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.

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.

His family submitted an application to take him there on Aug. 28, and the hospital was expecting them on Sept. 13. But the family never got a response from the Israeli authorities and missed the appointment they didn't know they had. The case was taken on by PHR Israel, which has been successful in the past in expediting the handling of urgent medical cases.

"We couldn't do a thing, since COGAT has stopped answering our phone calls and stopped cooperating with us," says Ran Yaron, director of PHR-Israel's Occupied Territories department.

"The lower-level officers were told not to pick up the phone, and on the rare cases that they do, they tell us, 'We don't work with you. If you need answers or to check the status of a case, go ask the Palestinian Authority.'"

However, he points out, only the Israeli military and COGAT, which is a division of Israel's Defense Ministry, has the ability to decide on an individual case.

The attitude of the military toward human rights groups has changed significantly since the war in Gaza, Mr. Yaron notes, and in particular this summer since the group Breaking the Silence released a series of controversial anonymous soldier testimonies that suggested shocking behavior in Gaza, which army officials have declared unreliable because they cannot be verified.

Army spokesman: Rights groups get in the way

The increased media attention over baby Mutasem in the past week, when the human rights groups lodged an official complaint against the new policy and launched a campaign to reverse the decision to shut them out, was likely what helped him get out of Gaza on Thursday.

As his father was crossing through the Erez checkpoint at midday, he told a Monitor reporter of a long ordeal from the day his son was born.

"Today I am here at Erez, and the life of the son I'm holding is in the hands of the Israeli army, which can help him survive or let him die," said Mohammed Abu-Mastfa, from the Khan Younis area of Gaza. After the family waited for weeks for an answer, he explained, they were told by the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs that their permit was refused. No reason was given. "We've spent a lot of time just watching him suffering," he said.

Maj. Guy Inbar, the spokesman for COGAT, says that the human rights groups have blown the issue out of proportion and are refusing to accept that the army insists all requests should come via the Palestinian office in Gaza.

"What we said in this letter is that there is a mechanism, and we intend that it will work as it should," Inbar said. "If the Palestinian Authority wants the population in the Gaza Strip to enter Israel for whatever reason, they should bring it to the attention of Palestinian coordinator. What the human rights organizations do is that they interfere in that mechanism. Most of the time they just get in the way, instead of doing it right."

Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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