ISRAEL'S POLICY OF CLOSURE
In this Chapter the history of Israel's closure policy is considered, together with its political implications.17 Closures are ostensibly imposed to augment Israel's control of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However recent closures have been imposed with extreme severity; these closures take on a new dimension wherein they have become an instrument for collective punishment, which goes beyond security and control concerns. These closures violate a number of Israel's international legal obligations, including humanitarian and human rights law and its obligations under the Interim Agreements. The political implications of the closures are that they have reinforced the social and territorial separation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the Occupied Territories. Changing the facts on the ground thus, prejudices the Final Status Negotiations.
This type of closure is absolute, and they take the form of reprisals against the Palestinian people for attacks carried out by Palestinian individuals against Israeli citizens. The timing and context in which closures have been imposed suggest that Israel has used them as a mechanism for putting pressure on the PNA to carry out Israel's demands, for influencing the outcome of the Final Status Negotiations, and for undermining the possibility of the emergence of an independent Palestinian State.
i. Background to the Closure Policy
Israel's closure policy is applied at three levels: i. General closure - Imposed at the outset of the occupation and has been in place ever since. It allows Israel to control the movement of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories; ii. strict closure - A restrictive tightening of the closure which allows very little movement, usually only that of an humanitarian nature and no commercial transactions. These have been imposed with increasing regularity since 1989, justified by Israel on the basis of its national security, iii. Absolute closure - The imposition of a blockade, preventing all movement of Palestinians and goods in and out of the Occupied Territories. These were experienced for the first time in Spring and Autumn of 1996, they have a strongly punitive and reprisory character and are imposed collectively, thus violating international law which absolutely prohibits collective punishment and reprisals against civilians.
Although the Occupied Territories have been under closure throughout the Israeli occupation, it has only been since the imposition of strict closures since 1989 that doubts have been raised as to the justification and legality of Israel's closure policy. The introduction of strict closures in 1989 was accompanied with the introduction of the magnetic card system for all Palestinian residents over the age of 16. Magnetic cards are refused to those who have a record of criminal activities; Israel includes in this category any history of political activism.18
The Intifada saw an increasing incidence of violent attacks perpetrated by Palestinians against Israeli settlers and military personnel inside the Occupied Territories. In response the Israeli Government increased the restrictions on Palestinian movement into and through Israeli territory. Then during the Gulf War in 1991, Israel introduced severe permit restrictions which dramatically reduced the number of Palestinian labourers who migrated to Israel daily.19 In March 1993, Israel imposed the longest and most severe closure that had so far been experienced in the Gaza Strip, following the stabbing of two Israeli security personnel by Palestinians inside the Gaza Strip.20
The absolute closures of the Gaza Strip: 25th February and 26th September 1996
On 25th February Israeli occupying authorities imposed the most restrictive closure that the Occupied Territories had so far experienced, in response to two suicide bomb attacks in Israel, which were carried out by individuals belonging to Islamic Jihad and Hamas. As restrictive as this closure was, it did not prevent two further suicide bomb attacks in Israel on 3rd and 4th March. Israel immediately tightened the closure to an unprecedented extent, and borders were absolutely sealed from 5th - 11th March 1996. The Gaza Strip was totally sealed off and only diplomats, journalists and UN officials were permitted to cross the borders between Gaza and Israel during these days.
Israel claimed to have adapted a policy of closure-easing from the end of March onwards, but this was largely hortatory and did little to ameliorate the economic crisis and the poverty which resulted from the days of absolute closure. On 26th September 1996 absolute closure was again imposed over the Gaza Strip and the borders were completely sealed between 26th September - 3rd October 1996. Easing measures were effective only from 3rd October and the easing was very gradual.
Although Israel claims that these absolute closures were imposed for security reasons, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights believes that this is a spurious justification. This report aims to show, through illustration of the facts on the ground, that the policy of closure is a method of collective punishment, of a reprisory nature, and that this is part of a concerted campaign to inhibit the development of the Gaza Strip, to increase the separation between the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with the ultimate objective of undermining, as far as possible, the unity of these areas in anticipation of the Final Status Negotiations. This damage is augmented by the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, which has continued unabated since the signing of the peace agreements between Israel and the PLO.
These closures are punitive and reprisory,21 which is apparent from their timing and severity.
In addition they are collective, effecting the punishment of a community for the actions of its individual members. Such measures are absolutely prohibited by international law.
ii. Israel's Security Justification for the Closures
Although Israel claims that the primary objective of strict and absolute closures is security, an examination of the facts, illustrates how spurious this argument is. During the severe closures imposed in 1996, Israeli security forces did not manage to prevent the illegal entry of hundreds of Palestinian labourers into Israel. Neither did the 25th February closure prevent two subsequent suicide bombings on 3rd and 4th March.
