Two human rights organizations seeking to conduct independent investigations into Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza reported Monday that the Israeli government has refused, on bureaucratic grounds, to grant them entry into the coastal enclave.
Although Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been barred from entering Gaza through Israel since 2012 and 2006 respectively, the organizations have been trying to get permission to enter Gaza since August 7, Israel daily Haaretz reported Monday, but were initially told that they could not enter because the crossing was closed.
The Erez crossing was often open during Operation Protective Edge to journalists and special humanitarian cases, but also periodically closed both on the Israeli and Gaza side due to the hostilities.
In Amnesty International’s case, it has not been able to get permission to enter Gaza since 2012 because Israel’s Civil Administration only allows groups registered with the Foreign Ministry or those recognized by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry to enter the territory. The Foreign Ministry only accepts UN agencies, and the Welfare and Social Services Ministry does not recognize Amnesty as an aid or humanitarian organization.
Both organizations used to send workers through the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, but since the overthrow of president Mohammed Morsi last year, the new government has opened the border only sparingly.
As of now, Amnesty only has one staff member on the ground in Gaza, Amnesty worker Deborah Hyams told Reuters.
“We’re doing everything we can, both Human Rights Watch and us, to do all the documentation we can, both on the ground in Gaza and remotely,” she said. “But not being able to have researchers there does create difficulties.”
HRW researcher Bill van Esweld said that he was also first told by the Civil Administration that he could not enter due to security reasons and later because HRW was not registered with either the Foreign Ministry or the Social Affairs Ministry. He said HRW has only two staff members in Gaza and that time is running out to conduct a proper investigation.
“They’re overwhelmed,” he said. “There’s so much to look into … and physical evidence about the events there is disappearing as time goes by.”
Both groups have gone as far as accusing Israel of war crimes during the current conflict and in the past. Amnesty published a report on August 7 — the same day it reportedly began seeking permission to enter Gaza — detailing “growing evidence that health facilities or professionals have been targeted in some cases.” And on August 4, HRW accused Israeli forces of intentionally targeting civilians who were fleeing from the fighting. Israel has repeatedly stressed its regret for civilian casualties in Gaza, and blamed Hamas for all such deaths because the Islamist terror group uses Gazans as human shields for its military infrastructure.
As regards entry to the strip, Israeli authorities said they are simply following procedure.
“Entrance to the Gaza Strip through the Erez crossing is permitted primarily to humanitarian and aid organizations, journalists, diplomats, and international political officials,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, according to Haaretz, adding that he only knew of Amesty’s case. “This is government policy and the criteria that the government set. I am not aware of any effort to withhold entry permits or registration from Amnesty for any political reason. As noted, the organization, by its own admission, does not meet the [humanitarian aid] criterion set.”
Groups that are not registered with either the Foreign Ministry or Welfare and Social Services Ministry can submit a special request to the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories that would be evaluated based on the security situation. A COGAT spokesperson said that it had been suggested to both groups, but that no special requests had been received, Haaretz reported.
HRW said that COGAT had only suggested that option late last week, and Amnesty said it had never received the suggestion.
The Gaza Strip has been ravaged by more than a month of fighting that left 1,980 Palestinians dead and caused several billion dollars’ worth of damage in the territory, according to Hamas. Israel says 750-1,000 of the dead were Hamas and other gunmen. Israel launched a military campaign on July 8 to stem rocket fire from Gaza at Israel’s towns, and to locate and destroy a network of cross-border tunnels through which Hamas fighters launched attacks on Israeli soil.