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Amid broad Israeli support for Gaza war, a rare dissenting voice

Sari Bashi of the group Gisha argued before the Israeli Supreme Court Thursday that Israel is still responsible for Gazan civilians because it controls the enclave's borders, airspace, and sea space.

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Despite the US-brokered agreement in 2005 that aspired to keep Gaza's borders open after the Israeli withdrawal, Israel has restricted traffic of people and goods, citing security considerations. Since Hamas overran Gaza in 2007, it has been all but sealed except for basic supplies.

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Anticipating the difficulties moving in and out of Gaza following the withdrawal, Gisha has spent the past three years focusing on the cases of Gazan students with foreign scholarships being denied authorization from Israel to leave, as well as Palestinian families separated by the ban on movement between the West Bank and Gaza.

As Israel tightened supply restrictions, Gisha has also pushed Israel to allow more trucks and fuel shipments. The sanctions have decimated Gaza's economy, but haven't shaken Hamas's grip on power.

"There was a concern that if Israel left Gaza and closed the doors real tight we would have a problem. That's of course what happened," Bashi says. "Our goal is to get Israelis to stop targeting Palestinian civilians in Gaza under the guise of targeting Hamas. But it's very, very slow progress."

Victories have been rare. Though the legal and media pressure helped win a permit for a Palestinian student from Bethlehem to study at Hebrew University, Israel's Supreme Court rarely challenges the army in the West Bank or Gaza. In response to Gisha's petition this week, the state said the army's activities in Gaza are in keeping with international law and Israeli court rulings. The argument that Israel still is responsible for Gaza because it controls border crossings, its airspace and its sea space has outraged some Israelis.

"The issue of Israel being an occupying power is a Palestinian Liberation Organization claim," says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University who heads a watch-dog group that criticizes left-wing organizations. "They misuse ... international legal rhetoric."

As peace efforts have faltered, activists have been left on shakier ground. Bashi, who was accused by a Supreme Court justice of siding with militants, says she empathizes with the Israeli mainstream. The restrictions she fights are imposed because Israelis fear Hamas and rocket attacks, she says. "What we're trying to do is to remind Israel of its deeply held values. Human rights and humanitarian considerations are a part of the national credo, but they are buried, and they need to be uncovered."

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