Israel faced a battery of calls yesterday to alleviate what the Red Cross unusually called a "deep human crisis" by easing restrictions on Palestinian movement, ahead of an international donors' conference co-chaired by Tony Blair.
The World Bank and the Western-backed emergency Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, warned that the $5.6bn (£2.7bn) they hope the conference will pledge in Paris on Monday will not reverse the collapse of the Palestinian economy unless there is a significant reduction in checkpoints and closures.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which prides itself on its neutrality, said that Israel's "harsh security measures" came at an "enormous humanitarian cost" and that the "dignity of the Palestinians is being trampled underfoot day after day, both in the West Bank and Gaza".
The agency said as a result of the "retaliatory" closures of Gaza since Hamas seized control there in June, 823 sick people had been prevented from leaving the Strip. Three of these cases, in which the ICRC had directly intervened, had subsequently died because of administrative and security clearance delays.
The Red Cross said Israel had the right to protect its population but "the balance between [its] legitimate security concerns and the right of the Palestinian people to live a normal life has not been struck".
The agency coupled its call for Israel to take "immediate" action to ease the closures with one for the Palestinian factions to stop attacking civilian areas. A woman was wounded yesterday when a Qassam rocket fired from Gaza hit her home in Sderot. But Beatrice Megevand Roggo, the ICRC's regional head of operations, said the civilian Palestinian population had now "effectively become a hostage to the conflict".
The World Bank backed the three-year reform and development plan Mr Fayyad is offering as a basis for a future Palestinian state in return for the cash injection. But it warned that if the Israeli restrictions remained in place, the plan would at best merely slow down the "downward cycle of crisis and dependence".
Mr Fayyad stressed that "sustainable jobs" for Palestinians could only be assured by a private sector relieved of the current physical constraints that are crippling it in the West Bank and have led to its near-total closure in Gaza. He said: "Unless there is progress on that point no amount of money will compensate for the loss of normal life and normal activity."
The Bank predicted that if donors pledged the full $5.6bn over three years and there was a progressive lifting of closures by Israel, the stricken Palestinian economy could be headed for "double digit growth". But if the restrictions remained in place it would keep shrinking by 2 per cent per year. In the worst case – a shortfall in donations and continuing restrictions– growth would fall sharply and "already growing poverty levels will rise dramatically" .
Mr Blair, the international Middle East envoy, has repeatedly said that the negotiating process on a solution to the conflict initiated by the Annapolis summit, measures by the Ramallah government to impose security in the West Bank, and an easing of restrictions by Israel are mutually interdependent.
Mr Blair, Mr Fayyad and the Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, said yesterday they had made progress on four specific projects identified as improving the lives of Palestinians. But while welcoming the projects, Mr Fayyad said he had no guarantees from Israel of a more general easing of restrictions. "There has not been much progress in the six months since we took over," he added.
Mr Fayyad, whose administration is still at loggerheads with the Hamas de facto administration in Gaza, said he had made clear he wanted to see a reopening of the Karni cargo crossing, closure of which has shut down Gaza's industry and denied entry to all goods except humanitarian basics. Mr Fayyad, whose government has offered to supply trained security forces at the crossing point added: "We are prepared to accept our responsibility if Israel agrees to lift the blockade."
Israel maintains that it cannot ease most restrictions in the West Bank until the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah clamps down on armed factions posing a security threat to its own citizens. Mr Fayyad said recent steps – including the deployment of hundreds of internationally trained security forces in Nablus – had been welcomed by local residents as a means of improving law and order.
Hinting he hoped donors would apply pressure on Israel to ease the restrictions Mr Fayyad said it was an "interest" of the donors to see progress on all three fronts, political, economic, and security. "If you are investing in peace you want to see that the requirements for peace are met."