High Court decides to hear Gaza petitions

Breach of border with Egypt may reduce Israel's legal responsibility for Strip.

Rafah broken wall 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Rafah broken wall 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The High Court of Justice changed course on Thursday and scheduled a hearing for Sunday regarding the government's decision to reduce fuel and electricity supplies to the Gaza Strip. The court had previously refused three requests by Palestinian individuals and Israeli and Palestinian NGOs to schedule an early hearing on the issue. Although the court did not explain its decision, and had rejected the third request just three days earlier, it appeared that latest events in Gaza persuaded it that the matter required immediate attention. Two Palestinians and 10 human rights organizations petitioned the High Court on October 28, after the government announced it would reduce electricity and fuel supplies in the context of its decision to declare the area ruled by Hamas "hostile territory." On November 29, the court rejected the petitioners' request for an interim injunction temporarily prohibiting the state from reducing fuel supplies until the court ruled on the core request to cancel the cabinet's decision altogether. Later, the court said the next hearing on the petition would take place on February 3. On January 3, January 6 and January 21, the petitioners again asked the court to hold an urgent hearing on the grounds that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was deteriorating. Each time the court rejected the request. Apparently, the government decision to seal the border crossings, the complete power outage in Gaza City and the massive exodus of Gazans into Sinai changed the justices' mind. According to Sari Bashi, director-general of Gisha, one of the groups petitioning against the cuts, the fact that the border between Egypt and Gaza has been breached does not, at least for the time being, change the fact that Israel is responsible for the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Since Israel withdrew from the Strip in 2005, Gisha has maintained that Israel still effectively occupies Gaza because it controls all land, sea and air access to the territory. "Our position on Israel's status vis-à-vis Gaza will be determined by whether or not it continues to control access to Gaza or not," Bashi told The Jerusalem Post. "The next few days and weeks will give us the answer." Since Israel completed its unilateral disengagement from Gaza in September 2005, its position has been that it no longer occupies Gaza and does not have the responsibilities of an occupying power. The breaching of the border between Egypt and Gaza can only strengthen Israel's argument vis-à-vis the international community that it does not have effective control over Gaza. Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's head Middle East researcher, said the question of Israel's responsibilities would change "to a significant extent" if the border between Egypt and Gaza remained open. "But the chances of that happening are not great," she added. Rovera said that even if there was access by land between Egypt and Gaza, Israel will still control air and sea access to the Strip. It will also be able to prevent residents of Gaza from entering the West Bank, even though the two are regarded as one entity. "Either an entity is occupied or it is sovereign or belongs to a sovereign country," said Rovera. "There is no in-between status." Bashi said the events along the Gaza-Egyptian border made no difference regarding the High Court petition. Fuel and electricity were humanitarian commodities, and therefore Israel had no right to limit them, she said. "Israel has no right to ration out humanitarian goods based on its speculative estimate of Gaza's needs," said Bashi. "Gaza is entitled to the fuel it says it needs." She added that in October, when Israel decided to reduce industrial diesel to operate the Gaza power station, it was allowing 2.2 million liters into Gaza per week. It cut the supply to 1.75 million, and then recently informed the High Court that it would restore the amount to 2.2 million. Not only has it not kept its word, said Bashi, but the fact is that Gaza needs 3.5 million liters per week now because it is winter and because it has obtained an additional turbine that would increase the Gaza power plant output to 80 megawatts. Even after all that, Gaza would have no more than 217 megawatts of power, less than the estimated 230-240 Palestinian officials say it needs. At the same time, Israel cut regular diesel supplies from 1.4 million liters a week to 1.2. The regular diesel is used to operate generators when electricity is unavailable and to operate water well pumps. Here, too, Israel said it would restore the supply to pre-October 28 levels but has not done so yet. According to Bashi, Gaza needs more than the amount it received prior to the October 28 cut.