GENEVA The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Monday Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip violates the Geneva Conventions and called for its lifting.
The neutral humanitarian agency also urged Hamas Islamist militants holding Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured nearly four years ago in a cross-border raid, to allow his family to have regular contact with him, in line with international law.
Israel's raid on a Gaza aid flotilla two weeks ago, in which nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists were killed, highlighted acute hardships faced by 1.5 million Gazans due to the closure since 2007, it said. They endure unemployment, poverty and warfare, and health care whose quality is at an "all time low."
"The whole of Gaza's civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law," the ICRC said in a five-page statement. It was the first time the ICRC has said explicitly that Israel's blockade constitutes a violation of international humanitarian law embodied in the Geneva Conventions, an ICRC spokeswoman said. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, ratified by Israel, bans collective punishment of a civilian population.
Israel is entitled to impose restrictions on military material for legitimate security reasons, but the scope of the closure is disproportionate, covering items of basic necessity, according to the ICRC.
"We are urging Israel to put an end to this closure and call upon all those who have an influence on the situation, including Hamas, to do their utmost to help Gaza's civilian population," said Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, head of ICRC operations for the Middle East.
The ICRC said Hamas had continually rebuffed its requests to allow its officials to visit Shalit in detention.
"In violation of international humanitarian law, it has also refused to allow him to get in touch with his family," it said.
Under customary international humanitarian law, captors holding detainees must allow them family contacts, while the Geneva Conventions require that they be treated humanely.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa visited the Gaza Strip on Sunday, the highest Arab official to do so since its seizure by Hamas Islamists in 2007, and called for an end to Israel's blockade of the Palestinian territory.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks on Friday with Middle East envoy Tony Blair on the blockade.
Netanyahu said on Sunday Israel would continue discussions with the international community to prevent weapons and military equipment from reaching Gaza and to allow in humanitarian aid, an apparent signal it was open to revising blockade procedures.
"Under international humanitarian law, Israel must ensure that the basic needs of Gazans, including adequate health care, are met," the ICRC said.
The blockade, about to enter its fourth year, was "choking off any real possibility of economic development," it said.
States are obliged to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of all relief supplies, equipment and personnel, according to ICRC which deploys 100 staff in Gaza.
"The Palestinian authorities ... must do everything within their power to provide proper health care, supply electricity and maintain infrastructure for Gaza's people," it added.
Fuel reserves in Gaza, vital for keeping hospital generators running during daily power cuts, keep drying up, it said.
Stocks of essential medical supplies were at an all-time low because of a halt in cooperation between authorities in Ramallah, the Fatah-ruled West Bank, and Gaza, the agency said.
"The state of the health care system in Gaza has never been worse," said ICRC health coordinator Eileen Daly. "Health is being politicized: that is the main reason the system is failing."
Only 60 percent of Gazan residents are connected to a sewage collection system, according to the ICRC which voiced concern that drinking water in most of Gaza is unfit for consumption.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)