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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    In the minority: Sari Bashi, director of human rights group Gisha, says Israel is responsible for Gazan civilians.
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With the sleek tower of the Israeli defense ministry dominating the skyline outside her office window, Israeli-American human rights lawyer Sari Bashi wages a counter offensive on the military's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Breaking with mainstream Israelis who turned their backs on Gaza after the army pullout three years ago, the graduate of Yale Law School and an Orthodox Jewish elementary school argued in Israel's Supreme Court Thursday that Israel is still responsible for the well-being of Gaza's civilians.

As the head of Gisha, a legal group that lobbies for freedom of movement for Palestinians, Ms. Bashi is at the forefront of a small coalition of human rights groups pressing the government to ensure water, electricity, and medical supplies are restored for Gazans.

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"Today we're fighting for their right to exist at the most basic level, and that is tragic," she says. "Because the long-term damage that we're doing in Gaza right now by destroying the infrastructure and traumatizing civilians ... is going to make it very difficult to build a better future in this region."

The Supreme Court appearance was part of a petition to force the government to allow fuel into Gaza so electricity plants can supply power for water pumps and to enable Palestinian technicians to fix downed power cables.

On Wednesday, the Israeli human rights coalition held a press conference to call for an international investigation into alleged war crimes by the Israeli army. In addition to pressure for a renewal of Gaza's water and electricity supply, the coalition called on the army to stop targeting civilian buildings and to allow civilians escape routes to flee battle zones.

When Israelis unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, pulling out soldiers and uprooting settlements, there was a sigh of relief that their four-decade-long occupation of the enclave was over.

The contention that with the withdrawal Palestinians lost their casus belli to launch cross-border attacks into Israel is one of the main reasons why the onslaught against Hamas enjoys wide support in Israel. A poll published Thursday in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper found that 78 percent of the public believe the war is a success. So strong is the approval that a recent demonstration in favor of a cease-fire by Peace Now only drew about 1,000 people.

Experts cite eight years of Israeli malaise after the 2000 Camp David peace conference collapsed into the Palestinian uprising. "Some of the people in the peace camp lost hope in the Palestinians, and some left hope in the Israelis," says Akiva Eldar, a political commentator for Haaretz. "Some don't believe a two-state solution is practical and doable."

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.

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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