Published @ 11.00 hours GMT on 27th February 1997
CLOSURE UPDATE NO. 16Report by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights on the Closure imposed by Israel
This sixteenth Closure Update marks one year since the imposition on 25th February 1996 of the strictest closure on the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) in the history of the occupation. Israel totally closed the Gaza Strip and West Bank, prohibiting all cross-border movement between the OPTs and Israel; effecting a blockade, which devastated the economy of the Gaza Strip and had grave social, political and health implications. Israels occupation was not ended by the agreements signed between Israel and the PLO (hereinafter referred to as the Agreements), and Israel has retained full control of all borders around the OPTs. Closure is now the primary measure of occupational control employed by Israel.
Throughout this closure the Palestinian Centre has monitored its effects in the Gaza Strip. Israel claimed to have eased the closure towards the end of 1996 but the benefits of this were not far-reaching because stricter security measures were imposed. Currently: few Gazans have freedom of movement to cross the borders out of Gaza and most are excluded from even applying for a permit; for example, students who study in the West Bank, men who wish to travel for a family reunion, all males under 30 years of age, people wishing to visit religious sites in Jerusalem. Israel places onerous burdens on all travellers, for example, travellers to Jordan and family members wishing to visit Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. The closure continues to have a devastating impact on the economy of Gaza, due to onerous security measures imposed by Israel; agricultural exports are particularly affected as are the Palestinian migratory labour force.
This Update provides most recent data and an overall picture of this one year closure.
The Background to the Closure
Throughout the military occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the sealing of borders and the restrictions on the movement of persons and goods have been a policy of the Israeli occupying authorities; it constitutes the collective punishment of the 2.5 million Palestinian people who inhabit these areas and is forbidden under international law. Following the first two suicide bomb, Israel claimed that the closure was necessary to ensure its security; but, as the subsequent two bomb attacks after the total sealing of the borders proved, and as experts argue, the closure is not effective for this purpose.
1. Freedom Of Movement
The closure restricts the freedom of movement of Palestinians. The closure of February 1996 made cross-border movement from Gaza impossible at times and otherwise permissible in only narrowly defined and exceptional circumstances. Israel claimed to ease the restrictions on movement, but in fact movement remains far more restricted than prior to 25th February 1996.
i. Restrictions placed on Gazans in need of medical treatment
Almost 30 years of Israeli occupation left the medical facilities available in the Gaza Strip inadequate and deficiencient. Consequently Gazans in need of specialist medical treatment must go to hospitals outside Gaza, in Israel, the West Bank including Jerusalem and neighbouring Arab countries. Gazans thus depend on Israels willingness to issue permits for journeys to reach these hospitals.
Israels blockade of Gazas borders prevented the importation of humanitarian aid during March 1996, violating the IV Geneva Convention, and causing a serious lack of medicines. Israels failure to provide adequate medical care is also a violation of the IV Geneva Convention.
The system for permit applications is complicated and time-consuming. Patients must submit their applications to the Palestinian side of the Palestinian-Israeli Liaison Committee (established by the Agreements), which then passes them on to the Israeli authorities along with the following documents:
a. a recommendation from a doctor that they require medical treatment;
b. a medical report;
c. a financial statement guaranteeing payment for the treatment;
d. an appointment from the receiving hospital;
e. a photocopy of their Identification Card or their fathers if they are under 16 years old.
Since the imposition of the closure in February 1996, Israeli authorities restricted access for Gaza patients, despite the fact that the Agreements require them to be exempt from such restrictions. Between February 25th 1996 and June 15th 1996, six Palestinians died in the Gaza Strip as a direct result of being prevented from reaching medical treatment.
While Israel has been less reluctant to issue permits for travel for medical treatment during the past few months, rigorous new security checks remain in place which still obstruct the free access of patients to hospitals.
ii. Restrictions on prison visits in Israel
There are currently 541 Gazan prisoners held in Israeli prisons. This number fluctuates due to arrests of Palestinians from Gaza at the border checkpoints by Israeli forces. Prisoners are held in detention centres inside Israel, in violation of Article 76 of the IV Geneva Convention, which prohibits Israel from transferring prisoners from the OPTs to its own territory. Palestinian prisoners are held in inhumane conditions, denied basic rights and subjected to torture. Israel recently legitimised the use of torture against Palestinian detainees and is probably the only state to do so. Families of prisoners from the Gaza Strip are restricted and often prevented from visiting these prisoners.
Family members seeking to visit prisoners are subjected to unreasonable security measures at Erez Checkpoint, which last for over three hours, and then they are often turned back and denied visits without explanation. The Israeli authorities constantly alter the conditions for prison visits, creating confusion and uncertainty for families. On 20th May 1996 the ICRC suspended its family visit programme in protest at such unreasonable measures. The programme resumed on 1st July after an agreement was reached with the Israeli authorities which effectively eased the restrictions on visits.
However Israel denies 65 prisoners from receiving any family visits for the following reasons: they are not married; their parents are deceased, and their siblings are over 16 years old. According to the ICRC a further 50 prisoners are denied visits on security grounds. However, even where the stipulated requirements are satisfied, many scheduled prison visits are summarily cancelled by the Israeli authorities (see table below).
