Life under siege: Open air prison
Israel’s closure of the Gaza Strip entered its 10th consecutive year, continuing the collective punishment of Gaza’s entire population. Israeli control over the movement of people and goods into and from Gaza has severely damaged Gaza’s economy, hindered post-conflict reconstruction and affects the everyday life of 2 Million people, who are exempted from their right to move freely, to adequate housing, health care, work and education. The number of Palestinians leaving Gaza via the Erez crossing, which is the only crossing for the Gaza population to the West Bank, including Jerusalem, unprecedentedly declined during the last year, as the Israeli authorities denied, delayed or revoked permits for businesspeople, staff of international organizations, patients and their companions. Moreover, thousands of Gaza’s students are still being denied their right to choose a field and place of study, as no student from Gaza is allowed to study in the West Bank.
The ongoing closure and its consequences for the freedom of movement also affect the education that six trainee lawyers at PCHR are supposed to receive. PCHR currently employs six young law graduates in cooperation with the Bertha Foundation, which hosts an annual conference for all fellows, this year to be held in South Africa. Until now, all six lawyers have been denied to leave Gaza through the Erez crossing to attend the meeting, preventing them from enjoying their right to education and free movement. The idea of the meeting is for young lawyers from different national, cultural and educational backgrounds to meet, exchange knowledge and learn more about international humanitarian law, international criminal law and accountability. For most of PCHR’s Bertha fellows, it would also mean the first time they ever leave the Gaza Strip, which has not been possible due to the ongoing Israeli closure.
“We cannot see fellow lawyers in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, neither in the rest of the world. We are desperately hoping to be able to leave Gaza for the conference, as it would be hard to take yet another disappointment. But either way, we will keep hopeful and fighting for justice by defending the real victims of the closure”, trainee lawyer Maram Shatat describes.
The work of NGOs, civil society and human rights organizations based in Gaza is severely affected by the siege, as their staff cannot attend meetings, conferences and trainings outside of Gaza, which are vital to strengthen contacts with international organizations and effectively advocate for human rights. “It is of utmost importance for us to raise the philosophy of international humanitarian law in the Gaza Strip and to learn how to build legal files based on it. Of the 3000 lawyers in the Gaza Strip, only very few have the ability to form legal files based on international humanitarian law and to use investigation mechanisms relevant to advocate in front of the ICC, and I am lucky to be part of this specialized group of lawyers”, trainee lawyer at PCHR, Wade Al Arabed, explains. “We are the ones who will take action and advocate for universal jurisdiction. This aspect is missing in our university education, but PCHR is adding a huge value by educating and training us on it”, trainee lawyer, Mahmoud Ahmad, adds.
“Attending the conference is not only important from an educational perspective, but for us it is equivalent with breaking the Israeli siege on Gaza”, trainee lawyer, Adel Mhana stresses. it is impossible for the six lawyers to get a permit for crossing Erez, because they do not fall into any of the official travel categories, as defined by the Israeli authorities. On paper, the categories are: patients suffering from serious diseases and their companions; Arabs holding Israeli ID’s; international journalists; workers of international humanitarian organizations; businesspeople; and persons travelling via al-Karama crossing. However, in reality additional hardship is imposed on all the categories and Israel can deny anyone for security reasons.
As a person born and raised in Gaza and completely separated from the rest of the world, Hanady Shawiesh , trainee lawyer and Bertha fellow wishes to travel abroad and meet other lawyers to show them that Gazan lawyers have the same skills as lawyers from other places “I am able to be a lawyer and a human being like any other person”. She also believes that Israel is intentionally cutting their connection with the rest of the world and trying to prevent them from building relations with lawyers abroad: “but we will not stop fighting for our right to travel and connect.” Shahd Tareq, trainee lawyer said that working as lawyer at PCHR is not only aiming at local and national courts, but it’s necessary to have access to international courts in order to acquire justice for Palestinians. Therefore, Shahd needs to meet and learn from lawyers outside of Gaza to be able to grasp what “international” means, which clearly requires being able to leave Gaza. “I am 25 years old and have never seen anything else but Gaza”, Hanady Shawiesh emphasizes.
PCHR, together with other Palestinian human rights organizations, has thus far delivered four legal submissions to the International Criminal Court on behalf of the Gaza victims to proceed with the prosecution of Israeli war criminals for all crimes committed. The first two submissions dealt with the Israeli offensive of 2014 and the Black Friday Massacre in Rafah respectively, while the latest submission of November 2016 addressed the ongoing illegal closure imposed on the Gaza Strip. “We want the outside world to grasp what we have experienced both as lawyers and human beings going through three wars. Not just our cases are affected by the lack of freedom of movement, but every single one of us is. We are lawyers dealing with international courts, especially the ICC, but we are being denied the right to move, get expertise from abroad and to actually see the ICC. We read about and studied it, but it is abstract as long as we have not been there. And how are we supposed to present the suffering of the Palestinian people in front of the ICC, if all we can do is to submit papers to it? We want our voice to be heard”, the six PCHR Bertha fellows agree on.