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New Report Finds Gaza Humanitarian Situation is Worst in 40 years

A new report by a consortium of British aid agencies says the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is the worst in forty years. VOA's Jim Teeple reports the report blames Israel for the crisis, but Israeli officials say Hamas militants are to blame.

Eight British aid organizations say the humanitarian situation in Gaza has deteriorated to the worst point in 40 years and that it will likely get worse unless Israel eases its blockade of the territory.

According to the report, more than one million people or 80 percent of Gaza's population is now dependent on food aid and that Gaza's power, water and sewage systems have collapsed.

Michael Bailey of the Jerusalem OXFAM office says life in Gaza has always been a struggle, but after Israel closed Gaza's borders last year following the Hamas takeover of the territory, things got dramatically worse.

"In four weeks, 65,000 jobs were lost. Ninety percent of the manufacturing industry was shut down," Bailey said. "Forty thousand people in the agricultural industry are finding it very hard to maintain their jobs and eight out of ten families in Gaza are dependent on food aid."

Bailey says 300,000 people in Gaza do not have regular supplies of water and 60 tons of raw sewage is discharged into the ocean every day because sewage treatment plants no longer work. He says many schools also do not have power. As a result he says Gaza's educational system has broken down, and children there fail basic tests in rudimentary subjects. Bailey and the other groups behind the report say they blame Israel for the situation because it controls Gaza's borders.

"We are saying that because Israel is still in control, it is still the occupying power even though they (Israel) are not inside Gaza; they control all the borders, the air and the sea space," Bailey said. "Therefore whoever is in charge inside Gaza, they are really powerless to control and economy that depends 90 percent on imports for any manufacturing or productivity."

The United States and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization and have cut off all but humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip since the group seized power there last June.

Israeli officials have strongly denounced the report, calling it biased.

Major Peter Lerner, the spokesman for Israel's military and civil authorities in the Palestinian territories says Hamas militants who seized power in Gaza last year are to blame for the situation. Lerner says Israel is committed to preventing a humanitarian emergency from developing in Gaza - and does so at considerable risk to itself.

"We, Israel actually, function the crossings under fire from Palestinian snipers and mortar fire, which no other state in the world would do, and for us is very problematic obviously," Lerner said.

Since the beginning of this year the situation in Gaza has been at a boiling point. In January Hamas militants knocked down Gaza's border wall with Egypt in a bid to break the territory's blockade. Since then, Palestinian militants have stepped up rocket attacks against towns and cities in southern Israel, leading to Israeli retaliatory attacks that killed many Palestinians, which led the moderate Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas to suspend peace talks with Israel. The talks were restored this week after direct intervention from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

There are signs that things may improve in Gaza. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says Israel will abstain from attacking militants in Gaza if they stop their rocket attacks. Hamas leaders and other Palestinian militants have begun talks with Egyptian officials about establishing a truce with Israel. For the people of Gaza a truce would be the first good news in many months.