Number of days family visits for prisoners were cancelled during 1996
NO. OF DAYS PROGRAMME SUSPENDED
January 7th - 14th
January 19th - 21st
February 6th - April 19th
May 20th - July 3rd
August 9th - August 19th
September 27th - October 14th
October 24th - December 1st
The days for which the visit programme was suspended amounts in fact to more than half the year.
iii. Preventing Gazan students from continuing their education
The Israeli authorities continue to prevent over 1,200 Gazan students from reaching their educational institutions in the West Bank. Facilities for tertiary education in the Gaza Strip are inadequate for the needs of the Palestinian population; therefore, every year, hundreds of graduates from Gaza secondary schools seek a university education in the West Bank.
Since the Gulf War, when a closure lasting over 43 days was imposed on the OPTs, Israel has continually harassed Gazan students studying the West Bank and has placed obstacles to their education, including: the arbitrary denial of permits for security reasons, to students who have no record of security offences; delaying the issuing of permits until mid-way through the academic term so that it is too late for students to begin their studies; and refusing to renew valid permits for Gazan students which have been cancelled because of closures.
Upon the imposition of the closure in February 1996 Israel cancelled all permits for the 1,200 Gaza students studying in the West Bank, ordered them to return to Gaza and then forcibly transported them back to Gaza. As yet they have not been permitted to return and many have been unable to graduate or to take their final examinations. As a result of Israeli policies, increasing numbers of Gaza students no longer even apply to West Bank universities.
iv. Regional and international travel
Since the tightening of the closure on 25th February 1996 Israel has placed onerous restrictions on Gazans wishing to travel across its territory to Jordan; and prohibits Palestinians from the OPTs from travelling to and via Ben Gurion Airport which is the main airport for international travel.
a. Travel to Jordan and via Ben Gurion Airport
For months in 1996 Israel imposed a total ban on travel of Palestinians out of Gaza. When the total ban was eased, Israel required that Gazans wishing to travel to Jordan do so in specially provided buses; these measures remain in place. These travel in convoy, are pre-scheduled and are accompanied by an Israeli military guard to the Jordanian border. The buses leave very early in the morning and the process is time-consuming and inconvenient; it takes up to 16 - 20 hours for a convoy to reach the Jordanian border, whereas the actual travel time to Jordan is only 2 hours. Palestinians must obtain permits for travel, which often take as long as 2 months to be issued. After obtaining the permit the traveller is notified of the time of departure and the bus he must take. Notification is often given just 1 or 2 days prior to departure, and there have been cases of notification given only hours in advance.
Far fewer people were given permits to travel in 1996 than at any time previously. For example in 1995, 52,242 Palestinians from Gaza were given permits to travel to Jordan or via Ben Gurion Airport; in 1996 this number fell to 22,612.
These obstacles have discouraged Gazans from even applying for permits. The number of applications submitted to Israel in 1995 was 52,242 and in 1996, it fell to 22,612.
b. Restrictions on freedom of movement between Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Palestinian autonomous areas
Palestinians are prevented from travelling between Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem and between areas under PNA jurisdiction.
The following table shows the number of applications submitted to Israel by Gazans wishing to visit the West Bank and East Jerusalem, compared with the number of permits accepted. It is notable how low the number of applications was for 1996. No applications were submitted from March to May because travel was completely banned by Israel:
The reason for the low applications is that Israel prohibits travel for all but specific and narrow reasons and categories of persons. Excluded reasons for travel are for example:
a. family reunions (recently Israeli authorities began to allow women to make family visits);
b. visits to religious sites;
c. students wishing to study in the West Bank.
Even those who fall within a permitted category must satisfy the following:
a. applicants must be 30 years old and over;
b. male applicants must hold a valid magnetic card;
c. applicants must provide strong reasons to justify the need to travel.
The restrictions on the freedom of movement are at an unprecedented level. Prior to the imposition of the strict closure policy during the Gulf War in 1991, the PCHR estimates that 50,000 Gazans travelled each month, an annual figure of 600,000. In 1996 approximately 6,000 Gazans only were permitted to travel. This figure represents 1% of the Palestinians from Gaza who were permitted to travel to the West Bank and East Jerusalem 6 years ago.
v. Safe passage routes
The closure enforces the separation of the OPTs from each other, and their isolation from the outside world. Israel has refused to implement the safe passage routes which were required by the Agreements. These routes were designed to facilitate free movement for Palestinians between the OPTs and they are vital for economic and social reasons and to ensure respect for the unity and territorial integrity of the OPTs, which is an essential element of the Agreements.
