More than one hundred people attend Gisha’s Gaza Policy Forum

The Gaza Policy Forum, initiated and organized by Gisha, was held on Wednesday, November 21. More than one hundred Israeli, Palestinian and foreign experts – diplomats, academics, and representatives of international and civil society organizations – gathered at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute for a day of discussion. The objective of the event was to distill recommendations for actions that would advance solutions to Gaza’s urgent needs, help improve living conditions, and safeguard human rights. Gisha will compile these recommendations in a policy paper for public circulation, though the invitation-only event itself was held under Chatham House rules, meaning that comments will not be ascribed to specific speakers.

The forum consisted of two panels. The first, entitled “Who is responsible for the situation in the Gaza Strip?,” examined the roles and responsibilities of local and international actors.  During the panel, moderated by journalist Amira Hass, speakers presented their analyses of the positions and accountability of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the European Union, and identified steps that each of these actors can and should take to improve the situation in Gaza.

The second panel, hosted by Jessica Burnstein, Gisha’s director of international relations, asked “What can be done?” Speakers included experts from the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the International Committee for the Red Cross, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and a senior official from Gaza working in the water sector. The insights shared in this panel built on what was said in the previous one, emphasizing immediate steps needed in order to shore up infrastructure, the economy, and civil society space, as well protect civilians.

The second panel opened with pre-recorded video statements by three women working in civil society organizations promoting mental health, women’s rights and women’s economic empowerment, who were denied permits to attend the forum. In addition to the women, some 20 other professionals from Gaza, including Gisha’s field coordinator, were denied permits to attend. Gisha had assisted the invitees to file permit applications to the Israeli authorities but all of the applications were summarily rejected by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories for not “meeting the criteria” for travel. Gisha challenged the decision in court but the state spared no effort to prevent the participants – men and women, experts in their fields – the opportunity to participate in discussions about how to improve living conditions in Gaza, a goal that many Israeli officials allegedly support.

Despite our legal battle, most of the forum invitees from Gaza were not approved for travel. Not a single woman received a travel permit, with counsel for the state going so far as to brazenly claim (in 2018) that women play too minor of a role in the economy to be relevant to discussions about improving economic activity. Four petitioners did receive permission to attend the conference and made, as predicted, a substantial contribution to the success of the event.

In its final response to the court, the counsel representing the state wrote that: “[T]he competent officials have found that no argument was made or substantiated with respect to work that can directly contribute to improving basic physical needs in the Gaza Strip, including matters related to infrastructure or the economy, nor is entry into Israel expected to contribute to one of these aspects.” The criteria for travel allow for people to reach conferences having to do with reconstruction and what the state refers to as “rehabilitation,” however, the state’s narrow definition of “rehabilitation” referring to only “basic physical needs” is morally bereft, suggesting that Gaza residents have no right to live a life beyond basic survival. It ignores Israel’s role in creating the crisis from which Gaza needs “rehabilitation” as well as its obligation to, at a minimum, permit and facilitate others’ efforts to preserve normal life in the Gaza Strip, if not its own obligation to do so.

Gisha will be publishing a summary of the forum in the coming weeks, including practical recommendations for what needs to be done to promote well-being in Gaza, which also means promoting a better future for the region. The well-attended and lively event demonstrated that there is an impressive professional community that is committed to protecting human rights, advancing economic activity, and shoring up infrastructure in a way that will make normal life in Gaza possible, should decision-makers heed the advice.