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Obstruction of International Humanitarian, Development and Human Rights Workers

Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, June 2003


 PCHR has become increasingly concerned regarding the progressively restrictive measures imposed on internationals seeking access to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and the Gaza Strip in particular.  Restrictions have been arbitrarily imposed on internationals employed by international and national humanitarian, development and human rights organizations seeking to conduct their work throughout the OPTs.  These ongoing restrictions are imposed in violation of Israel’s obligations as the Occupying Power under the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War, and in violation of Israel’s stated commitments, including the Bertini Commitments.  PCHR expresses its concerns that such ongoing restrictive measures will serve to further worsen the humanitarian situation in the OPTs, particularly the Gaza Strip, where at least 20% of the population are now entirely dependent on international aid for basic foodstuffs and many more receive additional aid.  PCHR also asserts that these restrictions are intended to prevent foreign observation of the impact of the illegal Israeli military occupation, and the military policies implemented to sustain and expand it, on the Palestinian civilian population.

 While this position paper seeks to provide information specific to the recent restrictions imposed on international staff of humanitarian, development and human rights organizations, PCHR notes with grave concern, the ongoing denials of freedom of movement to the Palestinian civilian population of the OPTs in general, and to Palestinian humanitarian, development and human rights workers in particular.  For information regarding movement restrictions on Palestinians in the OPTs please refer to PCHR’s regular publications.


International Humanitarian Law

General principles of international humanitarian law provide for access for humanitarian agencies and their staff to ensure that necessary humanitarian services are accessible to civilians in time of conflict.  More specifically, the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War, 1949, (the Fourth Geneva Convention) obligates an Occupying Power to facilitate access for humanitarian workers in Occupied Territory.  Humanitarian, development and human rights organizations, domestic, regional and international, have provided a range of important services to Palestinian civilians throughout the OPTs for many years.  These organizations have included UN agencies (represented mainly by UNRWA), the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, Save the Children, World Vision, Oxfam International, as well as Palestinian non-governmental organizations.  Many of these agencies, particularly those providing humanitarian services in the field, have been subjected to restrictions, denials of access and even attacks on staff, vehicles and other equipment, by the Israeli military throughout the OPTs. 

 The Fourth Geneva Convention prescribes clear rules regarding humanitarian organizations, their services, duties and the duties of the Parties to the conflict (including the Occupying Power) in respect of these organizations.   In article 10, the Convention recognizes certain types of organizations.  The International Committee of the Red Cross is, of course, the primary humanitarian organization dealt with in this and the other three Conventions and Additional Protocols.  This article also refers more generally to "any other impartial humanitarian organization".  As further clarified in Pictet’s Commentary, those organizations must be humanitarian, i.e. concerned with the condition of human beings irrespective of military, political, or other identities.  The organizations must also be impartial.  However, they are not required to be international, nor is it required to be neutral[1].  The Commentary further details the types of activities which these organizations are authorized to conduct.  Activities may include, "1. representations, interventions, suggestions and practical measures affecting the protection afforded under the Convention;

2. the sending and distribution of relief (foodstuffs, clothing and medicaments), in short, anything which can contribute to the humane treatment provided for under article 27;

3. the sending of medical and other staff."[2]


Article 30 sets out obligations of the Parties to the conflict to provide services and relief to the protected persons.  As Pictet’s Commentary further details in reference to article 30, "The Convention requires the Parties to the conflict to grant all facilities to …relief organizations.  That means that it will not be enough merely to authorize them to carry out their work; their task must be facilitated and promoted.  It is the duty of the authorities to take all necessary steps to allow approved organizations to take rapid and effective action wherever they are asked to give assistance.  Among examples of such measures can be mentioned the provision of facilities for delegates to move about and carry on correspondence, to have free access to all places where protected persons are living, transport facilities, and facilities for distributing relief, etc."

 Article 61 expressly details the obligation of the Occupying Power, Israel, to facilitate the "rapid distribution of these consignments".  

 However, it must be noted that irrespective of the presence and services of humanitarian organizations, the primary agent responsible for the welfare of the protected persons, including provision of relief, is the Occupying Power; as article 60 specifically affirms "Relief consignments shall in no way relieve the Occupying Power of any of its responsibilities under Articles 55, 56, and 59". 


