Israel Bars Two Members of U.S. Medical Delegation From Entering Gaza Because They're Jewish

Israel at first refused to let the entire group enter due to members' Jewish origins and alleged BDS ties, but folded after a petition by legal center advocating freedom of movement

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Paramedics carrying an injured Palestinian protester during a demonstration on the beach near the maritime border with Israel, October 1, 2018.
Paramedics carrying an injured Palestinian protester during a demonstration on the beach near the maritime border with Israel, October 1, 2018.Credit: AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Israel has refused entry to the Gaza Strip to two members of a U.S. medical delegation because they are Jewish. Initially, entry was refused to the entire group, from the Washington branch of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Among the reasons given were the Jewish origins of most of the delegation’s members and the organization’s alleged involvement with the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement.

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But after Gisha, Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement, petitioned the High Court of Justice, the state backtracked on those two reasons and said it would permit eight of the delegation’s 10 members to enter the Strip as planned, on October 21.

In regard to two of the members — a neurosurgeon and a social worker with considerable experience treating people with trauma disorders — the state prosecution said they required “additional security checks.” Gisha said the two were an integral part of the delegation and refused to withdraw its petition. The state’s final response is due Friday.

Washington PSR delegations visited the Gaza Strip 12 times between 2009 and 2016. Members met with Palestinian physicians, psychologists and patients, giving advice and guidance.

In November 2016, the website of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories even boasted of the delegation’s visit (without mentioning the organization’s name). A photograph showed five of the doctors at the Erez checkpoint with a soldier from the District Coordinating Office. The text said that the doctors had come to improve the health care situation in the Strip, adding that COGAT looked forward to similar delegations in the future.

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Palestinian paramedics bringing in the body of 15-year-old Palestinian Ahmed Abu Habel, who was killed in clashes with Israeli troops, to a hospital morgue in northern Gaza, October 3, 2018.Credit: AFP

But in 2017, the delegation received an entry permit only after the date of its scheduled visit, and in April the group’s application was refused with no explanation. The Gaza District Coordinating Office, which is subordinate to COGAT, refused another request from the group in August, on the grounds that it didn’t meet the criteria for entering Gaza. The delegation turned to Gisha, and one of the advocacy organization’s lawyers, Moria Friedman Sharir, immediately filed a pre-petition notice with the prosecution’s High Court of Justice department.

The response to the notice came on September 6 from the Military Prosecution; it was signed by Capt. Nadav Gellis, the legal adviser to the DCO in Gaza. Gellis wrote that the Disengagement Implementation Law prohibits Israelis, as well as “foreign citizens with permission to stay in Israel,” from entering Gaza. He added that the military commander may issue entry permits “In accordance with the restrictive policy [requiring] exceptional humanitarian needs, all subject to security and diplomatic considerations that change from time to time.”

Gellis also wrote that, “Many of the applicants are Jews, for whom the risk of going to the Gaza Strip is routinely more significant.” He added, “From the information that the DCO in Gaza has, it emerges that the organization is involved in activities that encourage boycotting Israel, in cooperation with the BDS movement. It should be noted that COGAT has recently become increasingly concerned about this activity for diplomatic reasons and found it to be a reason to shift the balance in decisions about organizations that engage in it, especially when they are requesting a privilege that is an exception to an explicit policy.”

Gellis continued that because of the current security situation in Gaza, “COGAT officials have determined that there should be especially strict adherence to the written criteria for movement between the Gaza Strip and Israel.” The exceptional permits given in the past, he said, do not constitute “a promise to give additional permits in the future,” and “the balance of interests has changed since your client’s requests were approved.” Gellis is hinting here at the toughening of the policy of issuing transit permits to and from Gaza set by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

On September 20 Gisha filed its High Court petition, in which it details the services delegation members planned to provide in Gaza: consultations with colleagues on various medical issues and providing medical treatment and instruction in the clinics of the host organization, the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

The preliminary response, which dismisses much of Gellis’ argument, arrived October 4. In it, Ilanit Bito, the chief assistant in the prosecution’s High Court of Justice department, wrote that in an exceptional move, eight members of the delegation would be allowed into the Gaza Strip, “with no commitment regarding similar permits in the future.” With regard to the two Jewish petitioners who were refused, Bito wrote, “additional security checks are required, and the matter was handed over for examination to the relevant security officials … [who need] additional time to formulate their response to the matter.”

Haaretz is aware of two American Jews who entered Gaza just last month, one a volunteer physician and the second an activist with a humanitarian organization. Their Gazan hosts knew they were Jewish.

D’vorah Kost, one of the two delegation members who was refused entry, has visited the Gaza Strip twice. She is a social worker and yoga instructor and organizes children’s games. In an affidavit to Gisha, she wrote that the people she met in Gaza are aware that she is Jewish and that her Judaism had never posed a problem.

The physician who was refused entry, Dr. Donald Mellman, has visited the Gaza Strip seven times. He wrote to Haaretz that he no longer performs neurosurgery and now treats indigent people in Florida. In Gaza he had viewed various operations, examined patients in various private clinics and advised both doctors and patients about treatments.

Physicians for Social Responsibility was founded in 1961 and uses the knowledge of the physicians and public health workers who are members of further understanding of the risks to humanity posed by issues such as nuclear weapons, climate change and economic inequality.

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