NEW YORK — Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip and of Lebanon’s southern border is exacting a heavy price on the civilian population in those regions. Isra- el’s actions are worsening a humanitarian situation that was already critical, particularly as far as children’s health and the quality of their lives are concerned. Despite international laws protecting children’s rights, including the Convention of the Rights of the Child, signed by Israel, Palestinian children are still suffering.

Several factors are important in determining children’s health in the region; notably the socio-economic situation, actions of the intifada and punitive reactions of the Israeli Defense Forces.

As a result of the current conflict, the Palestinian economy has been devastated. More than half of the population now lives below the poverty line. Poverty has led to acute and chronic malnutrition in children as well as anemia in children and in women of reproductive age.

In June, the World Food Program estimated that 51 percent of Palestinians — 2 million people — couldn’t meet basic food needs without aid, and warned that the situation in Gaza was becoming critical.

According to a Palestinian Ministry of Health report issued in June, Israeli occupation forces and paramilitary Jewish settlers have killed 951 Palestinian children and youth (under age 18), and have provoked varied degrees of injuries to almost 20,000 people, since September 2000.

In addition, children and youth face major psychological problems resulting from exposure to violence and terror. This impact is not limited to Palestinians. Israeli children also suffer from the continuous threat posed by Kassam missiles fired by Palestinians. Having to flee their homes in terror to avoid being hit by those missiles is going to leave psychological scars.

The situation deteriorated even further last week as Israeli aircraft bombed power plants and other civilian infrastructure. Twenty-two hospitals didn’t have electricity, and hundreds of operations had to be postponed. The lack of refrigeration damaged not only food but also drugs and vaccines.

The accessibility and availability of quality primary health-care services has been seriously compromised. Health-care providers face serious constraints to properly treating patients, particularly those with chronic conditions and those in need of physical rehabilitation.

Irregular access to educational facilities has led to more than 15,000 Palestinian children being denied basic education. This situation has been compounded by rocket attacks on school and university buildings, closures of school and universities, and serious restrictions on students’ mobility.

It is estimated that almost 45,000 Palestinian children are engaged in child labor to support their families, and that 7.4 percent of these are the sole breadwinners for their families.

The latest Israeli punitive actions have been severely criticized from both within and outside Israel. Gideon Levy, a writer for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz wrote, “A state that takes such steps is no longer distinguishable from a terror organization.” By contrast, U.S. President George W. Bush stated that Israel has the right to defend itself.

Following the latest events, the Swiss Foreign Ministry stated that “A number of actions by the Israeli Defense Forces in their offensive against the Gaza Strip have violated the principle of proportionality and are to be seen as forms of collective punishment, which is forbidden.” The Geneva Convention states that it is “prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.”

According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, “a food and health crisis now threatens more than 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” The center states that the Israeli Defense Forces have prevented the free flow of fuel, food and medical supplies. More than 100,000 Palestinians in need of medical attention are not getting it.

Article 54 of the Fourth Geneva Convention clearly specifies that the occupying power, “to the fullest extent of the means available to it, has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.”

Marjorie Cohn, president-elect of the U.S. National Lawyers Guild and U.S. representative to the American Association of Jurists has indicated that collective punishment also violates Article 50 of the Hague Regulations.

Is there a way out of this escalation of violence that threatens to engulf the whole Middle East? There is, but it requires balanced outside intervention, particularly by the United States, which has maintained unwavering support for actions carried out by the Israeli government. Such intervention is currently lacking.

Peace in the Middle East is now as elusive as ever, and it will remain so as long as innocent civilians are made into peons of a larger political game.

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