Bertini Commitments

On 7 August 2002, the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, appointed Catherine Bertini as Personal Humanitarian Envoy to address the humanitarian needs arising from the ongoing violence in the region since September 2000.  Ms Bertini’s visit later in August 2002 concluded with an agreement by the Israeli authorities to a minimum set of standards on humanitarian issues in the OPTs.  These minimum standards included commitments in health, water, fishing rights and access for Palestinian workers.  In addition, the Israeli authorities agreed to "fully facilitate the activities of international organizations"[3]

 The Bertini Commitments were noted as providing only a minimum set of standards that did not in any way detract or limit the obligations of Israel as the Occupying Power under the Fourth Geneva Convention and other relevant provisions of international humanitarian law.

 In addition to the Bertini Commitments, specifically in respect of UNRWA, the Israeli authorities are also bound by the Comay-Michelmore Agreement (signed in 1967), to facilitate UNRWA’s operations throughout the OPTs.  The Agreement refers specifically to the free movement of UNRWA international staff and UNRWA vehicles.


Human Rights Defenders

For many years, international staff of human rights organizations, both local and international, have provided essential services in the promotion and protection of human rights in the OPTs.  This group is particularly important in ensuring that accurate and appropriate information regarding the human rights situation in the OPTs is provided to the international community, and in particular to the UN treaty and charter bodies dealing with human rights issues.  Many international human rights defenders are based outside the region and conduct regular fact-finding missions to Israel and the OPTs.  Other international human rights defenders provide essential training and technical services to local human rights and other organizations.  For those international human rights defenders based in Israel and the OPTs, access restrictions, including visa applications and access through checkpoints, has impacted daily on their ability to contribute to the improvement of the human rights situation in the OPTs in particular.  Much of the work of international human rights defenders has been severely restricted over the last year by the increased, often arbitrary, restrictions on access to the area for this group. 

 The UN Declaration on human rights defenders[4] prescribes general commitments to the promotion and protection of human rights, including through non-governmental organizations and individual human rights defenders.  The Declaration supplements the inherent obligation in international human rights treaty law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and others, of state parties to promote and protect fundamental human rights.  Human rights defenders are an integral element in the promotion and protection of human rights.

 Israel’s role in facilitating the various humanitarian, development and human rights agencies and their work are clear.  However, in reality, Israel’s has consistently flouted these rules.  In particular, the denial or restricted access for international staff of these humanitarian, development and human rights organizations continues to impact upon the quality and regularity of the important services which these organizations provide to the Palestinian civilian population.


Entry to Israel

For a number of years, internationals seeking access to the OPTs through Israel have been subjected to prolonged cross-examination and time-consuming "security" checks at border points, particularly at Tel Aviv international airport.  However, since the beginning of the current Intifada, many hundreds of internationals seeking entry to Israel through to the Occupied Palestinian Territories have been denied entry to Israel at border entry points; particularly at Tel Aviv international airport, at the Allenby Bridge and Sheikh Hussein crossings from Jordan, and at the Rafah Terminal from Egypt.  Many of these internationals have sought entry to Israel for access to their places of work in the OPTs, including Jerusalem, with international and local humanitarian, development and human rights organizations.  These international are committed to professional work in alleviating the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation of Palestinians in the OPTs.  This policy of denying entry to internationals peaked during the Israeli military offensive in the West Bank, "Operation Defensive Shield", in April and May 2002 and the subsequent "Operation Determined Path".  However, this policy continues; in the latest example, the international representative of the Norwegian Peoples Aid, based in the Gaza Strip, was denied access through the Rafah Terminal on 25 May 2003.

 In addition to denying entry at border points, the Israeli authorities have consistently restricted the issuance of working visas for internationals working or volunteering with organizations providing services in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  To date, few international staff of non-governmental organizations have been granted work permits from the Israeli Ministry of Interior, despite presentation of correct documentation as required.  As a result, many internationals are forced to work on three month tourist visas issued at border controls.  This has greatly facilitated the ability of the Israeli authorities to deny entry to Israel, including for passage through to the OPTs, to international humanitarian, development and human rights workers. 


