The closures of 1996 attracted much international attention but they were not a new factor in Israel's policy towards the Occupied Territories in any respect except their severity.' Upon its occupation in 1967 Israel established military control and governance of these areas, declaring the Gaza Strip and West Bank closed military zones, 2(hereinafter referred to as the general closure). The general closure was only a mechanism for controlling the movement of the occupied Palestinian population, but its administrative and military framework allowed it to be tightened for the imposition of strict and absolute closures.

The overall trend in Israel's closure policy since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993 has been increasingly restrictive and it is apparent that closure has become Israel’s primary means of controlling the occupied Palestinian Territories. Although the closure is occasionally eased, this will remain the case until Israel ceases to view itself as entitled to control these areas, and the Palestinian people achieve self-determination and independence from Israel.

Closure refers to Israel's imposition of restrictions at the borders around the Occupied Territories which are enforced by its Military Government and armed forces. Closures facilitate varying degrees of control on the movement of all goods, people and vehicles, particularly across the Green Line.3 Israel imposes closures at three levels and these shall be referred to as general closure (the least restrictive), strict closures and absolute closures, The general closure was imposed at the outset of the occupation. Strict closures have been applied more frequently since 1989 and have heightened since Israeli troop re-deployment in the Gaza Strip in May 1994. The closures of 1996 are the most restrictive closures ever experienced and are appropriately described as absolute closures.

In 1996 Israel imposed strict and absolute closures on the occupied Territories, which amounted to a blockade of these Palestinian areas. On 25th February, following two suicide bomb attacks in Ashkelon and Jerusalem carried out by Islamists, Israel imposed the most restrictive closure that had thus far been imposed on the Occupied Territories. As strict as this closure was, it did not prevent two more bomb attacks in Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem on 3rd and 4th March. Israel responded by imposing an absolute closure. Although the closure was gradually eased throughout the Summer, an absolute closure was imposed from 26th September to 3rd October 1996, following bloody clashes, in which 64 Palestinians were killed and over 1,600 were wounded by Israeli soldiers.4

Israel has augmented the continuation of its military occupation of Palestinian Territories and its stranglehold over Palestinian life through its policy of closure since the signing of the Interim Agreements. The closures of 1996 have been justified by Israel on the basis of its national security; but as the subsequent bomb attacks in March demonstrate, the closure are not effective for this purpose.

The closures affect the daily lives of every Palestinian living in the Occupied Territories, and in particular the Gaza Strip. The closures of 1996 brought about the near collapse of the economies of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, reducing the Palestinian inhabitants to levels of poverty never before experienced, even at the height of the Intifada. Israel’s blockade of Gaza’s borders prevented exports of produce from the Gaza Strip and imports, including basic food stuffs and vital medical supplies and equipment.

The restrictions on freedom of movement have prevented the 22, 000 Palestinian migratory labour force from Gaza reaching their places of work in Israel; Palestinian access to specialised and often vital medical treatment not provided by Gaza’s basic medical facilities but available in Israel, around 1,200 Palestinian students from the Gaza Strip have been prevented from reaching their universities and colleges in the West Bank; Palestinian families were separated and family visits to Palestinian prisoners held illegally in Israeli prisons have been mostly impossible and at best restricted; PNA officials have been unable to travel freely between the autonomous areas5 and have suffered disruptions to their work at this delicate time; Palestinians have been prevented from travelling between the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, between the Palestinian autonomous areas, and abroad.

The closures are enforced through a tri-part framework: military force at the borders, military orders and a permit system. Israel's 4,500- 5,000 occupying troops stationed inside the Gaza Strip did not leave upon the coming into force of the Interim Agreements in 1994; they merely re-deployed to positions away from populous areas, around the Israeli settlements and to bolster border guards. Since the clashes in September 1996 the number of troops stationed inside the Gaza Strip has increased; they have taken up offensive positions, fortified with tanks and heavy artillery. Israel's military government and military orders are maintained by the Interim Agreements. The permit system is operated through the possession of identification cards that all Palestinians resident in the Occupied Territories must possess. In order to leave the Occupied Territories, and to travel between them, Palestinians with ID cards must obtain an entry/exit permit from the Israeli authorities.

Before the Interim Agreements were signed, residents of the Gaza Strip were relatively free to conduct business, visit religious sites, and to see family and friends in Israel, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and abroad. Today, obtaining a permit to exit Gaza has for the majority become a near impossibility. Regardless of their civil status, residents of the Gaza Strip are frequently unable to surmount the substantial obstacles, inherent in the permit system, in order to obtain a permit required to exit the Gaza Strip.

