'Gaza closures may violate int'l law'

Rights group: US, EU mustn't sponsor agreements that are being used for collective punishment.

Navy gunships 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Navy gunships 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The US and the EU could be complicit in violating international law unless they insure the reopening of the Rafah crossings from Gaza into Egypt, according to charges made by Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement on Wednesday. It added that if the border were not opened, the US and EU should withdraw their sponsorship of the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) that set the operational guidelines for Rafah. It was a good document when it was first introduced, but in 2009 it had become one of the excuses that has allowed Israel, Egypt and the PA to keep the crossings closed, Gisha's director, Sari Bashi, said at a Jerusalem press conference. The international community had to stop "giving sponsorship to agreements that are being used for collective punishment," said Bashi. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibited the collective punishment of a population, she added. "The EU and the US must take steps to bring about the opening of the crossing without conditions and without insisting on the [implementation of the] AMA. "If they can not do that, they must withdraw their involvement from the arrangements" or "risk being complicit through tacit agreement in a policy" that had become a tool by which Israel has collectively punished the Palestinians in Gaza, she said. Although there are two major direct crossing from Israel into Gaza, her organization, as well as the Physicians for Human Rights - Israel, focused Wednesday on the Rafah crossing, partially because new policies have forced Gaza Palestinians to increasingly seek medical attention in Egypt. The two groups released a 183-page report on the history of the crossing and the freedom of movement and access in Gaza that painted a bleak picture of the sharp decline in traffic in and out of the area since June 2006. From November 25, 2005 until June 25, 2006, when Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, some 1,320 people crossed through Rafah in both directions on a daily basis. In the next year, the border closed for 265 days. An average of 468 people crossed daily, or put another way, the passage saw only 35% of the previous year's traffic. Gisha estimated that 852 people a day were prevented from using the crossing during that time. The border was closed altogether when Hamas took over Gaza in a bloody July 2007 coup, during which it kicked the Palestinian Authority out of the area, including the presidential guard, which was mandated to operate the crossing under the AMA. Since then, the Rafah border has been open only intermittently for very selected traffic, some three percent of past years, through a limited, informal arrangement between Egypt and Hamas. An agreement that would allow the reopening of Rafah has been stuck, because Hamas has refused an AMA condition that calls for the presidential guard to man that border. Israel has also linked the opening of that border to the release of captive soldier Gilad Schalit. Bashi said all the parties directly involved, Israel, Egypt, the PA and Hamas, could open the borders tomorrow if they truly willed it. "Each party, Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt deny responsibility for the closure and blame the other, such to make it seem as though no one is closing the crossing - yet the crossing is closed. "And each party says that the issue is a political one that will be resolved through negotiations, but the negotiations have reached a dead end politically, and Gaza residents are at a dead end physically," Bashi said. She added, "recently we saw the deadly consequences of the closure policy; for three weeks Gaza residents had nowhere to run from the ceaseless bombing." Israel, she said, does not want to open the crossing because it was trying to pressure Hamas to release Schalit, and in general to create conditions under which its regime would fall. Egypt was bowing to pressure from the US and Israel, and had its own internal reasons for not wanting to help Hamas, said Bashi. The Palestinian Authority doesn't want it to open unless they can be there, and Hamas only wants it to open if the PA is not there, she added. She called on Hamas and the PA to prioritize the rights of Gaza's residents and allow any initiative that would open the crossing. Ran Yaron, of Physicians for Human Rights - Israel, said that since Israel's January military incursion into Gaza the PA had stopped its policy of supporting medical care for Gaza Palestinians in Israel, either through referrals or financial reimbursement, and was instead paying only for care in Egypt. But medical care in Gaza had suffered not just from the closure of Rafah, but also from that of the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel, Yaron said. It was difficult to get medical supplies and machinery in, and doctors have a hard time traveling out for training, Yaron said. But while Bashi spoke of how the AMA had created an excuse to keep those crossing closed by insisting on conditions the parties did not want to fulfill, the European Union Board Assistance Mission said it still felt the document was critical. Under the AMA, EUBAM is supposed to be present at Rafah as an observer to ensure compliance. Its spokeswoman, Maria Telleria, said that while she felt the report was accurate from a historical and political point of view, she disagreed with its stance on the AMA. "The AMA is important for Israel's security and for the Palestinian's freedom of movement." "It is one of the most important pieces of the peace process," she added.