Entry to the Gaza Strip

Access to the Gaza Strip is through the Erez checkpoint located on the northern border with Israel and the Rafah Terminal along the border with Egypt.  Erez crossing has progressively expanded into a full border control with permanent structures, security and other facilities.  The Erez crossing is used by all internationals seeking access to the Gaza Strip.  However, in recent months, access through Erez has become increasing difficult for all internationals, including UN staff, journalists, diplomatic passport holders, and NGO staff. 

 May 2003 has witnessed unprecedented restrictions on access for internationals from all sectors to the Gaza Strip.  For at least 9 days, the Erez crossing was closed to all internationals except those with diplomatic passports.


Restricted Access

Following a suicide bombing by a British national (the equipment carried by the second bomber had reportedly failed to explode and his body was later found drowned off the coast of Tel Aviv) on 30 April 2003 in a beach-front bar in Tel Aviv, the Israeli military immediately began to impose delays on access for internationals through the Erez crossing.  For several days, internationals, including UN staff and diplomatic passport-holders were made to wait for prolonged periods, often for up to 9 hours before being allowed to cross into, or out of, the Gaza Strip.  No official and explicit explanation was provided for these delays and no warning of extra time required for crossing was issued.  Unofficial sources stated that the delays were incurred by extra security checks of each international each time they passed through Erez. 


Denial of Access

According to information collated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the first international staff member was denied entry to the Gaza Strip on 5 May.  On 8 May, the Israeli military authorities at Erez crossing first issued a disclaimer (annexed in full to this document) to be signed by all international seeking to enter the Gaza Strip.  This disclaimer required detailed personal information, including contact information in the Gaza Strip.  The disclaimer declared that the Israeli military could not guarantee the personal safety of internationals in the Gaza Strip and could not accept liability for "death, injury, or damage/loss of property incurred as a result of military activity".  The disclaimer further laid down conditions on internationals in the Gaza Strip.  These conditions included prohibited access to the "Military Installation Area", along the Egyptian border – the Rafah area.  "Closed Military Zones" also included areas next to the border fence with Israel, Israeli settlements and settlement roads.

 The final element of the disclaimer is a declaration to the effect that the signatory agrees to abide by the conditions prescribed by the Israeli military on access to certain areas, and that "failure to do so may lead to arrest and/or expulsion from the Gaza Strip and/or the territory of the State of Israel".  The declaration then clearly states that the signatory "accepts that the Government of the State of Israel and its organs cannot be held responsible for death, injury, and/or damage/loss of property which may be incurred as a result of military activity".  The signatory must also declare intention not to "disrupt" Israeli military operations and that they have "no association with the organization know as ISM (International Solidarity Movement) nor any other organization whose aim is to disrupt IDF operations".  Access to the Gaza Strip was conditional on signing this disclaimer.  The same day, the Israeli military also reduced the opening hours of the crossing from 24 hours, to between 0800 and 2000 hours each day.

 From late on Friday 9 May 2003, no internationals working for international and local non-governmental organizations, including those with work visas issued by the Israeli Ministry of Interior, were permitted entry to the Gaza Strip.  Again, no explanation was given and no warning had been issued prior to the implementation of this decision.

 On Sunday 11 May 2003, the Israeli military authorities closed the Erez crossing for all internationals, including staff of UN and other inter-governmental agencies, and journalists. 

 Access for some named internationals employed by named international organizations were permitted access through Erez crossing from 17 May 2003.  The Israeli military authorities had prepared a list of internationals with certain organizations and only those internationals who had been included on this list were permitted access through Erez crossing.  Since this list contained almost exclusively staff of certain inter-governmental agencies, large numbers of staff of international and local non-governmental organizations continued to be denied entry.  The closure for internationals whose names were not included on this list continued until Monday 26 May 2003.


UN and INGO Action

UN agencies and other international organizations issued repeated public statements regarding the impact of the restricted access to the Gaza Strip on their work.  Many of organizations reported spending approximately 50% of their working time on dealing with access issues for staff, including access into Israel, through checkpoints, visa issues.  In light of these unprecedented restrictions, the Association for International Development Agencies (AIDA), operating in the OPTs organized a convoy of vehicles to the Erez crossing with the purpose of demanding free and fair access for all to the Gaza Strip.  On 26 May 2003, AIDA representatives handed a letter protesting restrictions on access to the Gaza Strip to Captain Joseph Levy, Head of Foreign Relations for the District Coordination and Liaison Office at Erez.  Captain Levy gave a verbal statement that internationals had been permitted access for several days previously (which was not consistent with INGO and NGO experience) and could cross that day if they wished. 

