A few years ago, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) took to social media to boast about the annual visit of a delegation of medical specialists from the USA, which it had proudly let in to Gaza, and expressed its anticipation for future visits. This year, however, COGAT denied the delegation’s request for permits to enter the Gaza Strip. Ultimately, after a prolonged legal battle, Gisha managed to help most of the delegation to enter the Strip. Despite the achievement, a meeting with the delegation upon their return from Gaza proved troubling. They reported a lack of hope in the Strip that they had never encountered before. Moria Friedman Sharir, Gisha’s lawyer who handled the case, shares her takeaways:
Every year since 2009, an American organization called Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility puts together a delegation of physicians, who, along with other health professionals, visit the Gaza Strip to provide treatment and training. Ahead of each trip, the delegation has coordinated its entry into Gaza with the Israeli military, which controls Erez Crossing. While Gaza’s health care system continues to decline and needs all the support it can get, the military has recently made it harder for the delegation to enter. In 2017, for the first time in 16 years, the delegation was unable to enter Gaza because the military replied to its request for coordination too late, ignoring the dates specified in the application. The delegation was forced to stay home.
This year, the health care situation in Gaza has gotten even worse. Thousands of people, most of them young men, have been injured or killed by Israeli gunfire during protests near the Gaza perimeter fence. The injuries require prolonged and specialized treatment, which has placed a heavy burden on an already overworked and under-resourced system. Perversely, this is the year Israel denied the medical delegation entry into Gaza. Why? “Failure to meet the criteria.”
I had the honor of providing legal assistance to the members of the delegation. One of our efforts (a letter to the High Court Department at the Ministry of Justice) resulted in the state digging in its heels and insisting on the refusal. The military sent a long letter raising further allegations against the delegation, none of which seemed valid, so we decided to petition the High Court of Justice (Hebrew).
In the petition, we described some of the members of the delegation: a pediatrician who specializes in autism; a nurse with decades of experience in grief counseling and palliative care; a mental health care professional, who has devoted her life to early childhood education and helping women-at-risk; a brain surgeon; a child psychiatrist; a toxicologist; a trauma center social worker and expert on post-traumatic care, and; a physician who founded and ran an organization that supplied x-ray technology to remote hospitals for more than a decade. These are the people Israel fought to keep out of Gaza.
Ultimately, without offering any explanation, and proving the obvious, which was that we shouldn’t have had to file the appeal in the first place, the military caved and provided the delegation with a permit. But not entirely. It refused to allow two Jewish members of the delegation to enter Gaza, staunchly defending its position before the High Court, which upheld the refusal. A third Jewish member of the organization did receive a permit, apparently going unnoticed.
After the delegation left Gaza, they visited us in our Tel Aviv office. We were confronted with an incredibly impressive group of eloquent, professional and above all exceptionally compassionate women and men. It is not a sense of adventure or defiance that brings them to see patients and colleagues in Gaza every year. It is their desire to put their education, experience, abilities and motivation to service.
In a frank conversation we had, they said their visit this year was unlike previous ones, in that even Gaza residents, who had always been able to express some optimism and hope, sounded different. For the first time, they witnessed a loss of hope and saw despair, which they say somewhat rubbed off on them. The feeling was compounded, as they smelled the stench rising out of the sea where untreated sewage flows because of the electricity shortage, and as they saw the mental state of children who are repeatedly exposed to violence.
Despite the delegation’s challenging experience this year, another delegation will apply for entry into Gaza next year too. Hopefully next year, the military will not obstruct the important work of these individuals.
Adv. Moria Friedman Sharir