The US section of Amnesty International sent an
"urgent" letter Friday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling
on her to end what it called Washington's "lopsided response" to the
ongoing Israeli air strikes on Gaza that have reportedly killed more than 400
Palestinians, including scores of unarmed civilians.
While the letter also expressed concern about the rocket fire by Palestinian
groups that has taken four Israeli lives in urban areas more than 30 kilometers
from Gaza during the past week, it called Israel's campaign air campaign "disproportionate"
and accused the Jewish state of violating international law.
"Without diminishing the responsibility of Hamas and other Palestinian
armed groups for indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians,
the US government must not ignore Israel's disproportionate response and the
longstanding policies which have brought the Gaza Strip to the brink of humanitarian
disaster," the letter declared.
Amnesty International USA is particularly dismayed at the lopsided
response by the US government to the recent violence and its lackadaisical
efforts to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza," it stressed, noting
that several recent reports by its London-based parent organization, UN aid
agencies, Oxfam, CARE and other relief groups have described the situation in
Gaza even before the latest outbreak of hostilities as the worst since
Israel's 1967 conquest of the area.
The letter came amid growing international clamor, especially from European
and Arab capitals, for an immediate ceasefire. So far both Israel and Hamas
have rejected this option.
Hamas has said it would agree to a ceasefire provided Israel agrees to lift
its effective economic blockade of the territory. Israel strongly backed
by the White House has insisted that it will stop its offensive only when
Hamas agrees to a ceasefire that, in Rice's words, "is durable and sustainable."
In its letter, Amnesty urged Washington to "go beyond rhetoric and exert
concrete pressure on both parties to immediately cease unlawful attacks."
Statements in recent days by both Rice and the White House have contributed
to the impression that Washington wants to give Israel more time to weaken Hamas'
leadership and infrastructure in Gaza, in hopes that the population there will
turn against the party to the benefit of Palestine Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas' Fatah party.
Indeed, Israel has begun amassing tanks, artillery and troops in a number of
areas just outside Gaza, possibly in preparation for a ground assault against
specific Hamas targets.
In a new phase of its campaign, Israeli forces began striking the homes of
Hamas leaders. An air attack Thursday killed a top cleric identified with Hamas'
military wing, Nizar Rayyan, along with his four wives and nine children. The
air assault reportedly struck at the homes of several other leaders again Friday
in what some analysts here described as an effort to "decapitate"
the Islamist group.
The European Union called Thursday for an "immediate and permanent ceasefire"
that would include both an "unconditional halt to rocket attacks by Hamas
on Israel and an end to Israeli military action."
On a trip to Europe Thursday, however, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni
who, along with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has gained in the public-opinion
polls for the Feb. 10 elections since the Israeli offensive began rejected
the demand as well as a French proposal for a 48-hour "humanitarian cease-fire."
An unidentified official traveling with Livni called the latter proposal "unrealistic,"
"hasty," and bordering on "offensive," adding that Israel
was itself shipping in tons of humanitarian supplies, including food and medicine,
despite reports of severe shortages and chaos in Gaza's few hospitals. The territory
has been without power for two days.
"There is no humanitarian crisis, and therefore there is no need for a
humanitarian truce," Livni told reporters in Paris.
Amnesty's letter strongly disagreed with that assessment Friday, however, echoing
a report issued Wednesday by Oxfam. "At present there is an urgent need
for access to humanitarian aid, food and essential supplies as both aid agencies
and residents of Gaza have long ago run out of provision reserves due to the
Israeli blockade which has so restricted the flow of goods into Gaza for months,"
"The quantities which the Israeli army has allowed into Gaza in recent
days are nowhere near what is necessary to meet the basic needs of the population
of 1.5 million," it added.
Rice herself has voiced some concern about the humanitarian situation and has
sought private assurances from Livni that more assistance will be delivered
via UN and private relief agencies, according to a number of sources close
to the administration.
The same sources say that Washington has also sought assurances that Israel
will try to keep civilian casualties to a minimum and that there will be no
repeat of the 1996 shelling of the southern Lebanese village of Qana in which
some 106 Lebanese civilians trying to escape fighting between Israel and Hezbollah
were killed by Israeli shelling.
But, as noted in the Amnesty letter, "the Gaza Strip is one of the most
densely populated areas in the world" and the way Israel's current bombing
campaign is being carried out "is completely failing to meet" international
legal requirements that all operations be "strictly necessary, proportionate
and make every effort to discriminate between combatant and civilian."
In a statement released Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also
criticized Israel as well as Hamas' rocket firings for failing
to discriminate between legitimate military and civilian targets to minimize
harm to civilians. It cited several aerial attacks carried out early in the
campaign which "appear to be unlawful," including strikes against
students leaving a UN training facility; against a "Hamas mosque"
that also destroyed a nearby house; and several police stations and a police
As it has in the past, HRW also charged that Israel's blockade of the territory
amounted to "collective punishment against the civilian population, a serious
violation of the laws of war."
In its letter, Amnesty called on Washington to immediately suspend its arms
deliveries to Israel pending an investigation as to whether previously supplied
weapons have been used to commit serious human rights abuses during the current
(Inter Press Service)