Israel claims that the closures of 1996 have been imposed for security reasons. While Israel has a sovereign right to take measures for its national security, such measures must be in accordance with internationally recognised standards of human rights and humanitarian law. It is clear that Israel has violated many provisions of these laws in respect of the closures. This report concludes that Israel's justification for the very restrictive closures imposed in 1996 on the grounds of security are spurious and that the real motivation for them is punishment for attacks against Israeli citizens or the State of Israel.

Israel harnesses the politically damaging effects the closures have for the PNA in several ways. Firstly as leverage to pressure the PNA to act on behalf of Israel’s security concerns inside the autonomous areas and ultimately against the PNA’s own people, secondly to place the PNA in a weakened bargaining position in respect of the Final Status negotiations and the implementation of Israel's existing obligations under the Interim Agreements that it has already signed.

Although some administrative responsibilities were transferred to the PNA by the Interim Agreements, the Israeli military forces have maintained control of all borders around the Occupied Territories, restricting access of people and commodities to and from these areas. The ability of Israel to impose such extensive control, and the extent of the severity to which it does so, has not dwindled since the establishment of the PNA and re-deployment of the Israeli army. All passage of goods and people beyond the borders of the Gaza Strip depends on the co-operation and goodwill of Israel.

Israel therefore continues to be the Occupying Power, and in this respect is bound by the 1949 IV Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (to which Israel is a High Contracting Party), and the Palestinian civilian inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, West Bank including East Jerusalem are entitled to its protection. Israel has obligations under this instrument both as an Occupying Power, and as a High Contracting Party.Israel is also subject to international human rights legal norms6 and principles in respect of its treatment of the Palestinian people.

This report concludes that Israel has violated its obligations under the Geneva Convention and international law in the following respects: that the nature of the closures imposed in 1996 are reprisory and constitute the collective punishment of the civilian population, and as such are absolutely prohibited in international and Geneva Law; the blocking of imports of basic and necessary food and medical supplies, and of access for Palestinians to medical facilities outside the Gaza Strip; the building of Israeli settlements inside occupied areas; bringing about changes to the legal and physical characteristics of the occupied areas,. that are beyond what is strictly necessary to maintain the security of the occupation, and what is necessary to maintain the I'ordre et la vie publics, and that are not of a temporary nature which is concomitant with the temporary nature of belligerent occupation,

Israel is subject to the Interim Agreements7 it has signed with the PLO, to the extent that they do not diminish the protection or rights provided in the IV Geneva Convention. It is concluded that Israel has violated many provisions of the Agreements, particularly, the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; the provision of safe passage between the autonomous areas; respect of the human rights and dignity of the Palestinian people; and the maintenance of the status quo.

The issue of closure is of fundamental importance. It is a policy inextricably intertwined with the most crucial of issues relating to the current peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, including: the territorial integrity of the Palestinian territories, Jerusalem, borders and security, and the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Consequently the closure has profound implications for the Final Status Negotiations and Agreement.

The extent of the social, political and economic damage sustained by the Palestinian people as a result of this closure has been of such consequence that the peace process itself has been further undermined. One manifestation of the frustration felt by the Palestinian inhabitants of the Occupied Territories was witnessed in the violent clashes of September 1996. Following this Israel imposed the second of its most severe closures.

The closure is an all too tangible reminder for the Palestinian people that Israeli occupation and control over the lives of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is still very much a reality, despite the re-deployment of Israeli forces out of major population centres, and the existence of peace agreements and a peace process.

It is popularly felt in the Gaza Strip that the hardship and poverty caused by the restrictive closures of 1996 has brought about living conditions that are worse than during the Intifada. This has particular resonance in the context of the ongoing peace process and highlights the inequity of the Interim Agreements and how relative is the peace that exists.

This report concludes with a number of recommendations to the international community regarding its obligations in respect of the Palestinian people. The international community a crucial role to play in ensuring both that Israel fulfils its obligations under the Interim Agreements, that its activities during the Interim Period8 remain consistent with international law, and that the Final Status Negotiations lead to a Palestinian State and the fulfilment of the Palestinian peoples’ right to self-determination. Furthermore, those States that are High Contracting Parties to the IV Geneva Convention are under an obligation to ensure that it is respected by Israel, a signatory to the Convention.

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 the promotion of democratic principles in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The work of the Palestinian Centre is supported by: Agir Ensemble Pour les Droits de I'Homme, Canadian Embassy, Christian Aid, Netherlands Commission on Interchurch Aid, DanChurchAid, Ford Foundation, Grassroots International, NOVIB, Open Society Institute, the Resource Centre for Non- Violence, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Swedish International Commission of Jurists.

The Palestinian Centre is an Affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists. and a Partner of the Fédération Internationale Pour les Droits de I'Homme.

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