Published @ 12.00 hours GMT on 27th April 1997
CLOSURE UPDATE NO. 18
Report by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights
on the Closure imposed by Israel
on the Gaza Strip
The strict closure imposed by Israeli military authorities remains in force over the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs). The closure is an Israeli policy that appears to have benefit for Israeli security and, indeed, creates an environment in which violence is likely. The closure causes immense economic hardship to Palestinians and social suffering within the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Hundreds of people are unable to travel for education, medical treatment and for family reasons. Additionally, the restrictions on the transport of goods further devastate the economy of the Occupied Territories. The closure as a policy, in the manner it is imposed and in its effects, violates international law and is viewed as a form of collective punishment – acts of this nature are prohibited under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
From Monday 21April 1997 the Israeli military occupation authorities imposed a total closure on the Gaza Strip. Currently there is virtually no movement of Palestinian goods or persons out of the Gaza Strip. This is the second time in as many months that the Gaza Strip has been sealed, the earlier occasion was on 21 March 1997, and was gradually but slightly eased between this date and 21 April. A total closure was imposed on the West Bank on 16 April 1997.
With the imposition of these closures there has been a deterioration of the human rights situation in the OPTs. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has documented and reported on the closure and its effects in the Gaza Strip. This Closure Update covers the period from 27 March to 23 April 1997. The first issue was published on 4 March 1996 a week after the Israeli authorities had imposed a total closure on the OPTs on 26 February 1996. The Fieldwork staff of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights have documented the following human rights concerns: Palestinian Legislative Council Members have been denied free travel between the West Bank and Gaza; Israel has denied travel to the holy sites in Jerusalem, and for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca; restrictions are imposed on Gaza economic transactions via Israel; Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli prisons are denied family visits; and Palestinian workers are denied access to work in Israel.
Israeli Forces Refuse to allow Legislative Council Members to Exit Gaza
From 15 April 1997 Dr Kamal Shrafi, Head of the Public Scrutiny and Human Rights Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, has been denied the right to leave the Gaza Strip for Ramallah. On that day, Dr Shrafi sought to exit Gaza through Erez Checkpoint to travel to Ramallah in the West Bank. He had permission to travel by virtue of his VIP Card, as did other Legislative Council Members who were travelling with him. The two other Council Members were granted exit but Dr Shrafi was refused. He was informed that the denial was based on security reasons, which have not been disclosed.
Legislative Council Members hold VIP cards that are supposed to enable them to travel freely between the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The cards were issued to all Legislative Council Members following negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA),
after the closure imposed on 25 February 1996, during which Israel regularly denied permission for Legislative Council Members to travel, causing a number of Council meetings to be cancelled or postponed.
However, Israel has sought to circumvent the agreement it made on VIP cards, by taking unilateral decisions to cancel the cards at will. Such a decision was taken on 21 March 1997 and as a consequence Palestinian Legislative Council members must now seek renewal of the VIP cards for every Council meeting; the cards are valid for only three days at a time. In effect Israel has cancelled the agreement and returned to the situation where the Council Member had no special entitlements to travel.
On 21 April 1997 permits were requested for the 37 Gaza Members of the Legislative Council in order for them with to go to the West Bank for a Council session in Ramallah. However, by the morning of 22 April 1997 the Israeli military authorities had only approved 35 permits. Dr Kamal Shrafi and Mr Ra’afat Al Najar were denied permits without explanation. Mr Al Najar had been refused permission to travel earlier this year on 22 January 1997 pursuant to a decision taken by Yitzhak Mordechai, Israeli Defence Minster, based on undisclosed security reasons.
Denying freedom of movement to Palestinians is a violation of this basic human right. Palestinians do not have an opportunity to review or appeal decisions that effect the restrictions on their freedom of movement which also violates human rights law. The only option for Palestinians is to make a prohibitively time-consuming and costly application to the Israeli High Court, the process which itself violates human rights law. The decision to refuse the elected representatives of the Palestinian people is a violation of the peace agreements between Israel and the PLO, which established the Legislative Council.
IPalestinians are Denied Regional andnternational Travel
Since 21 March 1997 Israeli authorities have prevented Palestinians from travelling across Israel in order to travel abroad.
