Israel Systematically Blocks Rights Workers' Access to Gaza, Human Rights Watch Says

The restrictions undermine Israel's claim that it's relying on rights organizations in its investigations into its own alleged war crimes, report says.

 A Palestinian man sells drinking water in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip. Poor sewage has damaged Gaza's limited fresh water supplies.
Khalil Hamra, AP

Israel is systematically barring human rights workers from entering and leaving the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Monday.

The travel restrictions interfere with the workers' efforts to document and fight against rights abuses, violations of international humanitarian law and war crimes, the report said. 
    
Israel says all access to and from Gaza endangers its security, and allows travel only under exceptional humanitarian circumstances. According to the report, rights workers' job-related travel does not qualify.

This means Palestinian organizations can't get staff, consultant and volunteers to and from Gaza, which hinders their programs, the report says. Moreover, Palestinian rights workers are barred from accessing training and other professional opportunities and from meeting with colleagues based in the West Bank. Meanwhile, foreign and Israeli workers are not permitted to enter Gaza, which limits their ability to investigate and advocate against rights abuses and blocks experts from doing research.

According to the report, since 2008, Human Rights Watch received permission to get foreign staff into Gaza via Israel just once, in September 2016. 

Human Rights Watch says the restrictions undermine the Israeli authorities' claim that human rights groups are a key source of information for their investigations into claims of war crimes committed during the 2014 Gaza war

The report notes that Hamas, too, is blocking nearly all travel out of Gaza and that Egypt bars foreign rights workers from entering the Strip and restricts access of Palestinian ones. 

It further levels criticism at Hamas for failing to protect rights workers from retribution by militant groups the activists have criticized.

International rights groups have accused both sides of committing war crimes, while the International Criminal Court is conducting a preliminary investigation into possible wrongdoing by both sides.

Israel has long accused Human Rights Watch of being unfairly biased against it. Last month, Israel refused to grant a work permit to the New York group's regional director, though it later allowed him to visit the country as a tourist.

In the report, Human Rights Watch urges the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take note of the restrictions as part of its probe.

The Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said that any request for access is seriously examined by security agencies. "We regularly coordinate the passage of many rights groups," it said, listing Doctors without Borders as being among the groups given access. "We stress that Gaza is under the control of the Hamas terrorist group, which takes overt action to hurt Israeli security, so we face constant tension between our wish to help the civilian population in Gaza and our commitment to protecting the citizens of Israel."

With reporting from AP.