The humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) continues to deteriorate. The World Bank reports real per capita incomes are now half their September 2000 level and unemployment stands at 53 percent of the workforce. The food program of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has grown from serving 11,000 individuals to 700,000, or more than half of the Palestinian population of the territories. Care International’s 2002 nutrition survey highlighted a number of disturbing statistics. Global Acute Malnutrition for children from 6 to 59 months of age stands at 13.3 percent in the Gaza Strip and 4.3 percent in the West Bank. Global Chronic Malnutrition for the same group is 17.5 percent in Gaza and 7.9 percent in the West Bank. Donor assistance has exceeded US $1.1 billion.
As the Occupying Power, Israel bears primary responsibility for the current humanitarian situation. Under the Geneva Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilians Persons in Time of War, Israel is responsible using all the means at its disposal to meet the basic food, health, and education needs of the Palestinian civilian population. The High Contracting Parties to the Convention, including the United States, have not brought pressure to bear on Israel to fulfill its obligations under the Convention. With war in Iraq looming, a war that may lead to the U.S. accepting similar legal responsibilities as the Occupying Power, the Israeli precedent highlights the human costs of non-compliance with the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Key obligations of the Occupying Power under the Fourth Geneva Convention include the following:
Assuring access to food (Article 50): Israeli closures and curfews have severely restricted economic life in the OPT, jeopardizing the civilian population’s access to food supplies. A recent World Food Program survey found that 81 percent of interviewees were unable to buy milk for their children. Over half a million Palestinian refugees are now fully dependent on food provided by international programs. In recent weeks, however, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the main agency providing for the humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees, has been forced to cut the size of its ration packages due to a funding shortage.
Assuring access to medicine, medical services, and medical personnel (Articles 20 and 56): Israel has prevented the movement of ambulances and medical personnel during the present conflict. Seventy-five percent of health care professionals are unable to report to work regularly. International, Israeli, and Palestinian aid agencies have joined together to call on Israel to ensure respect for the neutrality of health personnel, services, and property. In February, the UN World Health Organization listed nine facilities reporting the suspension of immunization clinics for two or more days in the prior two weeks; a quarter of them reported electrical supply disruptions, though some have back-up generators. On March 4, Israeli tanks stopped an ambulance that was en route to pick up gunshot victims from the Tulkaren Refugee Camp for more than half an hour. Shelling of the Jabalia Refugee Camp damaged two ambulances, broke windows in the health clinic, and injured four medics.
Maintaining educational services (Article 50): The conflict, and the resulting restrictions on travel, has badly hampered the functioning of the Palestinian educational system. In January 2003, 30 of UNRWA’s 95 schools in the West Bank were closed a total of 138 days, 30 more than in December 2002. Schools in and around Nablus were worst affected, with 88 days lost. (Schools were closed for the mid-year break until 10 January). In February, there were 4,146 absences among teachers.
Assuring humanitarian access (Article 59): In the last two years, six UNRWA staff members have been killed. Food warehouses have been destroyed. Humanitarian relief agencies, including UN agencies and NGOs operating in the occupied territories, complain that the Israeli authorities regularly impede freedom of movement and the free passage of foodstuffs and medical supplies. Procedures now require non-diplomatic humanitarian vehicles leaving Gaza through Erez to have a minimum of two international staff members.
Assuring humane treatment for protected persons (Article 27): During Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, Palestinian males in refugee camps, towns, and villages were rounded up, herded into school yards, handcuffed, blindfolded and held without adequate water, food or shelter, and often forced to kneel or lie on the ground, for days at a time. Palestinians are also subjected to inhumane and disrespectful treatment at Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and border police checkpoints.
The nature of the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation, especially the tactic of using civilian suicide bombers to target Israeli civilians, puts intense pressure on the Israeli military in the context of its Geneva Conventions obligations. The Fourth Geneva Convention contains provisions that recognize the security concerns of the Occupying Power, but the Convention is explicit that only “individual person[s]” who are “definitely suspected of or engaged in activities hostile to the security of the State” forfeit their status as protected persons. (See Article 5). Article 33 explicitly prohibits collective punishment, stating “a protected person may not be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed.”
Collective punishment is a common Israeli response to Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians and military personnel, as recently when the military demolished 177 homes in the Rafah refugee camp between March 1 and March 4. The UN Humanitarian Plan of Action for 2003 reports that, “Israeli authorities have acknowledged that denying access to the basic necessities for survival, such as water and medicine, cannot be justified on security grounds.” Yet this practice continues to the detriment of Palestinian civilians throughout the OPT.
While UNRWA and NGOs try to meet basic needs of many Palestinian refugees, humanitarian assistance does not relieve Israel of its obligations. Attempts to engage Israel in a dialogue on means to maintain security, while increasing the movement of Palestinian goods and people, have met with little success. Additional populations of concern include the 150,000-250,000 internally displaced Palestinians inside Israel and occupied Palestine that face similar problems to refugees; families being displaced by the so-called “separation” wall and house demolitions; the elderly; and increasing numbers of disabled that require help regaining mobility.
Today, the global community is focused on the impact of a potential U.S. occupation of Iraq. The failure of High Contracting Parties of the Fourth Geneva Convention to fulfill their obligations or to hold Israel to its responsibilities to displaced Palestinians, suggests that the lives and needs of Iraqi civilians may also be at great risk.
Refugees International recommends that:
High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, in accordance with their obligations, take concrete measures to protect Palestinian civilians in the OPT, and in particular to bring pressure to bear on the Government of Israel to comply with the applicable provisions of the Convention.
Maureen Lynch is the Director of Research at Refugees International.