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  Civilians Are Paying the Price in Gaza’

By Haider Rizvi

December 30, 2008 -- UNITED NATIONS, Dec 30 (
IPS) - International aid groups, including several United Nations agencies, are warning of a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza if Israel does not stop its military action there immediately.

"The consequences of [further] military action by Israel would be disastrous," said Jeremy Hobbs, director of Oxfam International, a London-based aid organisation that is providing food and water for Palestinians affected by the Israeli blockade.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza depend on Oxfam and other international aid agencies for the basics of life -- clean water, food and sanitation. Before the recent Israeli bombing campaign, Gaza had been cut off from the outside world for 19 months.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is also expressing similar concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The group says hospitals are "overwhelmed and unable to cope with the scale and type of injuries that keep coming in."

More than 300 hundred Palestinians are reported to have been killed -- and nearly 1,000 wounded -- since the Israeli air force began bombing Gaza Saturday.

"Our first priority is to get more medical supplies to the hospitals right away," said ICRC’s Pierre Wettach. "It is therefore essential that this urgent humanitarian assistance is allowed to enter Gaza."

Before the recent attacks on Gaza, aid organisations had repeatedly stressed that the Israeli blockade of Gaza was hindering their efforts to reach out to Palestinians who were in dire need of food and medicines.

Currently, nearly half of the population in Gaza does not have enough food to meet its basic needs. A majority of the population are refugees who were driven out of their homes by the Israeli occupation in 1948.

In a statement, Oxfam and other aid agencies -- including CARE International, Medico, and Diakonia -- said the Israeli aerial assaults on Gaza had further complicated their relief efforts in the territory and noted that it was causing more suffering to the innocent.

"The blockade is illegal and constitutes collective punishment of ordinary men, women, and children," said Diakonia’s Christoffer Sjoholm, who, although critical of Palestinian rocket attacks, condemned Israel’s plans to carry out further attacks on Gaza.

Oxfam says it wants world leaders to push the Israelis to open all crossing points into Gaza so food, water and medical supplies can pass through and provide immediate relief to affected citizens.

On Monday, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) expressed deep concerns about the impact of the Israeli aerial attacks and demanded that the Jewish state must allow the humanitarian supplies to enter.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also called for Israel to take such actions.

"The frightening nature of what is happening on the ground, in particular, its effects on children who are more than half of the population, troubles me greatly," Ban said. "I have continuously stressed the need for strict observance of international humanitarian law."

According to the U.N., last Sunday about 60 truck loads of supplies were allowed to enter Gaza. However, U.N. Chief for Relief Operations John Holms has warned that the increasing death toll could create an overwhelming affect on humanitarian efforts.

A statement released Tuesday by the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that many more deaths are likely as hospitals in Gaza are lacking sufficient medical supplies.

"The ability of the hospitals to cope with a problem of this magnitude, if the situation continued unchanged, will result in surge in preventable death," a UNICEF spokesperson said in a statement. "Civilians are paying the price for a long blockade."

In addition to other U.N. agencies and independent aid organisations, UNICEF is currently trying to persuade the Israeli authorities to allow safe passage for the supply of medical and food items.

In recent days, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has repeatedly expressed its concern over the Israeli efforts to stop aid supplies. The agency stresses that days and weeks before the current military action the blockade was already hurting some 1.5 million people.

In a statement, UNRWA’s head Karen Abu-Zayad said she was horrified by the current situation in Gaza and wanted the Israeli government to heed calls for ceasing its bombardment of Gaza.

Meanwhile, a U.N. spokesperson told reporters in New York that the Middle East Quartet -- comprised of the U.N., the European Union, Russia, and U.S. - - held a teleconference Tuesday to discuss the situation in Gaza. During that teleconference the Quartet, called for an "immediate ceasefire".

Stressing that the Quartet statement is not yet official, Marie Okabe, Ban’s deputy spokesperson, said that, the Quartet has "called on all parties to address the serious humanitarian and economic needs in Gaza and to take necessary measures to ensure the continuous provision of humanitarian supplies."

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