This week is Freedom of Information Week in Israel. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed by the Knesset in May of 1998, requires public authorities to be transparent in their operations (with some exceptions). This may sound self-evident – these authorities and the information in their possession are public institutions and have been created to serve the public, but 17 years later, the act is far from being fully implemented. Many authorities do not publish all the procedures and protocols that guide their operations, or annual reports, and fail to respond to inquiries regarding their operations, all of which are required by the act, along with translating documents into the languages spoken by the people affected.
Gisha works vis-à-vis the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an agency inside the Ministry of Defense, which is in charge of coordinating and regulating many aspects of Palestinian civilian life in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In Gaza, Israel continues to exert a significant amount of control. In the absence of laws and in view of Gaza’s legal status post-disengagement, COGAT procedures essentially regulate the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians under its control. These procedures impact and guide Palestinians’ lives. They determine what can and cannot be done, who will get to celebrate their brother’s wedding, who will get to finish a degree program at a prestigious university, how mail is sent, what can be sold where, when one can travel to receive medical treatment, and more.
Publishing these procedures is immensely important for the people whose lives they guide, the people who rely on them in order to exercise their rights. Yet, despite this, and despite the fact that authorities are required to publicize the procedures and protocols they draft and implement on their own initiative, we have had to take legal action to have them publicized, after Freedom of Information applications we’ve made have gone unanswered. During a recent court hearing, state representatives admitted that about ninety procedures, or half of the procedures in their possession, had never been made public. This means that there are dozens of “invisible laws” that cannot be accessed or challenged, that no one knows exist.
Given this situation, much of the work of Gisha’s legal department is devoted to FOIA applications and petitions. Some of this work involves understanding how procedures that have been published are being implemented, for instance through statistics (how many people applied, how many had their requests granted, etc.), and some involve getting public authorities to publicize information that the act requires them to publish.
In 2014, Gisha filed 25 FOIA applications, 16 of them to COGAT and the Civil Administration. We also filed three general petitions under the Freedom of Information Act, two of which have led COGAT to begin the process of posting all procedures on its website. Of 31 COGAT procedures published in 2014, 25 were published thanks to Gisha’s direct involvement.
We have already filed 18 Freedom of Information applications in 2015, ten of which were filed to COGAT. This year, COGAT updated or published 29 procedures on its website, and 25 more are expected to be posted in early June, in keeping with the undertaking made by COGAT to the court that it will publicize all previously unpublished protocols. Following Gisha’s petition, the Civil Administration is expected to publish dozens of procedures over the summer. COGAT also undertook to publish all procedures in Arabic, but has yet to fulfill this undertaking.
Transparency in the work of public authorities is in the public’s interest regardless of one’s political views. It is a basic element of democracy. When the state takes action on behalf of its citizens, transparency should be expected at the very least with respect to how these decisions were made and how they are implemented. When it comes to the lives of individuals and when millions of people are subjected to procedures drafted by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, public access to information should be more important still. That would make a Freedom of Information Week worth celebrating.