Go Ask Abbas

On the face of it, it is merely a matter of semantics. The Israeli human rights organizations call it "a breaking off of communications," referring to the refusal of the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Authority at the Erez Crossing to deal, since September, with their questions and appeals regarding exit permits for Palestinians from the Gaza Strip since September.

The defense establishment terms it "efficiency measures" and "organizational regulations," and get angry when one talks about a "breaking off of communications."

Moreover, security sources say, "This was done in accordance with a request from the Palestinian side."

A letter dated September 29 from Amin Siyam, the head of the Palestinian Civilian Coordinating Committee in Gaza (which mediates between the Palestinian residents and the Israeli authority) to Col. Moshe Levy, the head of the Israeli Coordination and Liasion Office for Gaza, states that all the exit requests from Gaza will be handled solely by the Palestinian committee.

However, according to Hussein a-Sheikh, the head of the Palestinian Authority's civil affairs office (the equivalent of the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) and Siyam's superior, "we never asked for the connection with human rights organizations to be severed. There is no mention in the letter of the Israeli organizations whose activities are most helpful to the people."

A-Sheikh explained to Haaretz that the letter actually referred to the various official and unofficial Palestinian bodies that side-step the Palestinian committee and coordinate matters directly with the Israeli side.

The civilian committee whose task it is to hand the Israeli side requests from Palestinian residents for exit permits via Erez and to transfer the response to the residents, is one of the few institutions that Ramallah is responsible for and that works in the Gaza Strip with the consent of Hamas.

As part of the PA, it is important for it to maintain its status even though in the eyes of most people it is little more than a courier. A Palestinian source in Gaza who is familiar with the way Israeli restrictions on movement, told Haaretz that one of the fears of the Palestinians is of collaborators of one kind or another who organize exit permits thanks to their contacts in Israel.

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that this is not merely a semantic issue but rather a huge difference in the versions.

Waiting for a reply

On September 13, three Israeli human rights organizations - Physicians for Human Rights, Gisha - Center for Legal Protection of Freedom of Movement, and the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual - received a letter from Levy.

"We wish to inform you that beginning September 15, 2009, all your requests with regard to Palestinian residents in the Gaza Strip who wish to enter Israel must be referred to the Palestinian civilian committee which, according to the interim agreement, constitutes the body that is responsible for collecting and prioritizing the transfer of the requests from Palestinian residents in the West Bank and residents of the Gaza Strip to Israel," he wrote. The letter added that the directive referred also to updates and clarifications.

In the weeks prior to the receipt of the letter, the Israeli organizations had already begun feeling that the soldiers and officials to whom they turned were avoiding giving them a response. From the day the letter was sent, the soldiers replied to the requests in similar fashion: "Apply to the Palestinian civilian committee." Lawyers from Gisha were told: "Speak to our legal adviser."

Private lawyers, meanwhile, who represent Palestinians who pay the full fee received an answer from the authorities. The soldiers also responded: "If they have not received a refusal [to grant a permit] don't turn to us."

And if there was a refusal, the answer sometimes was "Apply to the civilian committee," and other times: "We will respond in writing. We have 45 days to do so."

But this isn't 45 days for a response to a request to go skiing. Long before the Hamas victory in the Gaza elections and even before the disengagement from Gaza, Israel took steps to cut down to a minimum the number of people leaving Gaza via the Erez crossing.

Today, since Israel has stopped all economic activity in Gaza, we are referring to a few hundred people who may leave every month. Of course there are those "privileged" - which have the PA in Ramallah, with whom they are affiliated, facilitate their exit, though their number has dwindled.

And there are also very senior Palestinian employees in international organizations such as the World Bank. Their number as well has considerably dwindled. But these people do not need the assistance of the Israeli human rights organizations.

The human rights organizations' clients are not just sick people and others who require emergency help and whose treatment is held up by the security forces on the Israeli side for weeks and sometimes months. They include, for example, a man with a critically ill mother who lived in Jordan, and whose condition had deteriorated.

Since May when he submitted his request for an exit permit, his mother died, the funeral was held, the days of mourning passed - but he is still in Gaza. Only when Gisha began looking into the reason for the delay did it come out that he was "refused on security grounds." When he went for an interrogation with the Shin Bet security services, he was asked to collaborate but refused.

Another case, being dealt with by Hamoked, is that of a woman who is engaged to a resident of the West Bank. Since July 2008 Israel has refused to grant her an exit permit to go and get married. In addition, there are students who have been accepted at institutes of higher learning abroad and have to go to the foreign consulates in Jerusalem to get a visa.

All of them, as well as Gazan children who have relatives in the West Bank, are "outside the criteria" fixed by Israel. The Palestinian committee that serves as courier sticks strictly to the instructions received from Israel - it does not even accept requests from such people.

In a long meeting with a senior security source who asked that he remain anonymous, Haaretz asked whether Col. Levy would not have given instructions to the Israeli organizations not to approach the Israeli Coordination and Liasion Office if the Palestinians had not requested this, as the defense establishment claims.

"We do not get instructions from the Palestinians. This matter is in keeping with the existing mechanism," he said.

He added that the rationale behind the decision was (in addition to upholding the interim agreement) that in recent times the work of the Israeli organizations has been even more intensive than in the past and that is not acceptable. There are cases of double requests (lack of efficiency) and cases of forged documents (but also to the Palestinian committee, he admitted) and there are those who do not return after the permit expires.

In principle, the Israeli organizations' stand is that there is no legal basis for restricting the channels through which the requests are transferred. According to the interim agreement, the West Bank and Gaza are one territorial entity and the residents of Gaza have the right to be in and live in the West Bank, they mention, a right which they are entitled to even without agreements but which Israel does not respect.

As Israeli organizations, they insist they have the right and duty to act vis-a-vis the Israeli system and not that of the Palestinians - which has no teeth anyway.

With regard to the specific claims, they explain that the work of the organizations has become more intensive because the criteria for a permit have become more stringent and because there is no transparency in the work of the Israeli authorities. Apart from a few emergency cases, their appeals to the Israeli authority are always made after a request had eben made to the Palestinian committee and their examination also looks into the possibility of Palestinian negligence.

There are sick people who remain in the West Bank after their permit expires because they have to get follow-up treatment and are afraid they will not get a permit next time around.

Physicians for Human Rights came across two cases of documents that were suspected of being forged, out of the dozens of requests it received. In one case, it was indeed a forgery and in the other it was not.

The senior security source stressed that in cases of refusal, the Israeli authority examines the Israeli organization's appeal most seriously. "Every letter sent by an Israeli organization, even after Levy's letter, is examined. They don't say simply 'no.' After all, the Israeli organizations assist us from time to time to locate bottlenecks in those places where a second look is necessary," he said.

Here too there are conflicting versions. According to the documentation by the Israeli organizations, even when they appealed cases that had been turned down, the Israeli soldiers responded that they must apply to the civilian committee.

An activist from Hamoked called to check when the Erez Crossing was closing on the eve of Yom Kippur. A soldier at the CLO replied automatically, "ask the Palestinians."