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A too-harsh lesson

Justified or not, Israel's lockdown of Gaza is keeping food, fuel and medicine from civilians.

November 21, 2008

In the 2 1/2 weeks since its cease-fire with Hamas broke down, Israel has all but sealed crossings along its border with the Gaza Strip and rejected U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's appeal to allow more humanitarian aid into the enclosed territory that houses more than 1.5 million Palestinians. This response to violence directed against it amounts to collective punishment of civilians, which is illegal under international law, unfair and counterproductive. Hunger and scarcity nurture extremism.

Israelis and Palestinians must find their way back to the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that largely held for five months, until an Israeli army incursion Nov. 4 to destroy a tunnel that officials feared would be used by Palestinian extremists to take an Israeli hostage. Now, civilians on both sides are suffering as more than 170 rockets and mortars have rained down on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip and, in response, the Israeli army has put Gaza in lockdown.

The United Nations and the World Food Program distribute staples such as sugar, flour and rice to about two-thirds of the residents of Gaza, many of whom are refugees of the 1948 war over Israel's creation and their descendants. John Ging, director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency operations in Gaza, says the agency needs to keep a two-month supply of food on hand for times such as these, which are inevitable in a conflict zone, but that Israel has restricted humanitarian deliveries since the armed militant group Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. The agency ran out of food a week ago Thursday, got about 30 truckloads through the border on Monday and will run out again at the end of this week. In addition, Ging says, banks have a shortage of Israeli shekels, the currency in Gaza, so the U.N. is unable to make its usual cash payments to the neediest families.

Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry, disputes that account. He says plenty of food and fuel are making their way into Gaza's markets from Egypt, and he suggests that U.N. relief officials are posturing to ensure their budgets for next year. Regrettably, the government also has denied international journalists access to Gaza, so reporters have no means to examine the situation on the ground and make independent judgments. Still, we see no benefit to blocking delivery of humanitarian aid. On the contrary, as the military power surrounding Gaza, Israel has a duty to ensure that civilians receive sufficient food, fuel and medicine.

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