In July 2017, Abeer (not her real name), a Gaza resident who had just been accepted to an M.A. program in engineering and business at Edinburgh University, submitted an application to the Israeli authorities for a permit to exit the Strip via Erez Crossing. Weeks went by, but she did not receive a response to her application. Given that Abeer had no other way of exiting the Strip, she had to ask for special permission from the university to postpone the start of her studies until September. She quit her job and concentrated all her efforts on obtaining a permit. Finally, one morning in early October 2017, following repeated efforts by Gisha on her behalf, Abeer was notified that she would be granted a permit, but told that she must arrive at the crossing immediately in order to receive it and exit the Strip. She was forced to pack and depart hurriedly from her partner and two-year-old daughter, leaving no time for a proper goodbye with family and friends.
Later that month, in October 2017, Israel made changes to its directive on processing times for permit applications submitted by Gaza residents, extending the timeframes granted to Israeli authorities for examining and responding to applications. Despite the lengthy timeframes stipulated in Israel’s directive, both before its revision and especially after, Israeli authorities frequently fail to answer permit applications within the timeframes they have set for themselves, and often don’t respond at all.
In December 2018, Mahmoud, 39, a resident of Gaza, married and a father of five, received news that his brother had passed away in the West Bank. Upon receiving the news, he submitted a permit application to travel to the West Bank to attend his brother’s funeral. Like all Gaza residents applying for a permit from Israel, he submitted his application to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee in Gaza (PCAC), the official channel for all applications by Gaza residents. The PCAC passed the application to the Gaza Civil Liaison Administration (CLA), the Israeli authority responsible for processing all permit applications concerning residents of the Strip.
Mahmoud has been waiting for a response to his application from the Gaza CLA for more than a month. Gisha contacted the Israeli authorities on his behalf, but our communications went unanswered. Although he already missed the funeral, Mahmoud still hopes to be allowed to exercise his basic human right to freedom of movement in order to visit his family in the West Bank and mourn with them.
Abeer and Mahmoud’s stories are two examples of countless cases in which the lives of Gaza residents are severely disrupted because of the inordinately long time the Israeli authorities have granted themselves to answer permit applications, if they respond at all. Israel’s directive on processing times ignores Israel’s ongoing obligations toward Gaza’s civilian population, and precludes residents from realizing their fundamental right to freedom of movement.
In January 2019, Israel’s High Court heard a petition submitted by Gisha, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, and HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual challenging Israel’s draconian directive on processing times for permit applications, arguing that the lengthy timeframes severely and systematically infringes on human rights and limits the possibility of fulfilling basic needs. As a result of the long processing times, which Israeli authorities often exceed, even the small number of Gaza residents who meet Israel’s stringent criteria for submitting a permit application are often unable to reach essential medical treatments, attend business meetings or academic programs abroad, or take part in significant family events, such as funerals and weddings.
According to the directive, an application made by a medical patient must be processed by the Israeli authorities within 23 business days, regardless of when the applicant has an appointment. An application to visit a relative who is severely ill, or to attend a first degree relative’s wedding in the West Bank or Israel, must be processed within 50 business days, while travel for study abroad must be processed within 70 business days. Security needs cannot justify such a flagrant dereliction of duty to respect the rights of Gaza residents, nor can a governmental authority extend its processing times purely as a way of managing backlog.
We asked the court to review the timelines in the directive as a matter of principle, but the court preferred to discuss individual cases or, at best, to discuss each of Israel’s criteria for movement separately. The court rejected our request to amend the petition according to its preference for a more individualized discussion. In practice, the court’s decision allows Israel to continue to evade its legal obligations toward the residents of the Gaza Strip.
The scope and depth of Israel’s ongoing control over the lives of Gaza’s two million residents come with obligations to protect the rights of the people under its control and to maintain normal living conditions in the Strip. Rather than granting itself an unreasonable amount of time to respond to permit applications, if at all, Israel must process applications within shorter timeframes, in such a way that allows Gaza residents to live their lives with dignity.