The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is ending its emergency food programme in the West Bank, saying the economic collapse there is the direct result of Israeli military closures and that Israel must live up to its responsibility as the occupying power for the economic needs of the Palestinians.
The move comes as the Israeli media reported that François Bellon, the Red Cross representative, told senior Israeli generalsthat the Palestinian Authority was on the verge of an "explosion" that could lead to "the worst ever humanitarian crisis" in the occupied territories.
Israel is concerned that other international organisations may follow the Red Cross, which would leave Israel to face the cost of providing the services they currently provide - a cost that some estimates put as high as $1.1bn (£650m) a year.
The Palestinian economy has collapsed under the weight of military closures of Palestinian cities, making it impossible for Palestinians to move their produce or travel to jobs in other cities or in Israel. Last year and early this year, curfews imposed for all but a few hours a week by the Israeli army made it impossible for Palestinians to work at all.
The Israeli government says the tight closure is needed to prevent Palestinian militants crossing into Israel to carry out suicide bombings and other attacks, but it has been accused of inflicting collective punishment on the Palestinians. Moshe Ya'alon, the Israeli army's chief of staff, recently spoke out against the closure, saying it was increasing Palestinian resentment of Israel.
As a result of economic collapse, a fifth of Palestinian children are malnourished, according to a report last year by an American government aid agency. International aid organisations have stepped in to provide assistance. In the wake of the invasion and reoccupation of West Bank cities last April, the Red Cross launched an emergency food and essentials programme for Palestinians.
The organisation has spent $46m over the past year and a half providing food and such necessities as cooking oil and matches to around 300,000 of the most needy Palestinians in the West Bank. But now the ICRC says that must stop, and that Israel must live up to its responsibility as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention to meet the economic needs of the civilian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Vincent Bernard, an ICRC spokesman, said: "This was humanitarian relief designed to assist in a humanitarian emergency, not to address the longer-term problems caused by curfews, closures and the collapse of the economy that has occurred. It is not our responsibility to take care of the economic needs of the Palestinians. We have repeatedly said it is the responsibility of the occupying power."
Mr Bernard denied Israeli press reports that the food programme had been cancelled for budgetary reasons. "As the occupying power, Israel has the responsibility to minimise the humanitarian consequences of its actions," he said. "You cannot go on for ever with the curfews and closures which are destroying the Palestinian economy. They have to find a different way to guarantee their security. If they lifted these security measures, the Palestinian economy, though damaged, would start again."
Mr Bernard refused to comment on a report in Ha'aretz newspaper that Mr Bellon had told senior Israeli generals at a recent meeting that the Palestinians were on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. But it is an assessment with which senior officers in the Israeli army are believed to agree.
For the time being, the UN's World Food Organisation has stepped into the breach, setting up an alternative food programme until next summer.