Gisha’s individual legal assistance has helped thousands of people to travel in order to unite with their families, access professional, commercial and educational opportunities and to receive vital medical care. In this way, Gisha is contributing to the development of an independent economy, a sustainable civil society and to the functioning of normal life in the Palestinian Territory.
Gisha’s work has also led to changes in access policies in the Occupied Territory and greater awareness about the impact of violations of human rights. For example, Gisha’s legal and public advocacy led Israel to lift the ban preventing students from the West Bank from studying at Israeli universities. Gisha also successfully challenged the closure of Gaza, enabling several hundred students from Gaza to travel abroad via Israel in order to reach academic opportunities in foreign countries. Likewise, Gisha’s advocacy contributed to the decision by Egypt to allow students to travel from Gaza through the Rafah Crossing, enabling hundreds more students to travel abroad to study and highlighting Egypt’s obligations to permit travel through its territory when other options for travel are blocked.
In addition to the individual legal assistance provided, Gisha regularly initiates media coverage in the Israeli and foreign press about access issues and promotes transparency in order to change policy and press for accountability for violations of rights. Through a prolonged legal struggle, Gisha exposed official Israeli Defense Ministry documents – whose existence the state had first denied – containing the criteria according to which the closure of Gaza was implemented until mid-2010. Among other things, the documents show that Israel employed mathematical formulas to calculate the basic consumption needs of residents in Gaza and approved “a policy of deliberate reduction” for basic goods in the Gaza Strip. Gisha’s persistent legal and public advocacy regarding the ban on the transfer of many types of goods into Gaza, which received broad public exposure following the flotilla incident, played an important part in the lifting of the ban on the majority of items in June 2010.
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There are international human rights organizations whose activity covers human rights violations in different countries, and there are local organizations which hold to account local government authorities. Gisha is an Israeli human rights organization, and as such we are responsible for ensuring that our public representatives respect human rights and that there is an open public discussion of their actions and policies. Gisha’s legal team works vis-à-vis Israeli authorities through official channels, and we consider our main responsibility to be holding to account the institutions and representatives of the state in which we work and demanding that they uphold the law, respect human rights and maintain transparency.
Gisha also analyzes the responsibility of additional parties – mainly Egypt, the PA and Hamas – to allow freedom of movement and to fulfill their obligations in the areas where they have influence. We seek to clarify Israel’s responsibilities and those responsibilities that belong to other actors. Gisha also maintains close relations with Palestinian human rights organizations, which work to ensure that Palestinian officials and authorities, in both Gaza and the West Bank, protect the rights of the people over whom they exercise control. Gisha deeply respects and appreciates the work of our Palestinian colleagues in the human rights community.
Gisha is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit organization, with no political affiliation, and is legally registered in Israel. Gisha employs a professional staff and senior figures from the fields of law and academia serve on its board. The organization’s agenda is dictated by the principles of international law and human rights and not by one political position or another. Gisha does not have a position regarding political solutions concerning the Occupied Territory, except for the degree to which these guarantee the protection of human rights of those living there.
Israeli officials and other parties treat the closure of the Gaza Strip as a political issue. Gisha emphasizes that the right of 1.99 million Palestinian residents of Gaza to leave the Strip and to return to it is not a political issue but a basic right, which the parties controlling the crossings into the Gaza Strip are obligated to honor and uphold.
Gisha’s information department, including the organization’s field coordinator who lives in Gaza, is responsible for collecting and cross-checking information by interviewing residents, requesting information from Israeli, Palestinian and foreign authorities and reviewing data from professional bodies and international organizations. Gisha adheres to strict criteria regarding the credibility of the information on which it relies. Usually there is no dispute between Gisha and the state over data and facts, but rather over interpretation and the context in which the data is presented.
A large part of Gisha’s information comes from state bodies, especially the Israeli army and Defense Ministry. Gisha acquires most of its knowledge about Israel’s travel policy in Gaza by representing Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, and sometimes foreigners who are trying to enter or exit or transfer goods into and out of the Gaza Strip. The organization petitions state and military authorities on their behalf, monitors the authorities’ responses and, in this way, acquires information about policy. Gisha also learns about policies from the state’s responses to petitions to the courts.