These security justifications should be considered both in terms of their effectiveness and in terms of their human rights implications. The general public, both in Israel and abroad, generally comprehend closure as a security measure. An examination of the facts illustrates the dubitable nature of this policy as a security measure.
The closure has not proven itself particularly effective in preventing the entry of Palestinian individuals into Israel. Each day hundreds of labourers cross the border illegally to work inside Israeli territory; according to the Israeli Police Ministry, over 40,000 arrests of Palestinian workers who were in Israel without permits were made in 1995. No suicide bomber has ever had a permit to legally enter Israel, and two of the suicide bombings which occurred in Israel in Spring 1996 took place after the tightest closure ever had been imposed.
The fact that it is possible to enter Israel even when an absolute closure has been imposed, particularly from the West Bank, is well-known. While the Gaza Strip is surrounded by a fence along its entire perimeter, with only three border crossings between it and Israel, the West Bank may be entered from a variety of roads which criss-cross the Green Line. For example Palestinian taxis carrying passengers from Ramallah to Jerusalem, routinely take alternative routes to Jerusalem which have no checkpoints.
The security fence which surrounds the Gaza Strip is allegedly electrified in places, surrounded by deep trenches, a steel barrier to stop vehicles, touch-sensitive chain link, barbed wire, and finely combed san(to reveal footprints). It has not however prevented car thieves from entering Israel, nor has it prevented Palestinians sabotaging the fence and stealing pieces of it to sell as scrap metal.
A long list of high-ranking Israeli security personnel22 have stated that the closure can be lifted while still guaranteeing the necessary level of security.23 According to Gideon Ezra, a Likud member of the Knesset and a former top General Security Service commander, The value of the closure is psychological. It makes Israelis think they are safe... But in fact it has the opposite effect: it doesn't stop bombers. But it makes people angry, and that anger isn't good for anybody.24
Thus the deterrent against illegally entering Israel for Palestinians is not the impossibility of crossing the Green Line; rather it is the risk of being caught illegally inside Israeli territory, for which punishment is a prison term, a heavy fine, or both. It seems clear that the strict and absolute closures are ineffective for fulfilling the purpose for which Israel claims they are imposed, i.e. guaranteeing Israeli security. It targets instead those who wish to leave the Occupied Territories for innocuous reasons such as employment or visiting family members.
A Dubious Justification
The last of the four suicide bombersto carry out an attack in Israel (on 4th March 1996), entered Israel illegally by smuggling himself through the Karni Checkpoint from Gaza in the back of a truck. The checkpoint had been reopened after the absolute closure, which had been imposed following the first two suicide bombings, it was then closed again.
Israel's sovereign right to take all appropriate steps to prevent violence against its citizens is not disputed.25 However security measures must be taken in accordance with internationally recognised legal norms and principles.
One issue of the restrictive closures is the arbitrary way in which they are applied. For example, while Israel justifies the prohibition on the passage of goods (including urgent basic necessities) into the Gaza Strip on the basis of security, special dispensations were issued by Israel during the height of the closure which permitted the exportation from Gaza of textile products, in response to pressure from Israeli manufacturing industries which are highly dependent on these goods. Special dispensations were not issued for exports of Gaza's agricultural produce, which competes with Israeli products.
Rather than intensifying its security inspections at the border-crossings after the February and March attacks, Israel completely closed the border crossings. Even the most stringent of security checks would have permitted the passage of some persons and vehicles across the border each day. Indeed it is possible that Israel could have allowed the entry of truckloads of urgent food and medical facilities into the Gaza Strip, without compromising its security.
Israel's prohibitions on the movement of people across the borders of the Gaza Strip apply without exception for those travelling for legitimate purposes. For example Palestinian Legislative Council members, medical personnel, and persons in need of urgent medical care have all been prevented or restricted from travelling in and out of the Gaza Strip, between the Occupied Territories, and between those areas under Palestinian jurisdiction,
It is apparent that there are indirect implications of the very strict closures imposed this year, and that Israel has additional, less obvious objectives for their use. Through these closures Israel can exert enormous political pressure on the PNA to address Israeli security concerns within the areas under its jurisdiction." The economic hardship caused by the absolute closures carries with it harsh political consequences for the PNA. The closures place the PNA in a politically weak and burdened situation which compromises their negotiating position and their ability to pressure Israel when it fails to implement its obligations under the existing agreements, (for example the delayed IDF re-deployment from Hebron).
The fact remains that these very restrictive closures do not prevent the entry of Palestinians who do present a security threat into Israel, while causing suffering and hardship to thousands of Palestinians who do not present a threat. Attempts to suppress the voices of those who are opposed to the peace process risks further marginalisation of these groups, and can only lead to further violence. Ultimately, the only solution to Israels security problem is to address its root causes, and to seek, in good faith, a just and comprehensive peace with the Palestinian, people, which will lead to the fulfilment of their inherent right to self-determination.