Major international aid agencies urged all sides in the current Middle East crisis to allow aid to enter Lebanon as a potential humanitarian catastrophe threatened to take hold.
Agencies fear that the young and old will suffer further if aid is not allowed into Lebanon
Empty grocery shelves, underfed infants, blockaded supply routes and 500,000 fleeing their homes provided gloomy first signs of a brewing humanitarian disaster in Lebanon, aid groups said this week.
Fresh pledges of relief aid along with renewed warnings of an impending "catastrophe" rolled in Thursday after Lebanese officials told of "villagers under siege" and Israeli warplanes kept up their deadly bombardment of roads, bridges and buildings.
But even the offers of supplies and cash could prove impotent because the most insurmountable obstacle so far has been moving aid convoys and supplies into devastated areas due to demolished roadways and Israeli targeting of trucks.
"The humanitarian situation is catastrophic," Finance Minister Jihad Azour told reporters."Industries, factories, warehouses have been destroyed. Trucks are being targeted," he said, two days after a convoy of four trucks was pounded by an Israeli air strike.
Syrian and United Arab Emirates officials on the scene said the trucks were carrying aid supplies and had crossed into Lebanon from Syria. Israel said they were bearing weapons for the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Convoys and roads bombed
Bridges and roads have been targeted by Israeli air strikes
"We have a problem because we cannot send assistance to the regions. They keep bombing and destroying roads and bridges. The airport has been closed. They are imposing an air and sea blockade while bombarding the roads to Syria," Azour said.
The European Commission announced it would double its contribution by providing $12.6 million (9.97 million euros) in humanitarian aid to the victims of the Lebanon crisis, but did not specify through which channels the aid would be distributed.
UNICEF has allocated $7.5 million to channel supplies to Lebanon but warned of local supply problems."
The UN refugee agency also said it was preparing for a multi-million-dollar operation to help the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the crisis, and EU officials warned the number could quickly increase.
Half a million people already displaced
"We are facing a serious humanitarian crisis," said Amadeu Altafaj, spokesman for EU aid commissioner Louis Michel, citing figures indicating there are already 500,000 internally displaced people (IDP) in Lebanon.
Thousands of foreign nationals and Lebanese have been forced to flee
"But the figure could rapidly increase to 1million if the fighting continues," he added, supporting a call by French President Jacques Chirac for "humanitarian corridors" to be opened up in the region.
And, citing the EU commissioner, he added: "If the fighting doesn't stop... the situation could rapidly become catastrophic."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Israel to allow safe passage of humanitarian convoys amid "serious shortages of food and medicine," saying many towns near the Israeli Lebanese border are in "urgent need of supplies."
"Israel is legally obliged to permit free passage of materials essential for civilians and to protect humanitarian personnel delivering those supplies," HRW said.
In some villages in the south, it is already too late -- grocery store shelves have been stripped bare, and Social Affairs Minister Nayal Moawad has accused Israel of more sinister motives than trying to eliminate Hezbollah.
"Israel is starving the Lebanese"
"Israel is launching its offensive in order to starve the Lebanese," Moawad said. "We need aid, but what we need most urgently is the possibility to channel food and medicine."
Young children and babies could face malnutrition
The food shortages were rapidly affecting the youngest and most vulnerable.
"We're having problems with the malnutrition of babies," Freddy Yarak, an advisor to the social affairs ministry, was quoted as saying by HRW.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has also said that it was gravely concerned about the plight of civilians caught up in the conflict.
No distinction between civilian and military
"The obligation to distinguish between civilians and civilian property on the one hand, and military objectives on the other, is at the core of international humanitarian law and must be complied with at all times," it said.
Amid the exodus of foreign passport holders, aid groups said most of the half-million displaced Lebanese have remained inside Lebanon.
Israel has been accused of acting indiscriminately
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it would deploy aid teams in Lebanon and was poised to bring in relief supplies, particularly plastic sheeting, tents and blankets.
Algeria has sent a 16-member medical team to Syria to help victims, and France dispatched its first cargo-plane with medicines and surgical equipment, water-purification units, food rations, powdered milk and 40 field generators.
"The most basic human rights of the population are at risk or are being violated, including their rights to life, health and food," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said, warning that perpetrators in the conflict could be held to account for war crimes.