Israeli human rights organizations are in an uproar after being notified earlier this week that army officials would no longer respond to applications they filed on behalf of Gaza residents needing to enter Israel for medical treatment. But the IDF insists it is merely "clarifying proper working procedures."
On Thursday, the organizations, which included Physicians for Human Rights Israel, Gisha - Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, and HaMoked - Center for the Defense of the Individual, sent a letter to Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, the acting coordinator of government activities in the territories, and Col. Moshe Levi, head of the Gaza District Coordination Office (DCO), blasting the decision and asking them to revoke it.
The anger stemmed from a letter Levi sent to the directors of the three groups on Sunday, informing them that "as of September 15, 2009, all your applications regarding the entry of Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip to Israeli territory should be directed, in accordance with the interim agreement, to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee [PCAC]."
The letter acknowledged that in the past, "especially since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, applications relating to medical treatment in Israel, particularly emergency medical cases, have temporarily been processed even if sent directly to coordination officials, and not via the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee, as is required."
Ran Yaron, director of PHR-Israel's Occupied Territories department, said the decision meant that sick Palestinians would not receive adequate treatment and would have no way to appeal the army's decisions if the PCAC's petition were declined. He explained that the PCAC could neither file appeals nor advocate on the residents' behalf.
"For 20 years we have been helping Palestinian residents receive treatment in Israel. We approach the army on behalf of people whose applications for entrance to Israel for humanitarian medical treatment are for some reason denied," said Yaron.
He explained that all requests for entry (800 a month) first went through the PCAC, but that on average, 37% of them were refused. Palestinians whose applications were rejected could then turn to human rights organizations, which would appeal to the DCO on their behalf.
"We provide medical evaluations by Israeli doctors, advocate their cause before the Israeli authorities and foreign embassies and help them make it into the country. If the existing mechanism functioned properly, we wouldn't need to be here," said Yaron.
He added that the army's decision reflected an ongoing campaign of delegitimization that the Israeli government had been conducting against Israeli human rights organizations over the last year.
"It started after Operation Cast Lead, with the attack on Breaking the Silence. It continued with the government's efforts to undermine our funding," he said. "We at PHR also feel it in our humanitarian activities with the military not allowing us to enter Gaza, which we were allowed to do in the past."
He said he didn't know the precise reasons the relationship had soured, but speculated that it may have been because of the organization's advocacy work, which was often critical of the government's actions in Gaza.
"This kind of conduct, in which a government authority attempts to impede the activities of human rights organizations, to drive them away and to make their work more difficult - to effectively 'boycott' them - is characteristic of tyrannical regimes and is inconceivable in a democratic state," read the letter addressed to Gilad.
When approached for a response, Gilad's office denied the claims that it had broken off ties with the human rights organization.
"The letter by the Gaza DCO commander was meant to clarify proper working procedures, according to which the DCO operates with the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee alone in an effort to streamline the procedures," said a statement from the office.
"The coordinator of government activities in the territories and the Gaza DCO work tirelessly to guarantee humanitarian response to the residents of Gaza in consort with Palestinian elements in the Strip (operating under the Fayad government in Ramallah)," the statement went on, adding that the coordinator "acknowledges and appreciates the work of human rights organizations and stresses that there has been no change to the humanitarian aid policy in the Gaza strip."
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University and director of NGO Monitor, said that the human rights groups' claims were designed to raise the public visibility of the organizations and their agendas.
"The intense conflict that has been ongoing, especially since the violent Hamas coup that took over Gaza, has disrupted even the most basic humanitarian relations, and that letter should have been addressed to Hamas and Palestinian leaders," he asserted. "The main purpose is not humanitarian assistance, but rather to promote the political agendas of these organizations."
When asked why the army may have blocked off access at this time, Steinberg responded that "these organizations have been campaigning against Israel for years. These groups, which are funded primarily by European governments to promote this agenda, contributed to the Goldstone Report, and they try to demonize Israel's response to terrorism. So therefore there is a response to thatâ€¦. They expect that they can attack, but they will have immunity from any kind of response. What the Israeli government is saying is that that is not how the process works."