237,659 internally displaced Palestinian civilians are taking shelter in 81 United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools. (Photo: UNRWA)
Israel has been refusing to allow employees of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to enter the Gaza Strip in order to conduct their own independent investigations into the fighting, using various bureaucratic excuses.
Both human rights organizations have been trying to obtain permission from the Civil Administration to enter Gaza since July 7. Two different reasons have been cited for the refusals: The first is that the Erez border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip is closed and no entry permits are being granted until further notice; the second is neither group is registered with the Social Affairs Ministry as a humanitarian aid organization.
In fact, Erez was open throughout most of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, which began on July 8. Among others, journalists, United Nations employees and Palestinians needing medical care or returning from abroad (with special permits), were allowed to pass through.
The spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories told Haaretz yesterday that it was suggested to both groups that they submit a special request with the COGAT ombudsman, but that no such request had as yet been received. Human Rights Watch said it had only received the suggestion late last week. Amnesty said it had not heard of the suggestion at all.
Both organizations had hoped to have researchers in the Strip during the fighting, accompanied by weapons and munitions experts with military backgrounds: Figures in the NGOs said there are no Palestinians in Gaza with the requisite professional military knowledge to independently evaluate claims being made by both the Palestinians and Israelis. While testimonies can be taken and cross-checked after the fact, physical evidence such as shell impact craters or traces from munitions is usually removed quickly.
Both groups have in the past published reports critical of Hamas. Following Operation Cast Lead (2009) and Operation Pillar of Defense (2012) they documented incidents that raised allegations of war crimes by Israel. It should be noted that both groups conduct investigations in the West Bank and in Israel proper without any interference from the authorities.
Human Right Watch investigators have been barred from entering Gaza via the Erez crossing since 2006, while Amnesty’s people have been barred since June 2012. Until the Morsi government in Egypt was brought down, they would enter Gaza from Egyptian territory through the Rafah crossing. On December 6, 2012, the international department of the Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration (which is part of the Civil Administration) told Amnesty that it would no longer process its requests to enter the Strip because it only handles requests from groups registered as aid groups with either the Israel Foreign Ministry or the Social Affairs Ministry. The notice acknowledged that this was a change in policy and said the change had come “from a higher authority.”
In subsequent discussions that Amnesty held with the Israeli authorities, it emerged that only UN agencies are registered with the Foreign Ministry. Yonatan Gher, Amnesty’s executive director in Israel, told Haaretz that the Foreign Ministry had specifically told his group that it couldn’t register with the ministry. As for the Social Affairs Ministry, the group explained that it doesn’t fall under the category of aid or humanitarian organizations that work regularly in the territories, and which register with that ministry to get work permits. Gher said that while he had gotten verbal promises from the Civil Administration that it would continue to accept Amnesty’s entrance requests, in recent weeks the only thing that had been raised is registering with the Social Affairs Ministry.
Bill van Esveld, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said he was first told by the Civil Administration offices in Beit El that his requests to enter the Strip were not being handled because of the military situation, but the Coordination and Liaison Administration at the Erez crossing told him that his requests weren’t being handled because the organization wasn’t registered with the foreign or the social affairs ministries.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said in a response that he had no knowledge of the complaints by Human Rights Watch. Regarding Amnesty, Palmor said its people could not enter Gaza because it isn’t registered with the Social Affairs Ministry.
“Entrance to the Gaza Strip through the Erez crossing is permitted primarily to humanitarian and aid organizations, journalists, diplomats, and international political officials. This is government policy and the criteria that the government set. I am not aware of any effort to withhold entry permits or registration from Amnesty for any political reason. As noted, the organization, by its own admission, does not meet the criterion set [humanitarian aid].
Amnesty has asked several European foreign ministries to raise the issue with Israeli diplomats and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. No response has been received as yet.
COGAT’s written guidelines for the passage of foreigners through the Erez crossing, from September 2013, says employees of unrecognized (i.e., not registered with the Social Affairs Ministry) organization “may submit an exceptional request that will be considered in light of the prevailing policy based on the political-security situation.” In other words, the guidelines acknowledge the option of granting a permit to cross at Erez, if the authorities are interested in doing so.