[JURIST] The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) [official website] on Monday called for an end [press release] to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip [BBC backgrounder], which it labeled a violation of international humanitarian law. The organization described the blockade as collective punishment, a war crime under Article 33 of the Geneva Conventions [text; ICRC backgrounder], and called on the international community to work to persuade Israel to lift the closure. The ICRC, which has been given a mandate under the Geneva Conventions to protect the victims of armed conflict, traditionally remains neutral [Al Jazeera report], but has decided to publicly criticize the blockade due to the failure of private efforts to ease the restrictions on the territory. In outlining its criticism of the blockade, the ICRC explained:
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 closure is having a devastating impact on the 1.5 million people living in Gaza. That is why 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. Israel's right to deal with its legitimate security concerns must be balanced against the Palestinians' right to live normal, dignified lives. … Under international humanitarian law, Israel must ensure that the basic needs of Gazans, including adequate health care, are met. … Furthermore, all States have an obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of all relief consignments, equipment and personnel.
The ICRC pointed to the restrictions on the Israeli "buffer zone," which has restricted access to farmland, the three-mile restriction on fishing off the coast of Gaza and the power shortages that have crippled the Gazan health care system as instances of this collective punishment. The organization also leveled war crimes charges against Hamas [CFR backgrounder], the group that controls the Gaza Strip, for its refusal to allow the ICRC to visit Gilat Shalit [advocacy website, in Hebrew; BBC backgrounder], an Israeli soldier that has been held in captivity for five years. Also Monday, the EU called on Israel to end the blockade [AP report], coinciding with an announcement by UN Quartet Envoy Tony Blair [official website] that Israel had agreed in principle [Reuters report] to easing the blockade to allow reconstruction materials and commercial goods into the territory.
International pressure to lift the blockade has increased significantly since the May 31 Israeli raid of several ships bound for Gaza. Turkey, a longtime ally of Israel, has included lifting the blockade as a condition upon which the restoration of normal diplomatic ties rests, along with an apology and an international inquiry. Israel has so far refused an international inquiry [JURIST report]. Earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Council [official website] condemned [JURIST report] Israel's raid on the ships and initiated an independent investigation into possible violations of international law. Also that week, the UN Security Council [official website] called [JURIST report] for a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation" into the raid. The Turkish ship on which the violence occurred was one of six organized [Guardian backgrounder] by the Free Gaza Movement [advocacy website] to carry protesters and humanitarian supplies to the isolated Palestinian enclave. The Gaza naval blockade began in 2007 after Hamas forcibly expelled [BBC report] their chief rival, Fatah [CFR backgrounder] from Gaza. In 2006, Hamas was elected [JURIST report] as the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority after unbroken rule by Fatah. In January 2008, then-UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Louise Arbour also described the blockade as collective punishment [JURIST report].