High Court gives government six days to submit answers on Gaza humanitarian crisis

Human rights NGOs demand to know why more border crossings have not been opened, and why Israel has blocked use of Ashdod port for supplying aid

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Palestinian children said suffering from malnutrition receive treatment at a healthcare center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 5, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Palestinian children said suffering from malnutrition receive treatment at a healthcare center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 5, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The High Court of Justice instructed the state on Thursday to provide answers within six days to key questions over government policies for the supply of aid to the Gaza Strip, which were raised during a court hearing regarding the dire humanitarian situation in the territory.

The order by the court for more complete answers to these issues came after tough questions were raised during Thursday’s hearing over a petition filed by the Gisha human rights NGO and several other organizations, asking the court to compel the government to increase the supply of humanitarian aid to alleviate civilian suffering in Gaza amid the months-long war there.

The attorney for the petitioners asked in particular why additional border crossings are not being opened, especially to supply northern Gaza; why the Port of Ashdod is not being used to supply Gaza; and why supplies are not being sourced from Israel and the West Bank.

She also pointed to claims by the United Nations in February that 51 percent of missions planned by humanitarian organizations to deliver aid to northern Gaza were denied by Israeli authorities, arguing that this was a key cause of the humanitarian crisis, despite the fact that Israel is allowing aid to cross the border.

Supreme Court Acting President Uzi Vogelman appeared attentive to the petitioners, acknowledging the severe nature of the humanitarian crisis and insisting that the state must offer answers.

The attorney representing the state stressed, as the government has done for months, that there is no limit on the amount of aid that can enter the Strip, although he was challenged on this claim by the Gisha attorney who asserted that logistical restrictions imposed by the government within the enclave had led to a severe lack of food and humanitarian supplies, particularly in northern Gaza.

The court gave the state until April 10 to submit a supplementary filing answering some of the key questions raised in the petition and hearing.

Palestinians line up for free food in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Feb. 23, 2024. Catastrophic hunger is so dire in two world hotspots that famine is imminent in northern Gaza and approaching in Haiti, with hundreds of thousands of people in both places struggling to avoid starvation, according to international food security experts and aid groups. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Israel declared war on Hamas in Gaza after the terror organization carried out the massacre of some 1,200 Israelis and took 253 people hostage during a savage invasion of southern Israel.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 32,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that is unverified, and which Israel says includes some 13,000 terror operatives. Tens of thousands have been injured.

The UN says some 346,000 children are at high risk of malnutrition in Gaza, while the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification organization found in March that famine is “projected and imminent in the North Gaza and Gaza Governorates.” Israel contested the findings, noting its lack of accurate data.

The petition was filed by the Gisha organization together with HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Adalah, and has requested that the court order the government to “significantly increase the volume of aid to Gaza, including by opening land crossings between Gaza and Israel, and to provide for all the needs of the civilian population in keeping with Israel’s obligations as the occupying power.”

The petitioners assert that Israeli policy constitutes “a flagrant violation” of international law and violates the provisional measures ordered by the International Court of Justice in January and March that Israel ensure the unfettered entry of humanitarian aid to the war-torn territory.

“Israel is violating international law and is leading to the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the spread of famine, thirst and disease,” said Attorney Osnat Lipshitz-Cohen for Gisha in court.

Citing numerous UN agencies and international aid organizations, Lipshitz-Cohen said that the health system had collapsed, that thousands of sick and injured people were not getting necessary treatment, and pointed to reports of amputations being performed without anesthetic.

“Many sick and injured people are losing their lives because there is not enough medicine, equipment and medical staff,” she said.

“We’re not talking about a tsunami or an earthquake, we’re talking about a war that is the work of man.”

Challenged by both Vogelman and Justice Noam Sohlberg on the reliability of the information coming out of Gaza, Lipshitz-Cohen acknowledged that obtaining reliable data was problematic, but insisted that some of the information was coming from aid agencies on the ground, including UNICEF and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, among others.

File: Trucks carrying humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip pass through the inspection area at the Kerem Shalom Crossing in southern Israel, March 14, 2024. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

She pointed in particular to a UNICEF report from early March following a field mission to the Al-Shifa, Al-Awda and Kamal Adwan hospitals, which stated that “distressing levels of malnutrition and child fatalities from starvation were reported.”

Lipshitz-Cohen also noted several incidents in Gaza in which civilians have died during efforts to distribute food, including an incident in February, when dozens of people died in a stampede as they rushed at aid trucks, as well as several incidents of drowning as people sought to reach airdropped supplies that fell into the sea.

These scenes, she said, demonstrated how desperate people were for food in Gaza.

Attorney Yonatan Berman, representing the state, acknowledged that the humanitarian situation in the coastal enclave was bad, especially in northern Gaza, but insisted that Israel has not restricted the supply of humanitarian goods.

“We do not dispute the fact that as a result of the war in Gaza, there has been great suffering to the civilian population in Gaza. This is because the terror organizations are operating among population centers in Gaza, the use of human shields, and using civilian structures for terror activities,” said Berman.

But he was challenged by Lipshitz-Cohen on several issues. She demanded to know why Crossing 96, close to Kibbutz Be’eri, has only recently been opened and why only 60 trucks had passed through it.

She also demanded to know why the Israeli government has blocked the use of Ashdod Port for supplying humanitarian aid to Gaza, opting instead for Port Said in Egypt, which is over 200 kilometers (124 miles) away from Gaza, whereas Ashdod is just some 37 kilometers (23 miles) away.

And she questioned why Israel has blocked the private sector in Gaza from bringing in food from Israel, since 91% of goods entering Gaza from the Kerem Shalom goods crossing before October 7 came through the private sector in the territory from Israel and the West Bank.

Deputy President of the Supreme Court Uzi Vogelman arrives at a Supreme Court hearing, March 27, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Vogelman said explicitly that these questions needed to be properly addressed by the state.

“Northern Gaza is where the humanitarian situation is the most severe, and so there is importance to hear explanations [why aid is lacking in that region],” said the acting court president.

A representative of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories agency (COGAT), a division of the Defense Ministry, noted that 400 trucks of humanitarian supplies had reached northern Gaza in March, though Lipshitz-Cohen pointed out that the World Health Organization has said 300 trucks a day are required there to address the current humanitarian crisis.

“We are in daily coordination with the international aid organizations to determine where the needs are, what needs to be delivered and how much,” said Berman.

“We do a daily evaluation of the situation, which also deals with the tactical coordination of activities, learning lessons and identifying how things can be improved for the next day.”

Berman said that using Crossing 96 was “more complicated in terms of security” than using other crossings, and told the court that he could only expand on this issue behind closed doors.

He also said he would address the issues with supplying aid from Ashdod in a supplementary submission to the court, as well as the restrictions on the Gaza private sector acting to import supplies from Israel and the West Bank.

In its decision following the hearing, the High Court told the government to state how much aid is needed to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza; what the bottlenecks are limiting the provision of humanitarian aid; and what it intends to do to increase the entry and supply of aid.

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