John Dugard: Despite the 'withdrawal', the siege of Gaza goes on

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In August last year Israel withdrew its settlers and armed forces from Gaza, claiming that this brought to an end 38 years of military occupation. Of course, it did nothing of the sort. Israel retained power over Gaza by controlling its air space, sea space and external borders. Sporadic shelling continued, as did the targeted assassination of militants. Despite this, there was at least an appearance of disengagement, which Israel could claim as a major step towards the peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On 25 June 2006, a group of Palestinian militants attacked an Israeli military base near the Israeli-Egyptian border, which left two Palestinians and two Israelis dead. In retreating, the Palestinians took Cpl Gilad Shalit hostage and demanded the release of women and children in Israeli jails in return for his release. This act, together with the continued firing of Qassam rockets into Israel, unleashed a savage response, which continues to this day.

In July, international attention was diverted from Gaza by Israel's attack on Hizbollah's bases in Lebanon. Sadly, despite the ending of these hostilities, Israel's war in Gaza has disappeared from the radar of international concern. Yet it is as important as the conflict in Lebanon. It highlights the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and reveals, yet again, the brutality of Israel's occupation.

Israel's attack on Gaza has taken several forms. On the military front, it has made repeated incursions in which both militants and civilians have been killed. Targeted assassinations have continued, accompanied by "collateral damage" - the name Israel gives to the indiscriminate killing of civilians who happen to be in the proximity.

The Israeli Air Force has bombed all six transformers of the only domestic power plant in Gaza. Since then, the power supply has been substantially reduced. Generators are used to operate X-ray departments and operating theatres. Perishable food cannot be preserved.

Poverty in Gaza stands at 75 per cent. Food prices have inflated and sugar, dairy products and milk are low as commercial supplies from Israel are limited. Fish is no longer available as a result of Israel's sea blockade.

Gaza's border crossings, for persons to Egypt, and for goods to Israel, have been mostly closed since 25 June. This has brought to a virtual end the export of produce; and drastically limited the import of foodstuffs and other goods.

Israel justifies its actions as a security operation designed to put an end to the firing of Qassam rockets into Israel and as pressure aimed at securing the release of Cpl Shalit. Israel's actions, in these circumstances, have been excessive.

In short, the people of Gaza have been subjected to collective punishment in clear violation of article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. For what? Surely not for sporadic Qassam rocket fire and the capture of Cpl Shalit? Instead, it seems the people of Gaza are being punished for having elected a Hamas government earlier this year.

Regime change, rather than security, probably explains Israel's punishment of Gaza. Whatever the reason, Gaza deserves more attention from the international community.

John Dugard is special rapporteur to the Human Rights Council on the situation of human rights in occupied Palestinian territory

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