You may not have heard about it, but there’s a humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka right now – over 250,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone between the Sri Lankan Army and the rebel Tamil Tigers and can’t escape. The army has been steadily encroaching on the Tigers’ territory over recent months. The civilians caught in the area are running out of safe space. They can’t simply leave the war zone due to restrictions imposed by the Tigers, who are also using them as an involuntary pool of recruits and laborers. The civilians are also facing tremendous shortages of food and shelter, aggravated by the fact that many of them have already sold most of their possessions due to earlier displacements. For its part, the Sri Lankan government has restricted the ability of outside agencies to provide assistance to the civilians. While the government has made assurances that the humanitarian situation is under control, there’s evidence to suggest that the authorities lack the capacity to provide the needed aid to the people. An aid mission visited the area at the end of 2008 and noted the increased vulnerability of the civilian population, including reduced available materials to address urgent needs for shelter and sanitation.
Last November, AI drew attention to acute food and shelter shortages affecting the civilians in the war zone and produced a video on the issue.
Please raise your voice for the suffering civilians trapped between the two sides. Send an email to the Tamil Tigers. Ask them to allow the civilians trapped in the war zone to leave safely without any restrictions; ask that the Tigers also stop forcing civilians to join their ranks or work as laborers for them. Also, send an email to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya. Ask them to allow international monitors into the war zone to assess the humanitarian needs of the civilian population and to ensure proper distribution of food and other assistance to the people.
Sri Lanka Country Specialist
Last week, the UN passed a binding resolution calling for “an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire leading to the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.” Resolution 1860 also calls for “the unimpeded provisions and distribution throughout Gaza of humanitarian assistance, including of food, fuel and medical treatment” and “condemns all acts of violence and terror directed against civilians and all acts of terrorism.” In addressing the issue of arms trafficking into Palestinian territories, the resolution calls for “intensified international arrangements to prevent arms and ammunition smuggling
The resolution passed, with fourteen members voted in favor. The United States abstained.
But despite the binding resolution, both Israel and Hamas have continued their attacks. Nearly 25 rocket attacks were fired on Israel on one day alone, January 10. According to Israel, 13 Israelis have died, three of them civilian.
Meanwhile, Israel continues shelling Gaza, moving its land invasion deeper into Gaza. In air and land attacks that have been waged since December 27, over 900 Palestinians have been killed. The director of emergency services in Gaza, Dr Muawiya Hassanein, said half of the casualties were women and children. But Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni promised more of the same from Israel: “Israel is a country that reacts vigorously when its citizens are fired up, which is a good thing,” she said. “That is something that Hamas now understands and that is how we are going to react in the future.”
But with mounting evidence that Israel deliberately attacked civilians, prevented civilians from fleeing areas of conflict, and prevented wounded from seeking medical attention, Amnesty International is concerned that the UN resolution did not go far enough. In a statement released today, Amnesty said, “the resolution failed to state that parties must stop violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, nor does the resolution address the mounting evidence of war crimes and other serious abuses of international law, or provide for an investigation and for those responsible to be held to account.”
For more, read here.
A snapshot of Gaza by the numbers:
- Movement in and out of Gaza is all but impossible and supplies of food, water, sewage treatment, basic health care have been drastically affected by the blockade of aid. Food prices are rising and wheat, flour, baby milk, and rose 34%, 30%, and 20.5% respectively during the period May-June 2007 alone.
- Prior to the blockade (implemented after Hamas took over total adminstration over Gaza in June 2007), around 250 trucks carrying aid entered Gaza each day.
- As of March 2008, that number was reduced to 45.
- According to UN figures reported in the Guardian, that number dropped to just 5 in December.
- Most recently, the Israeli government prevented a Libyan ship carrying 3000 tons of aid from entering Gaza.
Poverty and Dependency on Food Aid
- Number of people living in absolute poverty in Gaza in 2008: 80%
- Number of people living in absolute poverty in Gaza in 2006: 63%
- In 2007, households were spending 62% of their income on food.
- In 2004, households were spending 37% of their income on food.