Israel’s policy in the Gaza Strip, to a large extent, is not anchored in primary or secondary legislation but is based on a collection of procedures and directives, which, contrary to the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act of 1998, are not compiled and made accessible to the public, and are often not published at all. Gisha works to promote the transparency of Israeli policy towards the Palestinian Territory in general and Gaza in particular. To that end, Gisha also submits requests to the authorities for official data and documents that attest to the policy and also submits petitions under the Freedom of Information Act in order to reveal policy.
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Restrictions on movement are imposed on all residents of the Palestinian territory universally, though the vast majority of those affected by movement restrictions have never been charged with or suspected of participating in hostilities. The prohibition on travel from Gaza is based on a sweeping, September 2007 decision by the Israeli Security Cabinet to restrict the movement of people and goods into and out of the Strip in response to the rise to power of Hamas and the firing of rockets on civilian targets in Israel. The restrictions are not imposed in order to confront a concrete security threat stemming from the movement of people or goods, but rather the goal is to exert pressure on the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip by imposing restrictions on the civilian population. Israel’s closure of the Gaza Strip, therefore, impacts each and every one of its residents, more than half of whom are children, regardless of whether they are personally involved in violent acts against Israel or not. For this reason, the closure constitutes collective punishment, in violation of international law.
Travel between Gaza and the West Bank is also severely limited, again, not because of concrete security threats, but rather as a matter of policy. Israel refuses to conduct individual security checks of Gaza residents who wish to travel to the West Bank through Israel, nor does it allow them to travel to the West Bank from Jordan through the Allenby Bridge, which would not involve entering Israel. In the absence of a security claim, Israel does allow, for example, the transfer through its territory of members of a split Palestinian family wishing to unite in the Gaza Strip, but not of family members who wish to unite in the West Bank, so that the travel restrictions are usually only applied in only one direction and indicate that security is not the only factor determining access. International law allows Israel to conduct individual security checks on every person who wishes to enter its territory and on all goods transferred through it. Gisha recognizes and upholds Israel’s right to do this.
It is also important to note that in cases where Israel does make a security allegation, thereby blocking the travel of a specific person, it often bases this claim on confidential material to which the individual and his or her lawyers have no access. In such cases, Gisha appeals to security officials or courts and demands the screening process be conducted fairly and transparently. Sometimes a security preclusion against a certain person is lifted without there being a change of circumstances after a petition is submitted in court or the case is publicized in the media. This raises concerns that even specific security claims are sometimes applied and removed arbitrarily.
Gisha believes that protecting human rights does not compromise security but rather enhances it. Freedom of movement contributes to the development of a prosperous and sustainable society – in the long run, advancing the security of all.
Gisha works to promote freedom of movement for all residents of the Occupied Territory, and especially residents of the Gaza Strip. At the time Gisha was established, restrictions imposed on residents of Gaza were especially severe, even in comparison to those imposed in the West Bank. However, these restrictions had not been met by an adequate response from the Israeli human rights community. For this reason, Gisha chose to focus on Gaza and access restrictions.
Gisha does work in specific thematic areas related to the West Bank and because extensive familial, cultural and economic ties connect the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the assistance that Gisha provides to residents of Gaza often helps residents of the West Bank as well. Gisha offers legal assistance to Palestinian residents living in the West Bank but whose official address in the Israeli-controlled population registry is listed as being in Gaza. In addition, Gisha conducts projects that are specific to the West Bank, for example by offering legal assistance to help individuals access academic and work opportunities in Israel.
Gisha appreciates the wide array of Israeli human rights organizations who work inside the Green Line to defend the rights of Israel’s citizens and residents, and cooperates with them. Gisha has chosen to focus on protecting freedom of movement in the Occupied Territory for two reasons. First, the residents of the Palestinian territory, especially those in Gaza, suffer from sweeping and far-reaching travel restrictions. Secondly, residents are unable to use democratic channels in order to influence the authorities which dictate their travel options and are thus in need of an advocate to protect their right to movement.
Palestinian residents seeking assistance approach Gisha directly through our telephone intake center. People find out about Gisha from others who used the organization’s services and from media reports referring to our work. Individuals are also referred to Gisha by human rights organizations operating in the Palestinian Territory.