 Since 26 May, internationals have been permitted access to the Gaza Strip, including those with tourist visas.  However, passage is still subject to delays and some internationals have continued to be denied access.  In addition, the list of named individuals and organizations is still in existence.  A second, shorter version of the waiver form has also been presented to some internationals seeking to cross into the Gaza Strip. 



The ongoing restrictions on access for internationals to the Gaza Strip, in particular, and the OPTs in general, have impacted on the level and quality of services provided to Palestinians civilians in the OPTs, including in respect of food and aid distribution, medical services, human rights protection etc.  As a result of the closure in May 2003, at least two International NGOs were forced to temporarily suspend their operations in the Gaza Strip and the services provided by many agencies were forcibly reduced.  The results of these closures and other restrictions come at a time when the humanitarian and human rights situation for Palestinian civilians in the OPTs is possibly at its worst point ever.  The impact of the ongoing illegal Israeli military occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the military policies and measures employed in the maintenance and expansion of this occupation, have resulted in an ever-deteriorating economic, social and political crisis.  The closures policy, preventing free movement of Palestinians and goods, has in particular directly resulted in rising unemployment and poverty levels.  As a result, increasing numbers of Palestinians are now reliant on aid distribution from international organizations, including the UNRWA and WFP.

 In addition, these restrictions on entry for internationals from all sectors can be viewed as part of a policy of restricting international attention on the deteriorating situation for Palestinians in the OPTs, in particular Israeli military operations in civilian areas such as house demolitions, and killing and injury of civilians.  The denial of access to areas of the OPTs by the Israeli military and government seeks to prevent international observation of the realities of life under occupation.  Increasing attacks on internationals since autumn 2002, including the killing of UNRWA employee, Iain Hook; solidarity activist Rachel Corrie; cameraman, James Miller; and appear to reflect this policy of removing international witnesses to the Israeli military operations on the ground in the OPTs.   Furthermore, PCHR has no information to suggest that in the cases of killings and injuries of internationals, the Israeli military has conducted a full and independent investigation in accordance with international standards.  PCHR is also unaware of any appropriate disciplinary or other punitive measures taken against any individual responsible for attacks on internationals.  PCHR is further concerned at the increasing arrest, detention and/or deportation of internationals from the OPTs.  Many of these internationals belong to solidarity and civil society movements who seek to provide non-violent protection for Palestinian civilians and to provide first-hand information on violations of Palestinians rights to the wider international community.

 The imposition of these restrictions on international human rights defenders, in particular, can be viewed in the context of the global trend of increased restrictions on human rights defenders in the name of "security"[5].  As detailed in this paper, these restrictions on access to the OPTs in general and specific areas of the OPTs, are generally based upon alleged "security" concerns.  However, a recent statement reportedly made by the Israeli Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom, reflects the wider policy of restricting human rights defenders in particular.  In May 2003, the Foreign Minister was reported as stating that Palestinians who have carried out attacks hide in human rights offices” and that “most human rights offices in the West Bank and Gaza Strip provide shelter for Palestinian terrorists"[6].  This statement seeks not only to undermine the credibility of Palestinian human rights organizations, but also those international human rights organizations who work in close cooperation with their local partners in the OPTs. 

 These recent events should also be viewed in light of the Israel governments recent commitment to the US-backed "Road Map" for peace which, in Phase One, expressly requires the Israeli authorities to "implement in full all recommendations of the Bertini report to improve humanitarian conditions, lifting curfews and easing restrictions on movement of persons and goods, and allowing full, safe, and unfettered access of international and humanitarian personnel".   In the current atmosphere of commitments to a real and fair peace accord, including cessation of violence and human rights violations, these restrictions on access and work of international organizations stand in contrast to the spirit of the current commitments made by the Israeli government.



PCHR calls upon the Israeli government and military:

  •  to immediately provide free and unrestricted access for all in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 

  •  to ensure that access through the Erez crossing is available 24 hours a day and not subject to arbitrary and prolonged delays. 