2. Border Restrictions Continue to Debilitate Economic Recovery
The closure debilitates commercial activity between Gaza and the outside world. During the total closure of 1996 Israel effected a blockade of all outlets between Gaza and Israel, preventing the transport of commercial goods and produce. A sufficient number of the Gazan migratory labour force is still not permitted by Israel to go to work in Israel which is a further burden on the Gazan economy and unemployment remains high. These restrictions devastated the economies in the OPTs in 1996 and despite Israels announcements that it has eased the border restrictions, the situation has not significantly improved because very restrictive security measures were imposed at the borders, causing expensive delays and losses to Palestinian producers and exporters.
i. Losses in the agricultural sector: Erez Checkpoint
One year after the strict closure was imposed, and after Israel was supposed to have eased the closure, Palestinian agricultural producers are still suffering severe losses because of border restrictions imposed at Erez, the main land port for agricultural exports from Gaza. Israel began to allow exports of agricultural produce from Gaza at the end of March 1996, but it had imposed a restrictive convoy system which is still in place.
According to this system Palestinian trucks transporting agricultural produce are only allowed to travel across Israeli territory in convoys organised and guarded by Israeli forces. Palestinian vehicles must first undergo a rigorous physical security check, which often results in damage to produce; they must then queue, for long periods, usually hours, and sometimes days to await departure in a convoy out of Gaza. Israel allows only 10 vehicles in each convoy, and a maximum of 8 convoys each day. It takes each vehicle 12-24 hours to pass from the checkpoint to Ashdod Port, which is only around 45 kms from the checkpoint.
These restrictions do not allow the amount of goods actually produced by Gazan farmers to be exported. The delays due to queuing and security checks, result in extensive rotting and damage; sources in the PNA Ministry of Agriculture, report that between 30 - 50% of produce is damaged by the process and no longer of merchantable quality. The Israeli authorities still refuse to issue permits to Palestinian exporters so that they can enter Israeli ports and airports to monitor the passage of their goods. Instead this has to be done by an Israeli broker, which is expensive. In many cases agricultural products remain in ports for over a week.
The consequences of these onerous security measures are high costs and losses to the Gazan agricultural sector and a drastic decrease in exports:
1995/1996 harvest season
1996/1997 harvest season (until 15th February 1997)
Exports of citrus produce to Israel (in tonnes)
Exports of fruits and vegetable to Israel (in tonnes)
Exports to West Bank from Gaza Strip
Source: PNA Ministry of Agriculture.
A comparison of exports from the beginning of 1997 to 14th February 1997, with the same period for 1996 shows that Gazan exports of fruit and vegetables to Israel decreased from 7,267 tonnes in 1996 to 5,756 in 1997. For the same period, Gaza exports of fruit and vegetables to the West Bank decreased from 10,933 to 7,129.
The significance of this is that it contradicts the claim by Israel that it has eased the closure to the situation as it was prior to 25th February 1997.
ii. Restrictions On Workers
In 1996 the Gazan labour force was estimated to be 169,000; 72,000 of which are locally employed in Gaza, leaving a number of around 97,000 which the local economy cannot absorb. Throughout the occupation Israel has maintained the Gazan economy in a weak and dependent state which has provided a market for its products and a source of cheap labour. Gazan workers were encouraged to rely on opportunities for work in Israel, and the income derived therefrom became relied upon by the Gazan economy. However Israel has gradually reduced the number of workers who are permitted to go to work in Israel.
On the eve of 25th February 1996, only 22,000 Gazan workers were permitted to work in Israel. No workers were allowed to go to work in Israel for the remainder of February 1996 and for all of March. During April some workers were allowed into Israel but by 12th May only 6,784 had been allowed to return to work. The unemployment rate reached 70% during Summer 1996.
The Israeli authorities currently allow 23,000 Gazans to go into Israel to look for work. However the Israeli Government has replaced the Palestinian migratory labour force with labourers from Asian countries. At least 1,000 Palestinians who are allowed into Israel to work cannot find work there. Therefore a total of approximately 74,000 Gazans are currently unemployed. The unemployment rate is currently estimated at 43%.
Israel justifies the restrictions on Palestinian worker migration on security grounds. However many Palestinian workers infiltrate Israeli borders without permits. It is estimated that 2,000 workers were found inside Israel without permits in the past two months. Those captured are tried before Israeli Military Courts, fined and imprisoned.
These facts undermine the security justification for the closure claimed by the Israeli Government, and which connects the closure and the prevention of workers from going to Israel with the security of Israelis.
One year has passed since Israel imposed the total closure on 25th February 1996. The closure has had a devastating impact on the Palestinian economy and society. It has illustrated the extent to which Israel has maintained control of the OPTs. It is evident that Israels claims to have eased the closure to allow freer movement of goods and people are exaggerated and that in the aftermath of Israeli troop re-deployment, the closure is the mechanism for control employed by Israel.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reiterates its demand to the international community, sponsors of the peace process and donors, to intervene and to exert pressure on the Israeli government to end the closure policy. The Centre warns of the dangerous consequences of the continuation of the closure and the provocative measures taken by the Israeli Government including the expansion of settlements, which risk a new chapter of violence in the region.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights is an independent legal agency dedicated to protecting and promoting human rights, respect for the rule of law, and democratic principles in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Established in April 1995 by a group of Palestinian lawyers and human rights activists in the Gaza Strip, the Centre is an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists and partner to the Federation Internationale des Ligues des Droits de lHomme. The Centre is a 1996 recipient of the Republic of Frances Human Rights Award, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.