Gisha also periodically conducts outreach as part of specific projects. For example, Gisha is conducting outreach with women’s organizations involved in developing small business initiatives in the Gaza Strip. Part of the outreach involves identifying needs for access and then providing assistance to help the groups to access resources, training and commercial opportunities.
Gisha uses both legal and public advocacy to promote and protect the right to freedom of movement in the occupied Palestinian territory. Gisha provides pro bono legal assistance to individuals and organizations in the Palestinian Territory. Gisha submits appeals on their behalf to the army and other state bodies and represents them in Israeli administrative proceedings and courts, including by submitting petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court. Gisha’s legal advocacy is based on Israeli law, as well as international human rights and humanitarian law. Gisha does not represent its clients before international or foreign courts. Beyond individual legal assistance, Gisha also works to challenge restrictive policies by filing petitions on principled matters to the Supreme Court, usually in conjunction with other human rights organizations, by conducting legal research and through writing legal opinions and position papers.
Gisha works to promote the transparency of Israel’s policies in the Palestinian Territory and in Gaza in particular. The organization acquires information concerning policy through ongoing work representing individuals, as well as through requests made to authorities for official data and documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
Gisha also conducts research and monitors movement and access in the Palestinian Territory by gathering information from Israeli and Palestinian officials, reviewing the data of professional bodies and international organizations and cross-checking information through interviews with residents. Gisha’s information department, which includes a fieldworker based in Gaza, is responsible for this area of the organization’s work. Gisha’s research, along with information and analysis from our legal work, form the basis of our reports and other publications on various subjects related to access restrictions in the Palestinian Territory.
Gisha’s methodology is integrated and holistic, using public advocacy alongside legal work to promote the right to freedom of movement. Gisha advocates before both local and foreign decision-makers to promote policies which protect human rights. Gisha also reaches out to members of the public in Israel and abroad through media advocacy, publications, online resources and new media tools in order to foster an informed public debate on movement restrictions, to mainstream human rights norms, and to harness support for long-term structural changes which will protect the rights of Palestinian residents.
The refusal to allow the Red Cross to visit Gilad Shalit during his captivity in Gaza was a grave violation of international law, as is indiscriminate or targeted firing of rockets at population centers in southern Israel, which also constitute a war crime. In both cases, the Palestinian authorities in Gaza are obligated to uphold international law and prosecute those responsible for violations. However, these violations of international law by Palestinian actors do not justify violations by Israel.
In every armed conflict, there is a risk that the civilian population will be deliberately targeted in order to pressure an adversary to surrender. That is why international humanitarian law – one of whose main objectives is to protect civilians during war – forbids the collective punishment of a population. The government of Israel must lift restrictions it imposes on movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip. These restrictions harm all residents of Gaza, collectively and indiscriminately, regardless of their personal involvement in acts of violence against Israel.
International law gives Israel the authority to take many and varied measures in order to defend its citizens, including acting against armed groups in order to achieve military goals. But international law specifically forbids punishing civilians for acts they did not commit and for circumstances that are beyond their control.
Furthermore, while it is true that Israel tightened the closure as a response to the firing of rockets, the capture of Gilad Shalit and the Hamas takeover of the Strip, restrictions on movement, particularly those between Gaza and the West Bank, were already in place before these events and developments. The ban on student travel from Gaza to the West Bank, for example, has been enforced since 2000.
In spite of the reliance on Rafah created by the closure of other crossing points, Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip are not able to exit freely through the Rafah Crossing, which has been controlled in recent years by Egypt and the Hamas government, with Egypt determining the frequency with which the crossing opens. Israel has some influence over who is able to cross at Rafah through its control of the Palestinian population registry, as well as its military cooperation with Egypt. Israel’s closure of Gaza seals the Strip almost hermetically, imposing upon Egypt an obligation to open the Rafah Crossing to allow regular movement of people and to facilitate the transfer of humanitarian aid to Gaza. However, Egypt limits the passage of people through Rafah, and does not allow for the entry of a sufficient level of goods into the Strip. When the crossing periodically closes, as has happened at various times in the past, residents of Gaza remain cut off from the outside world.
