What provision has the IDF made to help civilians in Gaza?

It was announced today (after a phone call Tuesday night between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert), that the IDF would stop attacking Gaza for three hours today, and perhaps daily, in order to address what was finally recognized Tuesday as a “full-blown humanitarian crisis” (in the words of the ICRC), or the “dire” humanitiarian situation in Gaza (as the U.S. State Department Spokesman called it).

It wasn’t initially clear exactly how that would be done.

Would the three hours “humanitarian” cease-fire be at the same time each day, or at different times daily (and, if so, how would people in Gaza be reliably notified)? Would it be a cease-fire in one area of Gaza only, per day, or would it be all throughout the Gaza Strip? And, as Dion Nissenbaum wrote today in an article for the McClatchy newspaper group, here , “It remained unclear whether Palestinians would feel safe enough to venture from their homes to try to find supplies”.

A few hours later, the Jerusalem Post reported that “”It was decided that the fighting would be suspended between 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. every day, beginning today, for the sake of humanitarian needs,” Military spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich said”. This can be viewed on the web here.

UPDATE: However, a subsequent AP report cast doubt on the daily nature of this arrangement: “Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said the ‘recess in offensive operations’ was aimed at allowing in supplies and fuel and would last from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m local time (6 a.m. to 9 a.m. EST). He said similar lulls in the coming days would be considered. However, Lerner said that even during the pause ‘for every attack against the army, there will be a response’.”

ThIs AP report added that “In the meantime [n.b. – and despite all the discussions about diplomats supposedly getting in gear to arrange a cease-fire], Israel has been making preparations to continue fighting. The military has called up thousands of reserve troops that it could use to expand the Gaza offensive, supporting the three brigade-size formations of regular troops now inside. Defense officials said the troops could be ready for action by Friday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the army’s preparations are classified“. This report can be read in full here.

AND ONE QUESTION ON THIS UPDATE: Were the international donors ready on short notice to send in maximum possible and best-targetted supplies today?

LATER UPDATE: According to Prime Minister Olmert’s media adviser yesterday, and “in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip”, PM Olmert “has decided to adopt a security establishment proposal to establish a humanitarian corridor in the Strip to assist the population. This would entail opening geographic areas for certain periods of time during which the population would be able to equip itself and receive the assistance. The exact details will be determined by the Coordinator of [Israeli] Government Activities in the Territories”. COGAT sent these details late today: “Following the decision of the Israeli political echelon, as of today (Wednesday, 7 January 2009) the IDF will refrain from fire throughout Gaza City for a period of three hours, in order to enable a ‘humanitarian respite’ for the people within the area of operation. This activity is scheduled to be implemented on a bi-daily basis. During this time, the Palestinians will be able to acquire basic necessities, replenish stock and seek aid from the various international organizations operating within the Gaza Strip. Today, Wednesday, the IDF will halt all fire in Gaza City from 13:00-16:00 (1:00-4:00 pm)”.

So, it now appears that this will happen only every other day. And, it also appears that the Palestinians are, again, being left to fend for themselves, in a chaotic and live-threatening situation.

Today, according to COGAT, “The second component of the humanitarian effort will enable approximately 80 trucks carrying medicine, medical supplies and basic food commodities to pass into Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing and approximately half a million liters of heavy duty diesel are scheduled to pass through the Nahal Oz terminal, as well as 60,000 liters of fuel to be transferred for the first time by truck via the Kerem Shalom crossing”.

This “respite” has just ended about 15 or 20 minutes ago here, and Israel Radio is quoting Reuters as saying that fighting has already resumed…

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) later issued a statement saying that “The creation of humanitarian corridors will in no way alter the fact that civilians living outside them must also have access to humanitarian aid and medical care at all times. Moreover, ambulances, technicians maintaining vital services such as electricity and water networks, and humanitarian workers must be allowed to carry out their life-saving work throughout the Gaza Strip”.

