It seemed like a straightforward request: two Palestinian brothers living abroad wanted to visit their critically ill mother in Gaza. Monir and Asham Elrayes, both Canadian citizens, applied to the Israeli authorities for permission to enter Gaza. They included all the relevant medical documents as required, but received no response.Two months later when they learned their mother was dying, they flew to Israel together with Monir’s son, Nahedh. Their now urgent renewed request to enter Gaza was taken up by the Israeli non-profit Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, but there was still no reply from Israeli authorities. While they were waiting their mother died. Only after an additional formal request was filed by Gisha were they allowed to enter Gaza to attend the funeral. Responding to The Jerusalem Report’s query, Israel’s Coordination and Liaison Administration for Gaza (CLA) said that a “malfunction caused a delay in response after the initial request” and that the family was granted a permit to enter Gaza three days after the mother had died.The Elrayes incident is one of hundreds of human rights cases involving movement to and from Gaza that the not-for-profit Gisha deals with annually. The organization, whose name means both “access” and “approach,” has its goal being the protection of the freedom of movement of Palestinians, mainly those living in the Gaza Strip.Gisha was co-founded by Kenneth Mann, former chief public defender in Israel’s Justice Ministry and professor of law at Tel Aviv University, and Sari Bashi, today a lecturer in law at Yale Law School, in 2005. That was the year when Israel, under prime minister Ariel Sharon, carried out its disengagement from Gaza, withdrawing the army, dismantling all 21 Israeli settlements, and evacuating some 9,000 Israeli citizens.This was the removal of people, but not of control. Israel continued to maintain total external control over air and sea space, and six of Gaza’s seven land crossings: everything and everyone coming in and everything and everyone going out.Less than two years later following deadly clashes, the terrorist Islamic group Hamas usurped power from the secular PLO-affiliated Fatah party in Gaza. The Hamas takeover was followed almost immediately by rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip.In September 2007, Israel declared the Gaza Strip “a hostile political entity.” Today, almost 12 years later, after thousands of rocket and mortar attacks followed by heavy Israeli bombing, Gaza – whose population relies mostly on imported food, medicine and energy – remains under permanent closure.Israel’s military has developed a complex system of rules and sanctions to control the movement of the 4.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza. Very few of the more than two million residents of Gaza are eligible to even apply for permits to leave. The narrow criteria for traveling to Israel, the West Bank or abroad include patients receiving medical care not available in Gaza; students going to study abroad (though not to the West Bank and only for graduate students); people whose first-degree relative is critically ill; or to attend funerals or weddings of first-degree relatives. There is also a limited number of merchants who are given special permits.But even these “humanitarian exceptions” often take months to process, or the applications are simply ignored. Regarding the Elrayes case, Gisha’s spokesperson Miriam Marmur calls the Israeli authority’s answer “unsurprising. This isn’t the first time that they claim that there is some type of malfunction causing them to overlook life-changing permit applications for inordinate periods of time.” Gisha’s goal is to help their “clients” navigate, through legal advocacy, the complicated bureaucratic process to obtain what they view as the Palestinians’ right of freedom of movement, based on Israeli and international human rights laws.“We are not a humanitarian organization but a human rights organization,” emphasizes Gisha’s executive director, Tania Hary. “This means that people should have access to the full gamut of rights, not just for basic needs. If you look at the situation today in Gaza, one of the main ways of control is denial of access. No one denies that. Freedom of movement, of course, has a multiplier effect on a host of other rights: health, education, environmental standards, livelihood, and family life. Everything at the end of the day depends on movement and access.”Israel insists that the stringent control over who can enter and leave Gaza is for the purpose of security screening – anyone passing through the northernmost Erez checkpoint, the only exit open for people, must pass several security checks. But this doesn’t explain the limited criteria nor the excessive length of time involved in obtaining permits.“Palestinians who want to travel in or out of Gaza must have a first-degree relative who is dying or getting married,” says Hary. “So we’re often arguing whether a mother is sick enough to warrant getting a permit. We recently argued a case for a man whose father had had a stroke. By the time the [authorities] answered months had gone by, and they asked for a new medical evaluation. When they saw the father’s situation had improved slightly, they said it was no longer an emergency situation so the exit permit was denied.“This just proves to us what we already know: that this has nothing to do with security,” she continues. “It doesn’t even enter the dialogue. It’s only a question of whether they meet the criteria.” For those few Gaza residents who do meet the strict criteria, the Gisha office in Tel Aviv provides pro-bono legal representation. But the first step for potential clients is the intake unit, staffed by Arabic speakers.“We start getting phone calls in the morning from people in Gaza asking for help,” explains Intake Coordinator Huda Abu Obeid, a law student from the Negev Bedouin town of Laqiya who has been working at Gisha for four years. “We ask them all the relevant questions and open a legal file. We rarely see the clients face to face.”
Abu Obeid admits that “there is daily stress dealing with these people, and you have to cope emotionally. There are some really difficult cases that we can’t help.”