Since residents of Gaza cannot exercise their right to freedom of movement sufficiently through the Rafah Crossing, Israel is obligated to allow them to pass through other crossings, whether by land, or by air or sea travel.
Furthermore, even if Gaza residents could move freely through the Rafah Crossing, this would not meet their need for freedom of movement, as residents exiting the Strip through Rafah are still unable to travel to the West Bank. Extensive familial, social, cultural and economic relations connect the two areas of the Palestinian territory. Israel does not allow Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip to enter the West Bank from Jordan via the Allenby Crossing. Therefore, even if people were able to make the long, expensive and circuitous route required to travel from Gaza through Egypt and Jordan, they would still be prevented from entering the West Bank.
Since residents of Gaza cannot exercise their right to freedom of movement sufficiently through the Rafah Crossing, Israel is obligated to allow them to pass through other crossings, whether by land, or by air or sea travel.
A guiding principle of international humanitarian law, as well as international human rights law, is that control of a territory creates an obligation to protect residents living there – to guarantee their rights, to facilitate the functioning of normal life and to allow economic development. Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank since 1967 creates obligations which must be fulfilled under the laws of occupation, as defined by international humanitarian law. Since the “disengagement” from Gaza in August 2005, in which Israel removed permanent military installations and civilian settlements from the Gaza Strip, control of the Strip has been divided among several actors. Israel has continued to fully control Gaza’s territorial waters, airspace and the land crossings between Gaza and Israel. In addition, Israel continues to control both the Palestinian population registry, which determines who is allowed to hold an identity card in the Occupied Territory, and part of the taxation system in the Gaza Strip.
Israel also maintains a certain degree of control over the Rafah Crossing. Through its control of the Palestinian population registry, Israel has indirect control over the issuance of Palestinian passports, which are required for travel through Rafah.
Israel’s control over these significant aspects of life in Gaza creates obligations towards the residents of the Strip. Even the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled that Israel no longer constitutes an occupying power in the Gaza Strip, has declared that Israel continues to owe obligations to the residents of Gaza. The court considers that these obligations arise as a consequence of the state of warfare between Israel and militants in Gaza, Israel’s continued control of the borders of Gaza, and a history of almost 40 years (1967-2005) of direct Israeli control, which created dependence on Israel for infrastructure and other services.
According to either interpretation, Israel still bears responsibility towards the Gaza Strip and its residents. Israel is obligated under international humanitarian law to maintain public order and to allow the functioning of normal civilian life in the spheres that it continues to control. This responsibility includes ensuring that policies concerning the passage of people and goods into and out of Gaza allow residents of the Palestinian Territory to lead normal lives.
Israel is not the only party which bears responsibility for and owes obligations to the population of Gaza. Non-state parties, including the Hamas government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, who also exercise control over the population of the Gaza Strip, as well as Egypt, which controls the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt, owe obligations to the population in the spheres in which they exercise control.
Gisha was founded in 2005 to protect the right to freedom of movement of Palestinian residents of the occupied Palestinian territory, especially the Gaza Strip. By defending the right to movement and access, Gisha promotes other basic rights guaranteed by international and Israeli law, which are dependent on freedom of movement.
Restrictions on freedom of movement have become one of the most dominant aspects of the occupation, impacting every resident of the Palestinian Territory. Restrictions are imposed collectively on the entire population, even though no security claims are made against most of the people whose movement is restricted. The right to life, the right to health, the right to education, the right to live in dignity, the right to family life, and the right to freedom of worship are all dependent on the right to freedom of movement, such that Gisha’s work has a multiplier effect in allowing for the fulfillment of a host of basic rights.
Israel’s 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza created the need for a body to monitor continued control of the Strip and its borders, and to highlight that such control creates responsibility. Gisha seeks to fulfill this role and to assist residents of Gaza in challenging restrictions on movement that Israel continues to impose despite having removed Israeli civilian and permanent military presence.
Gisha works to obtain respect for and compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law in the Occupied Territory and believes that promoting and allowing the functioning of normal civilian life is key to a better future for the region and part and parcel of Israel’s legal obligations.