Permission is denied for those wishing to leave via Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport or to travel across Israel to Jordan. Anyone wishing to travel to Jordan must travel through Rafah border crossing to Egypt and then fly from Cairo Airport to Jordan. This journey would otherwise take two to three hours overland, whereas the journey via Egypt can take up to two days and is a great deal more costly.
Consequently these Palestinians are also obliged to incur the additional cost and delay of travelling to Egypt before flying onto their destination.
The Gaza airport has been available for use for some months now but Israel has refused to permit any travel to or from the airport. Even travelling through Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt does not guarantee that Israel will permit travel, even though no Israeli territory is being traversed (see below concerning pilgrim’s travel).
Families Unable to Return Home
On 21 March 1997, 43 Palestinians from the West Bank sought to return home after visiting relatives in the Gaza Strip, but were prevented from leaving Gaza despite holding valid permits.
On 6 April 1997 these people returned to Erez checkpoint on hearing through Israeli Radio that one of the closure easing measures would permit them to return home. However, at the crossing all 43 were turned back without explanation. It was not until 10 April that they were allowed to return home.
Similarly, 220 people from the Gaza Strip were denied exit from the West Bank and unable to return to the Gaza Strip on 21 March 1997. These people travelled to Jericho in order to seek assistance from the PNA offices based there. It was only on 16 April that 131 of the 220 were permitted to return home. The remaining number were permitted to travel the next day (17 April) – the very day of the Muslim holiday.
Israel Prevents Pilgrimage for Number of Muslims
On 3 April 1997 a group of Palestinians began their pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon reaching the Rafah border crossing in the South of Gaza, in order to travel via Egypt to Saudi Arabia, Israeli military occupying forces refused 37 of them exit from the Gaza Strip. In addition, one person, Sa’id Zorob from Khan Younis was arrested. Israeli military officials gave no explanation for the refusal of exit or the arrest, other than for undisclosed reasons of security. A number of pilgrims who were permitted travel through Rafah to go to Mecca were arrested on their return on 20 April 1997. One of those arrested was Jamil Mutawi. The Palestinian Centre is investigating these cases. It has been reported that pilgrims were subjected to similar treatment by Israeli forces in the West Bank, eight persons were arrested at the Jordanian border and 17 others were denied entry to Jordan.
Restrictions On Gaza Economic Transactions
Between 21 March and 2 April 1997 Karni border crossing was totally closed to Gaza exports and imports. Israel then introduced closure-easing measures, permitting some transport of goods. Karni was totally closed again on 21 and 22 April, because of the Jewish holidays.
Karni border crossing had been established in order to ensure the continuation of economic activity in the Gaza Strip, even during closures. However, Israel applies the closure also to Karni, undermining economic activity as is its intention. Thus, Karni has proved ineffective as a means of guaranteeing the transport of goods.
The closure has devastated the Palestinian economy, creating crippling losses for the local agricultural industry. The continuation of movement through Karni is essential, as this is the only crossing available for vegetable produce. Daily losses of vegetable exports are estimated at $500,000, while losses in exports to the agricultural sector as a whole are estimated at $1,000,000 a day.
Israeli authorities also denied exit to other Gaza exports from 21 March 1997 to 23 March 1997. Most recent reports from Erez crossing show that between 50 – 70 Palestinian vehicles daily are allowed to conduct commercial activities through the convoy system. (The convoy system involves vehicles passing through strict security checks at crossing points before travelling in convoy with an Israeli armed guard to their destinations.) These severe restrictions on the movement of goods appear to be continuing indefinitely. Presently, the movement of vehicles has been recorded on some days to be as little as one-fifth of the previous figure which was 250 vehicles per day; this figure itself represents a reduction from earlier figures and only a small percentage of the goods produced for export from Gaza.
Workers Refused Permission to Return to Work
Israeli authorities prevent Palestinian migrant labourers from leaving the Gaza Strip to travel to their places of employment in Israel. The social consequences for workers and their families, who are entirely dependent on the incomes from work in Israel, are disturbing.
The unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip is as high as 40% when closure-easing measures are in force. This increases dramatically when a total closure is imposed. The Gaza workforce is estimated to be 169,000; among them 72,000 are employed locally, leaving 97,000 that cannot be absorbed into the local economy. During the most recent closure the unemployment rate soared to 58 percent.