She relates a recent case of a woman pharmacist in Gaza who asked to go to Tel Aviv in order to sit for an international exam in clinical pharmacy. Medical professionals may be granted permits to attend training in the West Bank, but the authorities did not allow its in her case.Following an appeal to the court in Beersheba, the judge agreed, but in the meantime she had missed the date. The pharmacist eventually sat for the exam in Cairo, having passed through the sole crossing point between Gaza and Egypt at Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border.In another recent case taken up by Gisha, a Palestinian woman born in the West Bank who married a man from the Gaza Strip has been barred from returning to the West Bank. Shada Shandghali, 23, now the mother of two and finding living conditions in Gaza intolerable, submitted multiple requests to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) to be allowed to return to the West Bank. All of them were unanswered.In a court hearing on the case brought by Gisha, the state representative declared that Shandghali had signed a document declaring that she had settled in the Gaza Strip, which meant her movements were restricted like all other Gaza residents and therefore she was no longer entitled to live in the West Bank. Gisha maintained that on her way to Gaza to get married she was made to sign documents she didn’t understand. “Her story is something we see over and over again, as part of Israel’s overall policy of minimizing all movement between Gaza and the West Bank,” says Gisha spokesperson Marmur.Gisha’s field coordinator in Gaza, Mohammed Azaiza, is the only employee who actually lives in Gaza. An occupational therapist, Azaiza carries out research on Gaza on behalf of the organization. The picture is grim: a third of Gaza’s farmland and most of its fishing waters are totally or partially inaccessible (the “access restricted areas”), most of the water is undrinkable, and 38% of the population is living in poverty. The suicide rate among the young has markedly increased.
Azaiza believes that by describing in his reports the situation on the ground, “I’m telling the Israeli people what life is really like in Gaza.”His own experience mirrors that of many of Gisha’s clients. In 2004, he and another 11 students were awarded scholarships to study occupational therapy at Bethlehem University, but the Israeli authorities refused to let them move to the West Bank. Gisha tried to help by petitioning the High Court, but the students were denied permits.In the end, they studied via video conferencing and did their practical field work in Egypt where their final exam was administered. After graduation in a ceremony held in Gaza City, Azaiza worked as a project officer for Mercy Corps to help young children affected by the war and in need of psychological and social support. Afterward he started working for Gisha.“It’s not easy at all to be working with an Israeli organization,” admits Azaiza.FOR THE annual Christmas and Easter holidays, a limited number of Gaza’s tiny Christian community are often allocated a quota of permits to visit Christian holy sites in the West Bank and Israel. COGAT states the permits are given during religious holidays “in order to honor Gaza’s Christian and Muslim communities as part of a policy aimed at encouraging religious worship for all religions.”The problem, says Marmur, is that the arbitrary quotas for the exit permits are always published at the last minute, often after the holiday has begun, or the applications simply go unanswered.“Every holiday there is some kind of issue,” she says. “Last Easter COGAT said permits would not be issued to Gaza residents whose family members had ‘overstayed’ their permits in the past. From our point of view, this is yet another means of exerting pressure on Palestinians living under Israel’s control. They were saying: ‘Tell your family members to return to Gaza in time or you won’t get a permit.’ It’s collective punishment.”This year for Easter, the exit quota for members of the community was at first limited to 200 people over 55, and only for travel to Jordan via the Allenby Bridge, with no possibility of going to Jerusalem or the West Bank. This was the first time Israel had totally denied Gazan Christians access to the Christian holy sites on Easter or Christmas.Following publicity in international and local media, COGAT added a quota of 300 Easter permits to Gaza Christians for travel to the West Bank and Jerusalem.“Israel has an obligation to respect the rights of Gaza residents, including to freedom of movement and religion,” read a statement from Gisha. “There is no justification for the small, arbitrary quota of only 300 permits to the West Bank/Jerusalem, or for the last-minute announcement – leaving people very little time to prepare and no time to appeal if they were denied a permit.”Gisha claims an 84% success rate over the years in arranging travel permits, and has also contributed in other areas such as ending the ban on the importing of most civilian goods into Gaza.“Hamas is still there, still firing rockets, still building tunnels, but I think Israeli officials realize you can’t go on squeezing the population,” says Hary. “People recognize there’s a situation that’s unattainable, though it may not come from our perspective of human rights…there is a discourse out there.”
While the organization is very well known among Palestinians, this is not the case in Israel.“Unlike some other human rights organizations, Gisha has not been dragged through the mud, so Gisha has less visibility,” continues Hary. “Maybe we’re a bit quieter than the other organizations, but you might know our work without knowing the organization.”THIS PAST January, Gisha – together with Physicians for Human Rights and HaMoked Center for the Defense of the Individual – submitted a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice to order the system expedited, demanding that Israel amend its guidelines on the processing times of permit applications by Gaza residents. Gisha argued that because every request to leave Gaza takes so long to be handled, there is the constant problem of missed appointments not only for critical medical treatments and funerals, but events with concrete deadlines such as scheduled interviews at consulates, international examinations, and conferences.“One might wonder why we’re making such a fuss over a procedural matter,” commented attorney Osnat Cohen-Lifshitz, director of Gisha’s legal department, who presented the petition to the High Court. “What does it matter if it is 40 days or 50 days or 60 days before you get an answer? The petition is important because it shows how a state can take an issue that seems perfectly innocent and turn it into a sort of whip on people for whom they have no intention of providing a service. It’s a daily punishment and violation of people’s rights.”The court, however, ruled against intervening in the procedures, stating it would not deal with the general principle but only individual cases. The state notified the court that “during the coming year, the procedures will be reexamined.”