Erez Crossing. Photo by Gisha
Erez Crossing. Photo by Gisha

Today, five human rights organizations, Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel sent an urgent letter to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Kamil Abu Rukun, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. The organizations demand that Israel immediately remove restrictions on movement of people to and from Gaza imposed under the guise of the pandemic.

For four months now, Israel has exploited the health crisis to further entrench the severe closure it has imposed on Gaza for years, while at the same time allowing Palestinian laborers to enter Israel from the West Bank according to its needs. Restrictions currently being implemented by Israel on travel between Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank via Erez Crossing, which Israel controls exclusively, deny travel even in cases which Israel usually defines as “exceptional and humanitarian,” such as attending the funeral or wedding of a first-degree relative. Consequently, the total number of exits via Erez Crossing in June (218 exits) was just 1% compared to the total recorded in February (21,032 exits).

In the letter, the organizations point to the disparity in Israel’s approach to the West Bank, as opposed to Gaza, where “no changes have been made to the access policy put in place in response to coronavirus.” The organizations emphasized that anyone entering the Strip is sent to a government-run quarantine facility for 21 days. Therefore, contrary to Israel and the West Bank, no cases of COVID-19 have been identified among Gaza’s general population. So long as Israel allows movement within its territory, there is no justification for denying Gaza residents’ travel, subject to necessary precautions. Israel’s decision to block movement is disproportionate, extremely unreasonable and appears to be motivated by extraneous considerations.

Since the closure on Gaza was tightened further in early March, a first step in measures to curb the pandemic, exits via Erez have been limited mostly to critical medical cases. When the Palestinian Authority (PA) halted coordination with Israel in late May in response to Israel’s intention to annex parts of the West Bank, the system that enabled coordination between Israel and Gaza residents collapsed.

In a previous letter to the Defense Minister, COGAT and the Attorney General, the five organizations demanded that Israel identify an alternative mechanism to allow Gaza residents to submit applications even in the absence of Palestinian coordination, highlighting Israel’s ultimate control over travel. In its response, COGAT disavowed Israel’s responsibility for protecting the health of Gaza’s residents and insisted that applications be filed through the PA’s coordination committee in Gaza. COGAT also stated that “beyond legal requirement,” applications by Gaza residents for urgent medical treatment could be submitted directly for its consideration.

For months, Gaza residents have had virtually no way of submitting applications for permits issued by Israel, other than for urgent and life-saving treatment. In an urgent letter sent last week, responding to COGAT’s claims, the five organizations demanded that the Defense Minister, COGAT and Attorney General ensure travel via Erez for all needs. According to Israeli and to international law, Israel’s ongoing control over the Strip comes with legal obligations to uphold the rights of Gaza residents, including to freedom of movement.