- As of March 2008, there were over 1.1 million people—three quarters of Gaza—who are dependent on food aid. In less than ten years, the numbers of families who depending on UNRWA food aid has increased ten-fold
- In June 2005, there were 3,900 factories in Gaza employing 35,000 people.
- In December 2007, there were just 195, employing only 1,700.
- Unemployment is close to 40%.
- 40,000 agriculture works who depend on cash crops now have no income.
- In September 2000, 24,000 Gazans crossed into Israel to seek cheap labor. Now that number is zero.
Schools, Electricity, Medical Supplies
- In January 2008, UNICEF reported that schools in Gaza had been cancelling classes that required high energy consumption like IT, science lab, and extra-curricular classes.
- Hospitals cannot generate electricity to keep lifesaving equipment working or to generate oxygen, while 40-50 million liters of sewage continues to pour into the sea daily.
- Hospitals are currently experiencing power cuts lasting for 8-12 hours a day.
- There is currently a 60-70 percent shortage reported in the diesel required for hospital power generators.
- According to the World Health Organization, the proportion of patients given permits to exit Gaza for medical care dropped from 89.3% in January 2007 to 64.3% in December 2007.
- Many of those who are given permits are blocked at the crossing itself. In October 2007 alone, the WHO confirmed that 20 patients died because they were denied access to refereal services. Five of these deaths were children.
In speaking about the current wave of violence, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev pledged that Israel will “destroy completely” the “terrorist gang.”
But the facts show that much more than a “terrorist gang” is being destroyed in Gaza.
(Unless otherwise indicated, all facts in this post are from the report “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian implosion” co-authored by Amnesty International, Oxfam, Medcins de Monde UK, CAFOD, Save the Children UK, TroCAIRE, CARE, and Christian Aid).
As the third day of deadly airstrikes by Israeli forces in Gaza comes to a close, civilians are paying a high price. More than 1,400 Palestinians have been injured and more than 315 killed, many of whom are civilians. In addition, Hamas attacks on Southern Israel have left two civilians dead.
This is the highest level of Palestinian fatalities and casualties in four decades of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The escalation of violence comes at a time when the civilian population already faces a daily struggle for survival due to the Israeli blockade which has prevented even food and medicines from entering Gaza.
In March 2008 Amnesty International reported that more than 80% of Palestinians in Gaza rely on humanitarian assistance, with UN food aid going to about 1.1 million people – three quarters of the population. The report also stated that the number of families dependant on the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has increased tenfold since 1999.
To make matters worse, the death toll risks rising due to the lack of adequate medical care for the injured. The already under-resourced health sector in Gaza has been further weakened by the prolonged Israeli blockade and neighboring Egypt refuses to open hospitals to injured Palestinians seeking treatment. According to the New York Times, “one doctor said that given the dearth of facilities, not much could be done for the seriously wounded, and that it was ‘better to be brought in dead.’”
Both Israeli forces and Hamas militants bear responsibility for this tragedy. Amnesty International is calling on Hamas and all other Palestinian armed groups in Gaza to stop firing indiscriminate rockets against towns and villages in southern Israel and reiterating its call for an end to reckless and unlawful Israeli attacks.
The DRC, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Sudan and Nicaragua–all these countries are in crisis right now. How do I know (beyond working at Amnesty International)? I can read about it in the news.
But there is at least one developing humanitarian crisis you won’t find in the New York Times:
More than 300,000 people have been displaced in Sri Lanka by fighting between the Tamil Tigers and government forces. And not only do they lack access to basic food and shelter, but the government is not allowing U.N. aid convoys to bring in desperately needed supplies.
The entire population of Birkenhead has basically been relocated to the Wanni region of Sri Lanka, and now serve as a buffer–a human shield–between themselves and the government. The displaced don’t have shelters, and it’s monsoon season. They aren’t allowed to leave.
And why aren’t you hearing about it? Aid workers and journalists have been denied entry to the region. This video includes rare photos from the region just before access was cut off.
Amnesty International’s U.K. press office posted more yesterday on their blog.