Court rejects Gisha’s petition requesting information on change-of-address applications filed as part of the political gesture, AP 49257-10-13 Abu Matar v. Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories
On March 30, 2014, the Tel Aviv District Court rejected a petition brought by five Palestinian residents of the West Bank whose registered address is in the Gaza Strip. The five petitioners sought information regarding their requests to be included among those whose addresses would be changed under a political gesture announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on February 4, 2011, during a visit made by Quartet Envoy Mr. Tony Blair. Gisha filed the petition and was also named as a petitioner.
In the petition, filed under the Freedom of Information Act 5758-1998 (hereinafter: the act), the five petitioners sought details on the status of their applications, filed in early 2011. The petition was filed after previous Freedom of Information requests regarding their applications, made to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), were not answered on the pretext that doing so had the potential to damage Israel’s foreign relations. The petition stated that the claim was unfounded since the information requested would not have broader ramifications as it related only to the applications of the five petitioners.
Moreover, during proceedings on the petition, the court was informed that in other cases, the respondents (COGAT) did inform Palestinian residents about the status of applications filed as part of the gesture. In its written submission, COGAT stated that “indeed, in the past, Israel has responded to individual requests from residents […] but beginning in the second half of 2012, in view of the recognition that providing this information may cause real damage to the foreign relations between Israel and the [Palestinian] Authority, it was decided that information of this sort would no longer be provided”. However, the petitioners presented the court with evidence that similar information was provided in 2013 during other legal proceedings.
The petition also raised an issue of principle with respect to the legal test applied in cases in which arguments regarding damage to the country’s foreign relations are made under Section 9(a)(1) of the Freedom of Information Act. While the petitioners argued that the test must be strict and refusal to provide information should be justified only in cases of “near certainty of damage to the country’s foreign relations”, the respondents argued that the test should be flexible, and that the authorities must be permitted to refuse to provide information in cases of “concern regarding damage to the country’s foreign relations”.
During the hearing, held on December 24, 2013 before Judge Sarah Dovrat, the respondents presented the court with classified information, ex parte, based on which the court rejected the petition and accepted the respondents’ refusal to provide the requested information. In the judgment, the court said: “Unfortunately, even paraphrasing details of the connection between the information and the damage to foreign relations, would expose the type of information whose provision comes under Section 9(a)(1) of the act”.
As for the argument that similar information was provided in other cases, the court ruled that “even if there was an incidental departure from the policy testified to by the witness for the respondents, there is no justification in instructing that the error be perpetuated by providing information regarding additional cases”.
On the dispute regarding the legal test to be applied, the court accepted the respondents’ position and referred to the ruling made in HCJ 2007/11 Shani v. Ministry of Environmental Protection (February 5, 2012), in which, as in other similar cases, the test of “concern regarding damage to the country’s foreign relations” must be applied.
The petition was rejected without the imposition of legal costs.