March 28, 2018. On August 1, 2017, a restrictive directive was introduced by Israel and imposed at Erez Crossing, banning Palestinians from using hard-sided suitcases and wheeled luggage and prohibiting them from carrying electronic devices, food, drinks, and toiletries through the crossing.
Passengers who arrive at Erez with a prohibited item are forced to leave it behind or if they have a forbidden type of luggage, they are compelled to transfer their belongings to a plastic bag. Though exiting Gaza through Erez often entails hours of waiting at the crossing, passengers are prohibited from bringing food and drinks with them on their journey. The directive also restricts people who need to travel with laptops and other electronic items, be it for academic, professional or personal reasons.
Security checks on luggage, toiletries, laptops and food are standard at airports, train stations, and other transit terminals around the world. Israel’s strict luggage restrictions at Erez Crossing indicate that Israeli authorities aren’t willing to conduct these basic checks, preferring instead to impose more onerous and unnecessary limitations on people who need to move through the crossing.
Another issue made evident by the directive is that it is discriminatory vis-à-vis Palestinians. For instance, under the directive, most Palestinian passengers cannot bring food to the crossing, even for their own consumption, and even if it is for children or elderly passengers. Foreign nationals, on the other hand, are permitted to carry any amount of food. The same holds true for electronics: While students traveling to study abroad and Palestinian businesspeople are not permitted to take laptops, which they need for their school or work activities, foreign nationals are permitted whatever they need, even electronic haircare appliances (Hebrew).
On October 1, 2017, Gisha sent a letter (Hebrew) to the Minister of Defense (MOD) where we cautioned that the directive was unlawful. By March 26, 2018, we still hadn’t received an answer from the MOD, so Gisha submitted a petition (Hebrew) against the injurious policy. The MOD finally responded (Hebrew) on May 21, 2018, following a further reminder from Gisha and well as after we had submitted the petition.
In the petition, Gisha argued that the restrictions on personal luggage at Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel are unlawful, exceedingly arbitrary and unreasonable, and that their impingement on fundamental rights is disproportionate. We also argued that the process of issuing the directives was flawed in that it had not been made publicly available to residents of Gaza.
The respondents filed their response (Hebrew) to the petition on August 23, 2018, arguing that the restrictions were imposed due to the security threat involved in transporting luggage. They also maintained that the discrepancies in which restrictions applied to different groups of travelers were predicated on relevant differences. With respect to foreign nationals, Israel argued they usually have “high security awareness,” that they normally receive guidance from the international organizations to which they belong, and that they sign statements whereby the electronic devices in their possession are, in fact, their own. Oddly, although the respondents claim that foreign nationals pose less of a security threat, the most serious security incident they mentioned in their response was a case of weapons smuggling by a foreign diplomat (pages 7-8 in the response).
The respondents also argued that the petition should be dismissed as there was no individual petitioner, other than Gisha. The reason Gisha had filed the petition as a sole public petitioner was that Gaza residents who are permitted by Israel to travel through Erez Crossing are naturally concerned that challenging state policy could result in repercussions, such as not being granted travel permits in the future. Gisha asked (Hebrew) the court to submit a brief response to the state’s argument, where it would address the absence of an individual petitioner. Though the respondents did not object, the court dismissed the motion (Hebrew).
At the hearing, the justices ignored the many contradictions between the state’s official position and its actions. For instance, in its response, the state had argued that wood and metal were dangerous materials, which was why hard-sided suitcases were prohibited in the directive. In reality, hard-sided suitcases are mostly made out of plastic or tightly woven fabric. The justices also failed to ask why the restrictions imposed on passengers at Erez Crossing, a land crossing, are stricter than those imposed on individuals traveling by air, where there are higher security risks. Though the state’s position relied mainly on the argument that allowing hard-sided and wheeled luggage at Erez would increase travel time through the crossing, the justices did not ask how that conclusion was reached, which alternatives had been considered, or how much longer the process would take.
The court ruled that the restrictions on luggage, including the bans on carrying food for personal consumption and using wheeled luggage were reasonable, even when applied to elderly passengers or passengers with medical conditions.
More than a year after the directive was introduced, the only publicly available (Hebrew) information about it appears on Israel’s Crossing Authority’s website, which was not a party to the court case.