Israel blocks rights groups from advocating for Gazans
Human rights groups that help Palestinians with urgent requests to leave Gaza – often for medical care – can no longer directly petition the Israeli authorities.
While the Israeli army's crossings into Gaza have gone into near-lockdown mode since Hamas wrested control of the coastal strip more than two years ago, Israeli human rights organizations have regularly stepped in to intervene, with some success.Skip to next paragraph
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That is, until last week. On Sunday, a group of the most active human rights groups here were informed that the government-run body that controls access to and from Gaza will no longer deal with them.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) sent an official letter on Sept. 13 to three human rights groups informing them that they would no longer be able to act on behalf of Palestinians with urgent requests to leave Gaza – generally for medical care, to visit a sick family member, or to attend a funeral. They must instead refer such requests to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee, in accordance with the Interim Agreement – the basis of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation established in 1995 under the Oslo peace process.
The letter notes that the "longstanding" policy of carrying out such appeals in conjunction with Palestinian authorities has been approved by Israel's High Court of Justice. But the organizations say it is part of the military's increasing resistance to working with human rights groups in the wake of the Gaza war.
The organizations include Gisha: the Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, and HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual. They say they have increasingly had their appeals ignored since the war in January. This latest step, the groups complain, takes away one of the few avenues of recourse available to desperate Palestinians.
"Gaza residents have no direct access to the [Israeli] military officials who decide their fates, and up until now they had a chance to have an advocate bring their case before the military and get some sense of due process," says Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, based in Tel Aviv.
Ms. Bashi, a lawyer, says Gisha and other groups only pick up cases where Palestinians who applied for permits – which they are told to do through the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee – either had their applications rejected or were never given an answer.
"The new procedure means that Palestinians no longer have a right to have an advocate that they chose to help them, and everyone has a right to an advocate," Bashi says.
The case of baby Mutasem
The case of 9-month-old Mutasem Billah Abu-Mastfa, a Gazan baby diagnosed with a severe heart condition, illustrates well the delay and confusion Palestinian families with urgent health issues are facing – and the powerlessness of human rights groups to help. Due to a deterioration of his condition, his doctors in Gaza referred him for treatment at Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer, Israel.