Following two petitions filed with the High Court of Justice, the State Attorney’s Office told Gisha in early July that Israel had lifted the ban on travel to Gaza for the purpose of visiting first-degree relatives with serious health conditions. In another petition, filed with the Jerusalem District Court, the State Attorney’s Office notified Gisha of a policy change that would allow Gaza residents to visit relatives with serious conditions in the West Bank and in Israel. The changes come after nearly eighteen months during which Israel denied Palestinians the right to exit or enter the Gaza Strip even in these unmistakably humanitarian circumstances.

The High Court petitions were filed in late June on behalf of two Palestinian women, one a citizen of Israel and one a permanent resident. The women’s applications to visit their mothers in the Strip, both elderly and terminally ill with cancer, were denied for failing to meet “the policy applicable to travel into the Gaza Strip due to coronavirus measures.” The policy in question is the sweeping “coronavirus closure“ Israel has been enforcing on Gaza since March 2020, which exacerbates the already severe access restrictions it has imposed on Gaza for years.

In the High Court petitions, Gisha stressed that the policy was extremely unreasonable and that it clearly and disproportionately violated Gaza residents’ rights to freedom of movement and family life, as well as the rights of their relatives living outside the Strip, including residents and citizens of Israel. Further applications filed by the petitioner, who is a resident of Israel, in late May were denied in June on the grounds that this was “the policy currently in place with regards to the operation of Erez Crossing,” referring to the additional restrictions Israel has been unjustifiably imposing at the crossings even after the ceasefire.

Litigation undertaken by Gisha over the past 18 months against the coronavirus closure has forced Israel to expand the short list of exceptions that it is willing to consider for permit requests. This has resulted in Israel allowing, for several months now, entry into Gaza to attend the funeral of a first-degree relative, however it continued to deny requests for visits to loved ones on their deathbeds. Tragically, this has robbed family members of the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved one while they were still alive. Last April, Gisha sent a principled demand to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) to resume consideration and approval of applications to visit sick relatives. In the letter, Gisha described two previous cases in which applications submitted by Palestinian citizens of Israel to visit dying relatives in the Gaza Strip had been denied shortly before their passing.

In early July, about a week after the High Court petitions were filed, counsel with the State Attorney’s Office informed Gisha about a change of policy that would allow visits to relatives with serious medical conditions in the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, the news came too late for one of our petitioners, an Israeli citizen. Her mother, who lives in Gaza, passed away that very same day. After the state denied her the chance to be by her mother’s side during her final moments, the daughter was granted entry into Gaza for the funeral. Following the change in policy, the other petitioner’s request was approved, and she was able to exercise her right and see her mother in the Gaza Strip.

Around the same time, we were informed of another change in policy during the legal proceedings of one of our cases. Back in April, we had filed a petition against COGAT’s refusal to allow S.L., who lives in Gaza, to visit her mother in the West Bank, who has terminal cancer. S.L. asked to travel with her two minor children, both of whom have medical conditions and require her care. Counsel for the State Attorney’s Office told the court that on June 20, Israel had resumed receiving applications from Palestinians living in Gaza who wish to exit to visit a first-degree relative with a serious medical condition, either life-threatening or requiring prolonged hospitalization. Despite this, rather than approving S.L.’s application quickly, the State Attorney’s Office insisted on more red tape and demanded that she file a new application with “updated” medical documents attesting to her mother’s condition, and then wait three more weeks for the state’s decision.

When Gisha protested the state’s bad faith conduct that could result in S.L. missing her last chance to see her dying mother, the State Attorney’s Office updated the court that the application would be approved, but without the children as they did not meet the criteria for “visiting a first-degree relative.” In response, Gisha noted that the minors’ application to accompany their mother did, in fact, meet the criteria and that, regardless, they could not stay behind as they require her care. As such, Gisha filed an urgent motion for a further hearing of the petition.

On July 22, Gisha was notified that the application had been approved in full. And so, after three agonizing months of waiting, S.L. managed to exit the Strip with her two children and travel to the West Bank to visit her ailing, elderly mother.