BY YONAH JEREMY BOB
Human Rights Watch demanded on Monday that its investigators be allowed into Gaza if Israel wants the International Criminal Court to take its own war-crimes investigations seriously.
HRW, in a 47-page report, accuses Israel of preventing its researchers from accessing Gaza and says Egypt has prevented HRW visits to the coastal territory since 2008.
Israel has not yet responded to the report but has said it investigates allegations made against its soldiers and has long accused HRW of unfair bias against Israel.
Recently, Israel has taken a more aggressive stance toward some human-rights NGOs, barring some activists from entering Israel and accusing them of involvement in the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign and general efforts to delegitimize Israel.
“The travel restrictions call into question the Israeli military authorities’ claim to rely on human-rights organizations as an important source of information for their criminal investigations into potential serious crimes committed during the 2014 Gaza war,” the report said.
The report “documents how Israel systematically bars human-rights workers from traveling into and out of Gaza, even where the Israeli security services make no security claims against them as individuals. Egypt is also imposing severe travel restrictions on its border with Gaza.”
Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine advocacy director at Human Rights Watch said the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor’s office should take note of the restrictions in the context of its ongoing preliminary examination of the Palestine situation.
“If Israel wants the ICC prosecutor to take seriously its argument that its criminal investigations are adequate, a good first step would be to allow human-rights researchers to bring relevant information to light,” Bashi said. “Impeding the work of human-rights groups raises questions not just about the willingness of Israel’s military authorities to conduct genuine investigations, but also their ability to do so.”
HRW acknowledged that Hamas also has had a role in restricting access to and from Gaza, noting that, on March 26, the Hamas authorities in Gaza significantly tightened restrictions on passage between Gaza and Israel following the assassination of a senior member of its military wing, which Hamas blames on Israel.
“Hamas says it wants to stop the killers from fleeing Gaza. The Hamas authorities are blocking nearly all travel out of Gaza, unless it is for medical care or to visit relatives in Israeli prisons,” the report said, adding: “Palestinian authorities are not known to have investigated any alleged serious crimes committed in or from Gaza, such as the firing of rockets by militant groups in Gaza toward Israeli civilian areas.”
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories responded to the report, by stating that it “coordinates over 1,000 crossing daily for trade and business purposes, medical treatment, academic studies abroad, participation in conventions and advanced studies and more. The numbers speak for themselves, and you can see in 2016 over 310,139 crossings were listed through Erez Crossing from Gaza to Israel and vice versa,” said COGAT.
Further, COGAT said, “all requests are thoroughly examined by the Coordination and Liaison Administration to the Gaza Strip (CLA) and security officials. We coordinate the crossing of many humanrights organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, The Global Doctors Organization and many more on a regular basis.”
The Military Advocate General’s office (MAG) responded to the report, saying it attributes “great importance” to its “extensive and daily dialogue” with human-rights organizations, whose reporting, it said, provides important input into its decisions about whether to open a criminal investigation or how to obtain a fuller picture in existing investigations.
MAG also criticized documentation by human-rights organizations as suffering from “methodological, factual and legal flaws” and, in some cases, “a clear bias.”
It called the travel restrictions issued against human-rights workers as “unavoidable … due to weighty security and political considerations,” HRW said.
The report called on Israel to “end the generalized travel ban and allow access to and from Gaza for all Palestinians, subject only to individual security screening and physical inspection... Until the travel ban is canceled, the authorities should add human-rights workers to those eligible for travel permits.”
“Egypt should also facilitate travel for human-rights workers via its border, and the Hamas authorities should protect human-rights workers from retribution,” the report said.
Published on The Jerusalem Post on April 3, 2017.