The ICRC statement also said that “obtaining access to the wounded remains difficult and is the highest priority in the Gaza Strip … No ICRC-escorted ambulance runs coordinated with the warring parties managed to reach the areas where desperate families were waiting for help”.

UPDATE: The New York Times reported from Paris on 8 January that the ICRC has used the ultimate weapon in its arsenal overnight, by issuing a statement saying that by refusing to allow prompt evacuation of the wounded in the Zeitoun neighborhood east of Gaza City, to which the ICRC had requested access since 3 January, “the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded. It considers the delay in allowing rescue services access unacceptable”. See our full report here .

And, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) commented Wednesday that “Any mechanism that facilitates the distribution of assistance is welcomed. However, the needs of the population are so great at this time, that humanitarian assistance programs need to operate round the clock. Humanitarian programs require a constant and sustainable supply line into Gaza at a level to meet the needs of the population, as well as an environment which allows the people of Gaza to have safe access to assistance and services including free and safe movement of ambulances carrying wounded to medical services, and repair of damaged vital infrastructure. In addition, cease-fires on humanitarian grounds must be parallel to the effort to reach an immediate cessation of hostilities. As long as the hostilities continue, civilians remain unprotected and more will be killed and injured”.

In any case, Ari Shavit wrote in an analysis article in Haaretz today that partial measures are not enough to face the scale of the situation, and he suggests that “The defense establishment must immediately provide a fund of $10-20 million that will inject new life into Gaza’s collapsing hospitals. Money alone, however, is not enough. The Israel Defense Forces must seize the humanitarian initiative and erect a field hospital at the Kerem Shalom or Kissufim or Erez border crossings. The army should announce that first, the hospital will care for children: Any wounded Gazan child who is not receiving appropriate treatment in Gaza will receive excellent treatment at the Israeli hospital. If the experiment proves successful and is not abused, it can be expanded to offer emergency treatment to women, the elderly and anyone else not involved in terror…” This article can be read in full here.

One can only imagine the security measures, and checkpoints, that would have to be installed, of course — causing delays and more trauma prior to treatment — should this recommendation is accepted. And the children would have to be separated from their parents and families, at least at first.

But, the IDF hasn’t done even that — at least not yet. They didn’t include a field hospital in their planning for this Operation Cast Iron, apparently. There are no medical teams on standby — even international teams have not been allowed in. Nor did the IDF bring in tents (for people who lived for years in tents), nor blankets, nor portable toilets, nor clean water containers, nor field kitchens, nor any basic subsistence necessities for the civilian population.

The IDF did warn the people of Gaza to flee — but they didn’t say where, they didn’t indicate any safe areas, and they didn’t offer any help.

Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz that a senior IDF officer explained to journalists yesterday that “The strategy of the Israel Defense Forces is to utilize tremendous firepower in order to protect the ground forces during the fighting in built-up areas … Speaking to the media through a secure telephone, the officer stressed that ‘from our point of view, being careful means being aggressive’. The officer acknowledged that the ground offensive is causing a great deal of damage, not only to Hamas, but also against civilian infrastructure. ‘It will take many years in order to restore this area to what it was before’, he said”.

The senior IDF officer revealed that ” ‘When we suspect that a Palestinian fighter is hiding in a house, we shoot it with a missile and then with two tank shells, and then a bulldozer hits the wall. It causes damage but it prevents the loss of life among soldiers’ … He emphasized that his forces ‘entered the Gaza Strip like in a war and not a routine security operation. Hamas has avoided confronting us directly because of the firepower that was used when we went in. It had an initial shock effect and broke down orderly resistance. We do not see battalion- or company-size units fighting against us, but much smaller pockets of resistance’.”

The same senior IDF officer said, according to the Haaretz report, that “in the areas where his troops were operating, the civilians are fleeing. ‘We saw homes where the meals were left uneaten. We see columns of women and children with white flags, and of course we let them pass toward Gaza City. On the other hand, every two hours there are intelligence warnings about a female suicide bomber in the area, so most of the soldiers also regard a convoy of civilians as a real threat’ … Much of the ground offensive is concentrating on the northern portions of the Strip, in areas where rockets are fired against Be’er Sheva, Ashdod and Yavne. The presence of IDF forces in the area has already affected the launch of longer-range rockets from the area”. Haaretz’s report on the briefing by this senior IDF officer can be read in full here.

