On 9 September 2008, Israel informed European diplomats that it rejected the applications for permission to exit Gaza submitted by three human rights defenders, including two winners of human rights awards. The applicants were Issam Younis and Mahmoud Abu Rahma of Al Mezan Center for Human Rights and Raji Sourani of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. The activists had applied for permits to take part in human rights events relevant to their work on human rights in Europe.
The human rights defenders have been invited by the Swedish organization Diakonia and the Belgian organization Avocats Sans Frontiers to take part in a conference on the enforcement of the international humanitarian law with regard to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The conference is scheduled to take place on 13 and 14 September 2008. In addition, they have been invited by the Irish organization Trocaire to take part in a review on its work on Israel and the OPT, scheduled to take place between 14 and 19 September. The human rights defenders were also scheduled to meet officials from the European Union (EU) and member states, including cabinet members in Belgium, and raise human rights issues with them.
The Israeli decision comes in line with Israel’s policy of siege on Gaza. Under this policy, all Palestinians are not allowed to leave Gaza, especially with the closure of Rafah Crossing for over a year now. The only exception is a handful of humanitarian health cases. Application for permission is a very complicated process and is highly erratic as Israel frequently makes unannounced procedure alterations.
On 2 September 2008, the Israeli military informed the applicants, via the inviting organizations, that their applications for permission were denied as far as travel abroad was involved. Palestinian and European human rights organizations requested the European Union and Member States to intervene and attempt to guarantee the human rights defenders’ participation in the events. On 10 September, Israeli officials told the European diplomats that the applications for permits of two human rights defenders were accepted and they could exit Gaza in a vehicle belonging to the Belgian Consulate. However, today they informed them that the applications were denied again.
Israel has declined hundreds of applications by Gazan human rights defenders to access human rights related events in the West Bank over the past three years. It has also refused dozens of applications to exit Gaza for the purpose of travel abroad since the closure of the Rafah Crossing, Gaza’s only gate to the outside world, in June 2007. Israel also bans the operation of Gaza International Airport and the construction of the Gaza port. The restrictions have had severe impacts on human rights defenders’ ability to work on their mission of defending and promoting human rights and on their efforts to build the capacities of their organizations.
Efforts by Palestinian and European organizations to bring the restrictions on the movement of human rights defenders to an end have thus far failed. Even when human rights defenders were invited by the United Nations, the EU or governments, Israel still denied their access. Only little efforts to change this policy have been made by the international community, and especially the EU which has its own guidelines on human rights defenders.
Al Mezan Center for Human Rights condemns the continued obstruction of human rights defenders’ access, which represents part of Israel’s policy of collective punishment of the entire population of Gaza. The excuses on which Israel builds its policy, which are categorically false and erratic, cannot justify such serious violations of human rights standards, including those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Declaration on human rights defenders. It is not clear how participation in a review or a conference involving enforcement of international law could threaten the security of Israel.
Al Mezan Center, therefore, calls on the international community, particularly the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and the European Union, to take urgent actions to ensure Israel’s compliance to the relevant international obligations. Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza, and its obstruction of human rights defenders’ access, must stop.