Throughout Israel’s occupation it has encouraged the migration of Palestinian labourers to Israel as part of a deliberate policy to inhibit, indeed to reverse economic development, and to create a compliant market in the OPTs. However, over the last few years, since the Gulf War, Israel has gradually reduced the number of workers from almost 100,000 in the daily migrant workforce to the 23,744 workers who were issued permits on 20 March 1997, this last figure excludes the 2,564 workers employed at Erez Industrial Zone which is under Israeli jurisdiction.
By the beginning of April Israel issued permits only to Palestinians working in Erez Industrial Zone. On 13 April 1997 Palestinian workers over the age of 35 were permitted to return to employment in Israel; on 16 April the age limit was reduced to 30 years. However, only some 16,000 Palestinians were permitted to return to work in Israel as compared to the 26,308 employed in Israel and Erez Industrial Zone before 21 March 1997. This leaves almost ten thousand additional workers unemployed in the Gaza Strip.
Even those who are issued permits are subjected to harassment by Israeli military forces at crossing points. Palestinian Labour Ministry sources report that Israeli authorities confiscated the permits or magnetic cards (both of which are required for exit from the Gaza Strip) of around 400 Palestinians between 11 – 21 April 1997.
A total closure was enforced on 21 and 22 April 1997 because of the Jewish holidays, and no workers received permits.
Denying Palestinian Prisoners the Right to Receive Family Visits
There are an estimated 3,000 Palestinians held in prisons in Israel, around 550 of which are from the Gaza Strip. Despite the transfer of partial autonomy in 1994 Israeli authorities continue to arrest, detain, ill-treat and imprison Palestinians inside Israel. Palestinians who are detained by Israeli authorities are tried through the Israeli Military Court system which violates human rights standards for fair trial; and they are imprisoned in inhumane conditions. Family visits are a right of prisoners which must be respected as they do much to alleviate the suffering that Palestinians face in Israeli prisons.
During periods when the closure is tightened these family visits are stopped or made virtually impossible by the imposition of impractical requirements; which are: only one visit ticket may be issued for each family; a list of the names of visitors must be submitted in advance to the Israeli side; the deadline for issuing tickets for visits is four days before the visit; the visitors are limited to fathers and sons of any age, mothers, daughters and wives, of any age; and only brothers and sisters of up to 16 years of age. Information obtained by the Palestinian Centre indicates that 65 prisoners receive no visits because no member of their families qualifies according to these prerequisites, and a further 50 prisoners are denied family visits for undisclosed security reasons.
Even when granted permission, logistical arrangements enforced by Israel make visits extremely difficult for families: they are required to walk the one kilometre in a caged corridor in the security zones between Israeli and Palestinian checkpoints; at the Israeli checkpoint the families may be subjected to security procedures that can take up to three hours. Even after this, and despite obtaining an exit permit beforehand, many visitors are still refused permission to make the prison visit at the Israeli military crossing.
The Government of Israel has continually broken the agreement it made with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Most recently, on 15 April, the ICRC refused to accept a reduced offer of travel to 300 persons, 200 from West Bank and 100 from Gaza Strip, during the period of the Muslim Feast, because this breached the understanding they had reached last year.
Conclusion: Economic and Social Suffering Creates a Security Risk
The Israeli Closure of the Occupied Territories, as a policy and in practice, is a violation of international law, specifically, it constitutes collective punishment of the Palestinian people and violates the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Israeli Military Closure brings about intolerable suffering, a recent report by the Office of the UN Special Co-ordinator in the Occupied Territories states that economic losses are calculated at $6 billion between 1992 and 1996. These losses cannot be ameliorated by international aid to the PNA which totals only $2.18 billion. The social consequences of this are significant; the quality of life for Palestinians in the OPTs has deteriorated significantly since the advent of the peace process, which promised to improve the standard of living.
Israel’s claims that closure guarantees security have been disproven; rather it serves to contribute to the deterioration of the security situation by violating human rights, creating an environment of social hardship and dissent, and is therefore inadmissible.
The ineffectiveness of the Israeli Military Closure, the social and economic consequences, the security risk that this creates and the fact that the closure is a violation of international law makes it imperative that the policy is brought to an end.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights calls upon the international community to actively pressure Israel to cease its policy of closure.