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Starvation at the Palestinian door

Prolonged closure is having a devastating effect on the territories, charges the Red Cross.

By Joseph Algazy

The roadblocks, prolonged encirclements and restrictions on movement that the IDF is currently imposing in the Palestinian territories is having a seriously adverse effect on the general population, in three areas in particular: economy, health and education, Rene Kosirnik, the head of the Red Cross delegation to Israel, has told Ha'aretz. He noted that until now the traditional family solidarity and the Palestinian welfare services had prevented actual starvation, "But if the current situation persists, this could happen to the most destitute families.".The International Red Cross has recently voiced its concerns about the situation in the territories publicly, more so than in the past. Its representatives in Tel Aviv and Geneva are pointing an accusatory finger at the Israeli authorities, especially the Israel Defense Forces. They have defined the manner in which the IDF has dealt with the Intifada as "restrictive, physical, administrative and systematic steps, and collective punishment which severely violates international humanitarian law, which requires that the occupying power ensure that the occupied population continue to live, as far as possible, in a normal manner, as during peacetime."

The head of the Red Cross delegation told Ha'aretz that the Red Cross representatives visiting last week in the area of the Sudra village near Ramallah discovered that blocking off the only road in the area caused many villages to be cut off. Already last Wednesday, there was a problem in providing medical assistance when a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance was unable to drive through. While the residents succeeded in providing the ambulance with a temporary road, the IDF later dug that road up too.

Another area suffering from being cut off and from the prolonged closure is the coastal strip in Al-Mouazi in Gaza, which is surrounded by the sea, the Egyptian border and a group of settlements. According to Kosirnik, the IDF will not allow a single Palestinian car out of there. There was a time when even the Red Cross was only able to reach the area on foot.

Discussing the negative economic impact on the population, Kosirnik noted that people have difficulty or are unable to reach their places of work. There is no way of knowing if a particular road will be open or closed to Palestinian traffic. A one-way trip from Nablus to Ramallah that took 45 minutes before the current Intifada now takes two or three hours, if it is at all possible.

Farmers are unable to work remote fields or market their produce, and sometimes they are forced to walk to market, carrying their produce on their backs. The Israel market is closed to them and the internal Palestinian market is very weak because of the general lack of income. People have been forced to use up their reserves. The situation is growing increasingly worse, and could even lead to starvation.

The small amount of material assistance recently extended by the Red Cross to besieged villages has three goals: to help those in need, to remain in contact with the suffering population, and to send a message to the Israeli authorities concerning the existence of a serious problem. Ambulances encounter difficulties at roadblocks when transferring patients, doctors, nurses and medical equipment. Teachers are unable to reach schools located outside their own towns or villages. High school and university students miss school days. The roads have become dangerous because of acts of violence from both sides.

Kosirnik noted that according to international law, as the occupying force, Israel may restrict the movement of the civilian population on condition that the restriction is required for military reasons for a very limited period, that it does not adversely affect the day-to-day lives of the civilian population and does not represent collective punishment. The military and policing steps must be adapted to the circumstances.

The high number and continuing casualties indicate a dramatic escalation in the use of force by the IDF towards the civilian Palestinian population. Assassinations are absolutely forbidden. If it is necessary from a military or police aspect to take someone prisoner, it is only permitted to arrest him.

"It is clear that some of the reasons of violence cannot be explained or justified as a military necessity, for example a person killed in his bed, at the entrance to his home, in his field or car."

Already in the second month of the Intifada, last November, the Red Cross determined that the presence of the Israeli settlements in the territories was impacting harshly on the general Palestinian population and is contrary to the fourth Geneva Conference.

The Red Cross has so far been cautious not to define certain actions by the IDF and Israel as "war crimes" because it does not consider itself a judging agency. Human rights organizations and international media, on the other hand, have accused the IDF of committing war crimes. The killing of a civilian or the transfer of a civilian population by the occupying force to the occupied territory - in other words the settlements - are defined as war crimes. In their view, a considerable proportion of the steps taken by the IDF in the territories - such as the confiscation of Palestinian land, the paving of bypass roads, restrictions of Palestinian traffic in the areas near the settlements - are not being carried out by the IDF to protect itself, but rather to protect the settlements. The settlements and the settlers are a political problem that the Israeli authorities are trying to solve by using military means, they say.

The head of the Red Cross delegation noted that his organization condemns all attacks against civilians in Israel, such as the recent terror bombing in Netanya, considering them "terrorist actions which are absolutely and unconditionally forbidden," just as it condemns indiscriminate collective punishment of the Palestinian population.

Kosirnik also complained about the problem of visits by relatives of prisoners that live on the West Bank (not Gaza) in Israeli prisons, which were stopped at the beginning of the Intifada. After they were renewed three weeks ago, they were again halted by the Red Cross because in Kosirnik's view "the conditions of passage were unbearable." Today negotiations are being conducted to find a solution to this humanitarian problem.

Last week Kosirnik met with the families of the Israeli soldiers being held by the Hezbollah. "The families expressed their concern, suffering, frustration and hopes," he related, "and I told them in response that the Red Cross maintained frequent contact with the Lebanese government and the Hezbollah in the matter concerning their loved ones."

During the conversation, he told the families that Red Cross representatives visit Lebanese prisoners held in Israel, except for two: Mustafa Dirani and Sheikh Abd al Karim Obeid

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