Conditions in Gaza Worst in 40 Years

Eight British human rights organizations released a damning report Thursday claiming that humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip are at their worst since Israel first occupied the territory in 1967.

The Israeli government rushed to condemn the report.

The report lays most of the blame at the feet of the Israelis for the fact that more than 1.1 million people, almost 80 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants, now depend on food aid. As recently as 2006 the figure was 63 percent.

The report paints a bleak picture of hospitals prone to lengthy power cuts, sewage systems on the verge of collapse and 70 percent unemployment in the private sector.

The release of the report comes at a sensitive time, following the recent spike in violence between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants in Gaza, which is now controlled by the Islamic movement Hamas.

The Israeli Defense Ministry rejected the findings of the report and Israel's responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel withdrew its settlements and military from Gaza in the summer of 2005.

"The main responsibility for events in Gaza – since the withdrawal of Israel from the territory and the uprooting of the settlements there – is the Hamas organization, to which all complaints should be addressed," said a statement released by an Israeli spokesman Major Peter Lerner.

The groups behind today's report assert that since Israel maintains complete control over Gaza's land and sea borders, and its access to external markets, it remains in occupation of Gaza's people.

"Israel has the right and obligation to protect its citizens, but as the occupying power in Gaza it also has a legal duty to ensure that Gazans have access to food, clean water, electricity and medical care," said Kate Allen, the Director of Amnesty International, one of the report's authors.

Since Hamas took control of Gaza last June, Israel has imposed a strict blockade, limiting the amount of supplies entering the territory. Israeli civilians in nearby communities have endured an almost daily barrage of homemade rockets and the Israeli government has come under increasing pressure to move its army back into Gaza.

Today's report urges Israel and Western governments to reverse their current policy of not negotiating with Hamas. It views Israel's current embargo as unacceptable and an act of illegal collective punishment.

Many in Israel view the international aid community and human rights groups, known as non-governmental organizations or NGOs, with great suspicion and accuse them of bias in favor of the Palestinians. There is even a Jewish organization, NGO Monitor, which monitors the activities and statements of the NGOs. It distributes its own statements criticizing the perceived impartiality of the aid organizations based in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It was quick to respond to today's report.

"NGOs and human rights organizations must end their irresponsible and immoral use of legal rhetoric," said NGO Monitor's director Gerald Steinberg. "False claims of collective punishment … make a mockery of international law."

In a statement, the Israeli foreign ministry criticized the report harshly, saying, "if only the Palestinians chose to cease their pointless and indiscriminate firing of rockets and missiles against hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians, the entire region would return to a normal routine in which Palestinians and Israelis could once again enjoy their daily lives."