure of Gaza's border crossings, ongoing lawlessness in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and heightened Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement in the West Bank contributed to a serious human rights and humanitarian crisis," the report said.
Israel, which has blockaded the Gaza Strip since the Islamist movement Hamas ousted forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas last June, on January 17 imposed a total lockdown on the impoverished territory, citing rocket fire.
"The general population has borne the brunt of Israel's measure" in Gaza in 2007, HRW said.
It said Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak's decision to cut fuel and electricity supplies to Gaza constituted "collective punishment of Gaza's civilian population in violation of international humanitarian law."
The Israeli cabinet had in September declared the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity" because of continuing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.
Between January and October last year, 245 Palestinians -- "about half of whom were not participating in hostilities" -- were killed by Israeli security forces, the report said.
"The Israeli army's continued failure to investigate civilian death and injury where there was evidence of a laws of war violation reinforces a culture of impunity in the army and robs victims of an effective remedy," HRW said.
Israel also continued to restrict freedom of movement in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem and "to expand illegal settlements in the West Bank," the report said.
"Settler violence against Palestinians and their property continues with virtual impunity."
HRW also said: "Palestinian armed groups, rival security forces, and powerful clans continue armed attacks on one another."
It said the worst violence was last June during fighting in Gaza between Hamas and Abbas's secular Fatah party, which saw the latter routed after an eight-day struggle in which more than 160 people were killed, among them 41 civilians.
"Both sides engaged in serious violations of international humanitarian law, such as torturing and summarily executing captured and incapacitated fighters, including inside hospitals," the report said.
It accused both sides of "unnecessarily endangering civilians by deploying in populated areas during the fighting" and "blocking the access of medical teams to injured persons."
The rights group said neither Hamas nor the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority in the West Bank made "efforts to investigate these crimes or hold anyone to account, further entrenching impunity."
HRW said that despite Israel being by far the largest recipient of US aid, Washington had "not made the funding conditional on Israel improving its human rights record."
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