A group of aid agencies and human rights organizations say the people of the Gaza Strip are suffering the worst conditions since Israel occupied the territory in 1967.
The damning report on the humanitarian situation released on Thursday says that 80 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants are now dependent on food aid, while unemployment is close to 40 percent.
The report, sponsored by eight British-based groups including Oxfam, Amnesty International UK and CARE International UK, also describes the terrible situation in hospitals where power cuts can last up to 12 hours a day, and where up to 18 percent of patients seeking emergency treatment outside of Gaza were refused permission to leave last year. The organizations warn that the water and sewage systems are close to collapse, with 40-50 million liters of sewage pouring into the sea every day.
The report comes hot on the heels of the Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip that killed 125 people last week, many of them civilians. The incursion was a response to the escalation in rocket attacks fired by militants at Israel, which killed one person last week. The Israeli response was condemned by many international observers as disproportionate.
"Israel has the right and obligation to protect its citizens, but as the occupying power in Gaza it has a legal duty to ensure that Gazans have access to food, clean water, electricity and medical care," said Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen on Thursday. "Punishing the entire Gazan population by denying them these basic rights is utterly indefensible."
Israel's Defense Ministry rejected the report, saying Hamas, the militant Islamist rulers in Gaza, was to blame for the hardships. It also pointed out that medicines and medical equipment were shipped into Gaza without limitations.
Israel and the West shun Hamas, labelled a terrorist organization, and have refused to deal directly with the group since it forcibly took control of Gaza last June. Since then Israel has imposed a blockade on the territory, virtually freezing economic activity there.
In response to the Israeli military action over the past week, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who now only controls the West Bank, broke off peace negotiations with the Israelis. However, under pressure from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who traveled to the region on Wednesday, Abbas agreed to resume talks and to drop a demand that Israel first reach a truce with Hamas in Gaza.
The ongoing talks are supposed to prepare the way for a deal on a Palestinian state this year but Israeli military action in Gaza and Abbas' lack of authority there have made negotiations difficult.
While the Israeli media reported on Thursday that peace talks could resume as early as this week, progress could be undermined by ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip, which looks set to continue.
On Thursday morning an Israeli soldier was killed and another seriously injured when Palestinian militants blew up an Israeli army jeep on the border with the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army said. A spokesman for the Islamic Jihad militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, according to Reuters.
On Wednesday a senior United Nations official warned that the dire conditions in Gaza would deteriorate even further if Israeli military action escalated. "It would be devastating," John Ging, director of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, told Reuters. "The whole infrastructure is in a state of collapse, whether it's water, sanitation or just the medical services, " he said. "If there's a further military offensive it will again just compound an already desperate situation."