Civil society organizations operate in the vast space between government and the population, providing services, advancing legislation, and holding authorities accountable for their actions. Musically gifted children, youth-at-risk, women, athletes with disabilities and brilliant computer programmers alike rely on the services and expertise of the third sector. Dozens of civil society organizations operate in the Gaza Strip and answer to the diverse and critical needs of a large segment of the population. It is hard to grasp why Israel would overlook the importance of their work and deny them travel between the parts of the occupied Palestinian territory, as well as abroad, but this is the reality of the situation.
Israel’s policy, which separates Palestinians living in Gaza and Palestinians living in the West Bank, has dire effects on everyday life. Only recently, we showed how the separation policy impacts the Palestinian economy, mostly, though not exclusively, in Gaza. We also demonstrated how it tears apart families with members living in either part of the Palestinian territory. Today we publish a new report, a unique, even ground-breaking document, which is the result of a series of meetings held in Gaza with dozens of representatives of civil society organizations, in which they were given the opportunity to speak about the situation in their own words.
The report is based on focus groups and conversations with 32 organizations from five sectors: women’s organizations, cultural organizations, human rights organizations, humanitarian organizations that offer health and mental health services, particularly to persons with special needs, and development organizations. We heard from them about the difficulties access restrictions present, the heavy toll of the factional split on Palestinian society and the unfulfilled potential of their work and of Palestinian civil society in general.
Since the last military operation, many people have been talking about the importance of economic development and reconstruction in Gaza, even Israel’s own security establishment. The gap between rhetoric and reality is wide, as we at Gisha often report, but in any case, recovery can’t be limited to building homes or strengthening the economy alone. Real recovery requires a strong, thriving civil society. So long as civil society organizations do not even feature in Israel’s criteria for who is eligible to ask for a travel permit and thus can’t travel for their work, the society these organizations help and support cannot enjoy the full wealth of their capacities and potential.
Gaza-based organizations, among other things, work with their counterparts in the West Bank and coordinate activities to handle a variety of complex issues that face any society and also those specific to Palestinian society. Access restrictions make it difficult for organizations to send staff members to trainings, seminars, and conferences in the West Bank or abroad or for their West Bank colleagues to travel to Gaza. The ambitions and activity of athletes and artists are stifled and the ability to advance a shared vision for social change in health, civil rights, and the economy are thwarted. In addition to this, restrictions on the entry into Gaza by foreign nationals impede fundraising capacities and make it difficult for organizations to create long-term relationships with funders which could guarantee more consistent, strategic programs and operations.
Beyond these perhaps obvious effects, representatives of organizations shared that the separation policy and the closure have resulted in far-reaching social changes and shifted the priorities of Gaza residents. Important issues such as gender equality, art and promoting human rights values are pushed aside as residents are compelled to deal with the “more pressing” tasks of survival and coping in difficult humanitarian circumstances. Conversations in the focus groups revealed that the separation policy has eroded the ties that bind Palestinian society, resulting in fissures in the sense of shared goals and culture, thus impeding the ability to find answers to current and future challenges. While the factional split has also played a role, civil society leaders say their ability to contribute to reconciliation and to compensate for the impact of the split are harmed by movement restrictions as well.
Civil society organizations must be able to operate to the full extent of their abilities in order to advance an independent, productive, compassionate society which responds to the needs of all its members.
To that end, the report has two major recommendations:
- Israel must cancel the separation policy and allow travel between Gaza and the West Bank, subject to individual security checks. Absent imminent solutions to the conflict and the internal Palestinian rift, this presents the only viable chance for improving the Palestinian economy and advancing well-being in Palestinian society, both key to a more stable future in the region.
- Israel must recognize the legitimate needs of civil society organizations to travel across the Palestinian territory and abroad and grant travel permits accordingly.