Monitoring Gisha’s self-appointed monitor

On Sunday, Dec. 9, Avigail Sugerman of NGO Monitor published an op ed in the Jerusalem post addressing Gisha’s work. We sent a response to the Jerusalem Post but were informed that only a shortened version of it would be published, as a letter to the editor. Here we print the full version of our response, which includes an analysis of the allegations made against Gisha by NGO Monitor.The human rights sector, like any sector working for the public good, needs honest critics and robust monitoring. For that reason, it is so unfortunate that an organization in Israel that has taken on this important task, NGO Monitor, has offered criticism that is anything but honest and robust.
In a recent op-ed, NGO Monitor’s Avigail Sugarman accuses Gisha, the Israeli human rights group promoting freedom of movement for Palestinians in Gaza, of “ignor[ing] the flagrant threat to national security” that Israel is facing from Gaza. As proof, she quotes a sentence from a statement in which Gisha describes the current situation as “an opportunity [for Israel] to finally end the civilian closure of Gaza and enter into regional arrangements that will allow residents of Gaza the freedom of movement to which they have a right”. To make her argument, however, she inexplicably omits the second part of the sentence that she quotes from Gisha: “…while protecting the security to which residents of Israel are entitled”.
This kind of deliberate omission is neither new nor incidental. Gerald Steinberg, the president of NGO Monitor, recently published an article on Algemeiner, in which he accused Gisha of waging “a media campaign to promote what they portray as Israel’s policy of starving the population of Gaza and preventing them from unencumbered imports and travel. In their public relations efforts, Gisha and its allies have largely erased all traces of Hamas—including their brutality against their own people, and the acquisition of thousands of rockets hidden in schools, mosques and homes”.
Like Sugarman, Steinberg paints an erroneous picture of Gisha’s positions and ignores substantive arguments Gisha makes about the importance of balancing security interests and the promotion of human rights. If the NGO Monitor were more honest in its portrayal, it would note that Gisha has repeatedly referred to the indiscriminate firing of rockets from Gaza at Israeli population centers as a war crime; it has pointed to the responsibility of Palestinian authorities with regard to restrictions on movement and access, and; has regularly referred to the highly complex security challenges Israel faces vis-à-vis Gaza. Gisha has also brought forward the voices of Israeli security experts who argue that the Gaza closure policy has been counter-productive in confronting those same security challenges and in many cases, has actually strengthened militants.
As for the accusation that Gisha has waged a campaign against Israel’s “policy of starvation”, I invite Steinberg to point out any such reference in Gisha’s materials. Gisha fiercely criticized restrictions on the entry of food items to the Strip that were in place until June 2010, but emphasized that those policies “did not result in widespread hunger or ongoing shortages of basic food products in the Gaza Strip”. Gisha did, and continues to argue, that restrictions on movement have had devastating consequences for key sectors of Gaza’s economy, leading more families to be dependent on aid and leaving them prone to food insecurity.
Gisha’s positions are based on international humanitarian law, including the law of occupation, which permits restrictions on access where essential for security and requires those restrictions to be balanced with the rights and needs of civilians to lead normal lives, including economic and educational development. Gisha does not make arguments in a vacuum but rather insists that Israel limit itself to restrictions that are truly necessary for security. In asking hard questions about the rationale that underlies restrictions on access, I believe that we enhance both security and human rights. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, in the wake of the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, “the civilian closure harmed the security closure”.
For that reason, in the wake of the ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza, we called for the government of Israel to finally rid itself of restrictions on movement that are not essential to security and that violate the human rights of Palestinians. For example, the government of Israel allows farmers and manufacturers from Gaza to export their products via Israeli crossings and ports – but does not allow the same trucks, that have cleared Israeli security and entered Israel, to unload their wares in Israel and the West Bank – where most of the demand for their goods exist. Similarly, Israel allows women’s rights activists from Gaza to travel to the West Bank via Israel for medical care or short-term workshops, but does not allow them to remain in the West Bank to complete Master’s degrees in gender studies. These restrictions can and must be lifted, and doing so will enhance Israel’s ability to protect itself against actual security threats – of which there are many.
Among the spectrum of groups and individuals who distribute information and analysis on Israel’s policies vis-à-vis Palestinians, there are those who do so in a biased manner or omit facts that are relevant to understanding the context. For that reason, more than once, Gisha has expressed criticism of international figures, news outlets and organizations, including Free Gaza and other flotillas, as well as official publications of Israeli authorities, who paint an exaggerated picture or perpetuate misconceptions about Israel’s policies towards Gaza.  The existence of misinformation adds to the challenge we face as a society to be discerning and remain able to evaluate the actions of our government in a serious and thoughtful way.
We share NGO Monitor’s stated concern about fairness in discussing Israeli policies. We therefore caution that willful mischaracterization – by NGOs or their monitors – impairs the learning that could take place from an open, honest and rigorous debate about how to ensure security while protecting human rights.
The author is the executive director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization protecting the right to freedom of movement in the occupied Palestinian territory.