Petition filed following refusal to provide information about the status of applications processed for change of address as part of the political gesture, AP 49257-10-13 Abu Matar v. Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories
Gisha filed a petition under the Freedom of Information Act 5758-1998 (hereinafter: FOIA) to the Tel Aviv District Court sitting as the Court for Administrative Affairs. The petition was filed on behalf of five Palestinian residents of the West Bank whose registered address is in the Gaza Strip. The petitioners asked to have their addresses changed as part of the package of political gestures announced by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on February 4, 2011, during a visit by Quartet Envoy, Mr. Tony Blair. The petitioners have not received a response, either positive or negative, from the authorities since filing their applications in early 2011. They still do not know if their applications have been transferred to the Israeli side and if so, whether they have been reviewed and whether a decision has been made.
In the course of working to have the petitioners' registered addresses changed, Gisha sent applications under the FOIA to the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the unit in charge of processing applications filed as part of the gesture and making decisions on such applications. At the end of the 30-day period allotted in the FOIA for providing a response, COGAT's freedom of information officer notified Gisha that he was extending the deadline by 30 additional days due to "the need to review all aspects and ramifications of your application". Following this response, Gisha sent the freedom of information officer a clarification letter, directing his attention to the fact that the requested information was not of a public nature that would likely have broad implications, but rather information that related to the petitioners' individual cases.
However, on June 17, 2013, Gisha received a further communication from the freedom of information officer, once again extending the deadline stipulated in Section 7(c) of the FOIA, this time for 60 additional days. The officer claimed that the requested information was public in essence, since it related to the review of applications made as part of a political gesture that has far reaching consequences, including for Israel's relationship with the Palestinian Authority. Finally, in a letter dated August 13, 2013, the officer rejected all five freedom of information applications pursuant to Section 9(a)(1) of the FOIA, on the grounds that divulging the information may adversely affect Israel's foreign relations.
Given this response, on October 23, 2013, the petition was filed. In the petition, Gisha argued that the refusal to provide the requested information, citing harm to Israel's foreign relations as the reason was unfounded and failed to meet the requirements established in case law. In past judgments, the courts repeatedly asserted that refusing an application on such grounds is acceptable only when the possibility of substantive damage to foreign relations is a near certainty. Gisha stated that it was difficult to imagine how such harm would result from responding to any given individual's change-of-address application. Gisha also argued that the respondents' position contradicted their position in previous cases in which the requested information was provided. This statement was supported by many examples that prove the respondents had provided information on individual applications made by other Palestinian residents as part of the gesture and that they had recently provided information about the application made by one of the petitioners. Finally, Gisha argued that the respondents had misused the provisions of Section 7(c) of the act, taking advantage of the full extension period permitted in the act in order to avoid providing information that is instrumental in upholding the petitioners' right to argue their cases. The petitioners' applications are currently under review in different tracks, including in an HCJ petition filed by petitioners 1 and 2, in which the substantive remedy, namely, the change of address, is being pursued.