The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Monday described Israeli siege as "collective punishment" of Gaza's civilian population as a violation of the Geneva Conventions and called on the Israeli government to lift it.
Israel's raid on a Gaza aid flotilla two weeks ago, in which nine Turkish Gaza activists were killed, once again put the spotlight on the acute hardship faced by 1.5 million Gazans due to the closure since 2007, it said. They endure unemployment, poverty and warfare, and health care whose quality is at an "all time low".
"The whole of Gaza's civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law," the ICRC said in a five-page statement.
It was the first time the ICRC has said explicitly that Israel's blockade constitutes a violation of international humanitarian law embodied in the Geneva Conventions, an ICRC spokeswoman said. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, ratified by Israel, bans collective punishment of a civilian population.
"The closure is having a devastating impact on the 1.5 million people living in Gaza", said Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, the ICRC's head of operations for the Middle East.
"That is why we are urging Israel to put an end to this closure and call upon all those who have an influence on the situation, including Hamas, to do their utmost to help Gaza's civilian population."
"Israel's right to deal with its legitimate security concerns must be balanced against the Palestinians' right to live normal, dignified lives," according to the ICRC.
"Under international humanitarian law, Israel must ensure that the basic needs of Gazans, including adequate health care, are met," ICC said.
ICC said, "the international community has to do its part to ensure that repeated appeals by States and international organizations to lift the closure are finally heeded."
The blockade, about to enter its fourth year, was "choking off any real possibility of economic development", it said.
States are obliged to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of all relief supplies, equipment and personnel, according to ICRC which deploys 100 staff in Gaza.
"The Palestinian authorities … must do everything within their power to provide proper health care, supply electricity and maintain infrastructure for Gaza's people," it added.
Fuel reserves in Gaza, vital for keeping hospital generators running during daily power cuts, keep drying up, it said.
"Gaza is suffering from an acute electricity crisis. The power supply in Gaza is interrupted for seven hours a day on average. The consequences for public services, especially the primary health-care system, are devastating. Hospitals rely on generators to cope with the daily blackouts," i? said.
"Family visit to Shalit"
The ICRC also criticised Hamas, the Islamic movement which controls Gaza, for preventing the ICRC from visiting Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in 2006. Shalit is entitled to visits from the Red Cross under international law.
"In violation of international humanitarian law, it has also refused to allow him to get in touch with his family," it said.
Stocks of essential medical supplies were at an all-time low because of a halt in cooperation between authorities in Ramallah, the Fatah-ruled West Bank, and Gaza, the agency said.
Only 60 percent of Gazan residents are connected to a sewage collection system, according to the ICRC which voiced concern that drinking water in most of Gaza is unfit for consumption.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa visited the Gaza Strip on Sunday, the highest Arab official to do so since 2007, and also called for an end to Israel's blockade of the Palestinian territory.