Why were 18 human rights advocates from Gaza denied permits to attend a meeting in the West Bank?
The Protection Cluster brings together Palestinian and international organizations and is led and coordinated by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR). Members of the Protection Cluster, including staff from human rights and civil society organizations operating in Gaza, were recently invited to attend a UN-sponsored meeting in the West Bank. In order to enable the 18 delegates to exit Gaza, Gisha sent a letter to the army detailing the importance of the meeting and the organizations' extensive contribution to the development of civil society in the Gaza Strip.
Although the army usually allows Palestinians who are staff members of international organizations to enter Israel from Gaza, the application made by the cluster members to attend the meeting was denied for failing to meet criteria.
Following the refusal, we turned to Member of Knesset Zahava Gal-On for help. She contacted the minister of defense, asking that the decision be reconsidered. We also sent a letter about the issue to the State Attorney's Office. To our great disappointment, the army did not change its position in response to these requests, explaining that since the cluster members were not, in fact, staff of international organizations but rather of local Palestinian organizations, their application did not meet criteria. The army's response read (Hebrew): "The fact that the entry permits are sought in order to attend a conference held with UN sponsorship, as you claim in your letter, does not alter this conclusion".
In the past, army officials have declined to distinguish between staff who receive their salaries directly from an international organization and staff of Palestinian organizations that are funded by international organizations or work under their sponsorship. So, for example, in December 2012, an application by members of the General Union of Palestinian Women to participate in a conference held in partnership with UN WOMEN was approved. The application was approved despite the fact that the General Union of Palestinian Women is not an international organization, but rather a local organization working in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
On a positive note, Palestinian staff of international organizations were granted permits to attend this very same meeting. At the same time, Palestinian staff members of Palestinian civil society organizations were barred because of criteria which have been narrowly defined and perhaps also too narrowly followed. Not allowing travel by civil society organizations, and particularly human rights organizations, harms these organizations’ ability to meet the needs of Gaza residents and also to do their important work tracking human rights violations perpetrated by regional authorities. Given that Israel has time and again criticized rights violations taking place within the Strip, it seems it would be in its interest to facilitate the kind of travel that would increase the capacity of human rights organizations to document and prevent these violations.