The answers lurking in the dark

Gisha representatives speaking at the Committee meeting. Still image from the video streaming on the Knesset website.

December 7, 2017. Noa Galili, Gisha’s public advocacy coordinator and Adv. Michal Luft, Gisha lawyer, participated in a session held by the Knesset Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information, chaired by MK Stav Shafir. As part of a series the committee has held to assess transparency in government ministries, the session focused on the Ministry of Defense. Gisha attended the session to report on the fact that responses to requests based on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) made to the MOD and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), if given at all, are much delayed. This practice violates the act, but also leads to a worrying lack of transparency around decisions and guidelines that have a direct impact on the daily lives of millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and indirectly on Israeli residents as well.

Participants were provided with a background and analysis brief prepared by Gisha. Adv. Rivki Dabash, head of the Government Freedom of Information Unit said she found cogent points in Gisha’s brief and recommended inviting COGAT and Civil Administration representatives to appear before the committee.

Galili presented Gisha’s efforts to obtain information that has been hidden from the public for nearly six months about the decision to reduce electricity sold by Israel to the Gaza Strip by 40 percent. The cutback has severely disrupted the lives of Gaza’s two million residents, most of whom are children. Following a decade during which power was routinely supplied in eight-hour cycles only, the cutback reduced the cycle by half, leading to the closure of hospital wards, while wards providing life-saving treatment are forced to rely even more heavily on generators. The operation of desalination plants – in an area where most of the running water is not fit for drinking – has been hampered. The power that is supplied is not enough to sustain sewage treatment, which means more than one hundred million liters of sewage is pumped into the Mediterranean Sea every day.

The power cutback has had a serious impact on the population in Israel as well, leading to the closure of two beaches and shutdowns of the large desalination plant in Ashkelon due to contaminated seawater. The government has also budgeted millions of shekels to address environmental hazards caused by sewage flooding nearby water sources. Despite all this, the discussions that led to the decision to grant the Palestinian Authority’s request to reduce power supplied to Gaza has never been made public.

Adv. Luft told the committee that not only has Gisha not received pertinent responses to applications it filed under the Freedom of Information Act, each of the agencies contacted – the Ministry of Defense and COGAT – referred us to the other forcing Gisha to petition the court for information. Ministry of Defense Freedom of Information Officer Dina Poliak said in response at the session that this was a “complex” issue relating to several agencies and that it had ramifications for national security and foreign relations.

Aptly, and dishearteningly, on the same morning, we received a response from the Prime Minister’s Office to a petition we filed after it failed to respond to our inquiry on the same topic. The response states that cabinet discussions are classified and cannot be divulged for reasons of national security and foreign relations.

We recall that the decision to reduce the amount of electricity sold to the Gaza Strip is a political decision that unnecessarily puts lives at risk and exacerbates already difficult living conditions for two million people. Not only does this decision knowingly violate the rights of residents of Gaza, it also defies the positions of senior security officials who have warned that a deterioration in living conditions poses a threat to Israel’s security. The public deserves to know what considerations compelled the State of Israel to reach such a harmful decision.