And, the World Bank today sent out an email information note warning of “a severe public health threat to the population of Gaza: [including] (a) severe potable water shortages and escalating failure of sewage systems; (b) potential threat to the structural integrity of Beit Lahiya Sewage Lake, which could cause massive drowning [n.b., in s–t, as already happened two years ago in northern Gaza].

The World Bank listed its main recommendations to the Government of Israel: “Government of Israel (GOI) should recognize that that the water and sanitation situation is a central component of the Gaza Strip humanitarian crisis and make arrangements to immediately facilitate: (a) fuel distribution to some 170 water and sewage pumps in Gaza to enable their operation; (b) maintenance of Beit Lahiya Sewage Lake and protection of its structural integrity; (c) restoration of regular electricity supply as soon as possible in order to reduce dependence on fuel for generators [n.b. – which is also nearly unavailable].

The World Bank then gave greater detail about its two greatest concerns: “Nearly all sewage and water pumps are now out of operation due to lack of electricity and diminished fuel supplies to operate backup power generators. The water utility has extremely limited fuel reserves (just 10,000 liters as of today) which it is unable to distribute but which would enable only about one day of pumping if distributed. Stocks of spare parts and other maintenance supplies, already depleted before the military operations, are in urgent need of replenishment. Resulting shortage of potable water and sewage overflows in urban areas is becoming an imminent public health danger. As of today, nearly the entire population of Gaza is without running water and is dependent on their own stored water supplies and limited sales by private water distributors. Sewage has already flooded in some residential areas, particularly in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, where sewage pumps have been damaged. Fuel, even when made available at the Israel/Gaza border, is not reaching pumps due to lack of secure transport while military operations continue”. The World Bank then recommended that “GOI should immediately facilitate entry of fuel, spare parts and maintenance staff into territory and actively ensure their safe transport to water and sewage pumps operated by Coastal Municipalites Water Utility (CMWU) and the [Ramallah-based] Palestinian Water Authority (PWA). In addition, an effort should be made to restore regular electricity supply as soon as possible in order to in order to reduce dependence on fuel for generators”.

And, the World Bank reported, the structure of the Beit Lahiya Sewage Lake “requires constant and vigilant maintenance under normal conditions. Pumps transferring sewage from the lake to infiltration basins, critical to the relief of pressure on structure, are not in operation due to lack of electricity and fuel. The integrity of the lake structure is endangered by the potential impact of nearby explosions and sonic booms [i.e., military activity] and possible heavy rain. Failure of the lake structure would put about the 10,000 residents of the surrounding area in danger of drowning and spark a wider environmental and public health disaster”. On this, the World Bank recommended that the “GOI should immediately facilitate entry of and safe transport of fuel, spare parts and PWA maintenance staff to the lake site. In addition to refraining from deliberately targeting the structure itself, a wide no-fire zone should be secured around lake”.

Amira Hass wrote in Haaretz today that it was lucky her parents are not alive to see bombing of Gaza: “To recognize lies, they did not need to know the names of the people who had not had running water for five days or more. Forget the bombardments, forget the electricity, food, even sleep. But no water? Because of the bombardments by sea, land and air, people cannot even go out to get drinking water from the city faucets. And when someone does have running water at home, it’s undrinkable. Because of my parents’ history they knew what it meant to close people behind barbed-wire fences in a small area. A year, five years, 10 years. From 1991. How lucky it is that they are not alive to see how how these incarcerated people are bombarded with all the glorious military technology of Israel and the United States … My parents’ personal history led them to despise the relaxed way the news anchors reported on a curfew. How lucky they are not here and cannot hear the crowd roaring in the colosseum.” Amira Hass’ comment can be read in full here.