  •  to fulfill its obligations under international humanitarian law to ensure free access for humanitarian and other organizations providing key services to the Palestinian civilian population in the OPTs. 

  •  to immediately cease all attacks on internationals, including journalists, humanitarian, development and human rights workers in the OPTs. 

  •  to immediately cease all violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the OPTs against Palestinian civilians. 


PCHR also calls upon the international community

  •  to ensure Israel’s fulfillment of its legal and moral obligations, including in respect of access for international staff members of humanitarian, development and human rights organizations, including through the imposition of equivocal measures on access to other states. 






Humanitarian and development aid to the Palestinian people of Gaza denied

AIDA calls for free and unrestricted movement for all humanitarian and development workers

On May 10th 2003, the Israeli authorities denied access through the Erez crossing to all individuals without diplomatic passports, thereby effectively barring humanitarian aid and development workers from the Gaza Strip.

 If the current situation is not resolved soon, the 41 International Non-Government Organizations (INGOs) with humanitarian aid and development programs in the Gaza Strip may be forced to cease their activities, adding to the deteriorating humanitarian situation for the 1.2 million Palestinians living there.  Two organizations have already been forced to stop operations altogether. For those still trying to work, their staff inside are unable to leave either for work or personal reasons, staff are unable to enter Gaza to provide support to their projects and as a result, all are facing considerable difficulty in carrying out their activities.

 The undersigned humanitarian aid and development organizations find these restrictions  unacceptable since they contravene applicable international law, to which the Government of Israel is a signatory. 

 Furthermore, we are aware that, as of May 17th, the Israeli authorities have compiled a list of individuals who will be allowed access to the Gaza Strip.  This list includes certain staff of the UN and some humanitarian and development INGOs. We see this list as an additional measure to impede and restrict the access of humanitarian aid and development organizations to their project sites and as severely hindering the delivery of humanitarian relief. 

 These measures are contributing to the overall erosion in the ability of humanitarian aid and development organizations to provide assistance to the Palestinian people. Many organizations have been forced to spend up to 50% of their working hours dealing with the growing restrictions.  These have included time spent at checkpoints trying to gain access to project sites in the Gaza Strip, filing access requests, complaints and other liaison with the Israeli authorities and the international community on their continued inability to undertake their work in any kind of consistent or effective manner.

 The undersigned humanitarian aid and development organizations call on the Government of Israel to immediately lift the restrictions imposed on the Gaza Strip and facilitate humanitarian aid and development work by providing full and unrestricted access to all.




Accion contra el Hambre (ACH)


Asamblea de Cooperacion por la Paz (ACPP)


Centro Regionale d’Inter-Vento per la Cooperazione (CRIC)

Comitato Internazionale per lo Sviluppo dei Popoli (CISP)


Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (GVC)

Medecins du Monde France

Medecins du Monde – Greece

MSF – Greece


Mennonite Central Committee

Mercy Corps West Bank

Movimiento por la Paz, el Desarme y la Libertad


Oxfam GB

Oxfam Quebec

Oxfam Solidarite Belgique

Paz y Tercer Mundo

Premiere Urgence Palestine

Save the Children- Sweden

Save the Children – UK

Save the Children – US

Solidaridad Internacional

Solidarite Socialiste – FCD

Swedish Organization for Individual Relief (SOIR)

Terre des Hommes Laussane

UNA International Services (UNAIS)

World Vision – Jerusalem



Gaza Closure Cripples UN Relief Work (PDF).

18 UN Agencies NGOs Protest Gaza Closure (PDF).







[1] Pictet, J., Commentary, IV Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, ICRC, Geneva, 1958, p. 97.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See OCHA, Humanitarian Monitoring Report, Commitments made by the Government of Israel to Ms Catherine Bertini, Personal Humanitarian Envoy to the Middle East for the Secretary General, April 2003 (www.reliefweb.int)

[4] Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.  UN Doc. A/RES/53/144, 8 March 1999.  Adopted by General Assembly resolution 53/144.


[5] For an analysis of recent trends regarding restrictions on human rights defenders by states, please refer to the report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders, Ms Hina Jilani, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2003/104/Add.1, 20 February 2003.

[6] As reported on Yediot Ahronot’s Arabic website, www.arabynet.com, 21 May 2003.