The Israeli human rights organization GISHA and eight other Israeli and Israeli-Arab human rights non-governmental-organizations petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court today “demanding that Israel stop the collapse of Gaza ‘s sewage and water system, a collapse caused by the military operation and by a 14-month policy of systematically blocking fuel supplies necessary to generate electricity”

A message sent out by GISHA’s Executive Director, Sari Bashi, reported that “The groups demand that Israel ‘s Defense Minister ensure full supply and delivery of all forms of fuel, especially for the water system and power plant, and ensure repair of the electricity system, including by allowing spare parts into Gaza … The petition claims that Israel’s direct control over territory in Gaza, in addition to its constant control over the crossings, amplifies its duty to ensure the needs and welfare of the civilian population.”

The message also noted that “For the last two months, Israel deliberately drained Gaza of fuel, crippling the ability to generate electricity and wreaking massive damage on the functioning of vital humanitarian institutions. Israel has also prevented supply of spare parts necessary for repairs. Because Israel exercises near total control over the supply of fuel and electricity to Gaza, especially the transfer of industrial diesel via the Nahal Oz Crossing [n.b. – this is needed to operate Gaza’s only power plant]– it must ensure that the needs of civilians are met”.

In the petition, the groups argued that “Israel should have foreseen that a broad-ranging military operation would seriously damage essential humanitarian facilities, ‘to the point of actual and immediate harm to the health and dignity of the residents of the Gaza Strip’ and that ‘the Respondent (the Defense Minister) should have prepared for this situation and since he did not do so, he must ensure what is now lacking is immediately supplied in full … This shortage was well known to the Respondent, since he himself deliberately created it’.”

According to GISHA’s Sari Bashi: “Israel’s ‘humanitarian corridors’ will not save Gaza ‘s crumbling water and sewage system. This crisis is a direct result of a deliberate policy, for the past 14 months, to block fuel supply. Israel must immediately restore full fuel supply, ensure necessary repairs and delivery, and take all measures to provide electricity to Gaza ‘s humanitarian institutions.”

GISHA reported that “As a result of the military operation, five out of 12 electricity lines to the Gaza Strip are currently inoperable, and the power station ceased operating entirely more than a week ago due to the lack of fuel. Since Saturday, 1 million Gaza residents have been without electricity, including hospitals, water supply facilities and sewerage pumps. As of today, some 800,000 people are completely cut off from water supply. In Gaza City and the northern area, there is no water supply whatsoever. Residents have reported sanitation problems due to the lack of water for personal hygiene, cleanliness and waste removal … Palestinian technicians have been unable to make repairs or deliver diesel for back-up generators because of the heavy fighting. Since Nov. 5, 2008, and especially since the start of the military operation on Dec. 27, Israel has allowed supply of less than 16% of the industrial diesel required by the power plant”.

One of Israel’s “New Historians”, Avi Schlaim, who is professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, wrote in The Guardian today that “Whatever the numbers, killing civilians is wrong. This rule applies to Israel as much as it does to Hamas, but Israel’s entire record is one of unbridled and unremitting brutality towards the inhabitants of Gaza … And far from taking care to spare civilians, Israel is guilty of indiscriminate bombing and of a three-year-old blockade that has brought the inhabitants of Gaza, now 1.5 million, to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe … The problem with Israel’s concept of security is that it denies even the most elementary security to the other community”. Avi Schlaim’s article today can be read in full here .

And, by the way, as Haaretz reports, the war is also on the internet: “Giyus.org offers surfers a program that makes it easy for them to support Israeli on the Internet. The software tool called Megaphone offers users a desktop warning when articles or reviews about Israel are published on the Internet. Users can chose to view the article and post an Israel-supportive response. The Foreign Ministry, which works in cooperation with the not-for-profit organization, says that some 50,000 surfers have already downloaded the software. The Foreign Ministry has also recently asked Israeli surfers and bloggers to send it material for distribution”. This report can be found here.

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