The 18-month Battle Over Freedom of Information

Disclosure follows lengthy legal battle that saw officials deny existence of documents

The three documents detailing rules for food imports into the Gaza Strip were published last week following an 18-month legal battle that at one point saw government representatives flatly denying the documents' existence in court.

The state finally admitted their existence and handed over the documents on October 21 only after the nongovernmental organization Gisha demanded that Amos Gilad, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, sign an affidavit confirming their nonexistence - which would have constituted perjury.

The state still refuses to give Gisha the documents that currently govern imports into Gaza. The rules were changed after May's botched raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, but many restrictions on certain products still stand, including some building materials. The state also refuses to give Gisha a list of permitted imports that COGAT drafted in April 2009.

On April 22, 2009, Gisha attorney Tamar Feldman wrote to Gilad and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seeking information about the defense establishment's policy on imports into Gaza. At the time, the Strip was still recovering from Operation Cast Lead four months earlier, and Feldman warned that Israel's restrictions constituted "collective punishment."

But the replies she received from both COGAT and the Defense Ministry, in May and June, did not provide the information she sought.

In June 2009, Gisha therefore applied to the Defense Ministry official responsible for enforcing the Freedom of Information Act in that ministry. When that, too, produced no results, Gisha petitioned the Tel Aviv Administrative Court.

At the first hearing, on January 21, 2010, government attorney David Gutman told the court: "We have no written list of basic foodstuffs ... We have no procedure for defining goods as humanitarian ... There is no list of goods whose entry is permitted or forbidden."

COGAT officials were present in the courtroom at the time to help him answer questions.

Affidavit demand

Feldman then demanded that the respondents sign an affidavit affirming that no such documents existed. Judge Ruth Ronnen backed that request, ordering the state to submit an affidavit within 30 days detailing exactly which documents did or did not exist.

On April 25, following repeated delays, the state finally admitted that the documents did exist. But it still refused to give them to Gisha, claiming this would undermine state security.

Only at a further hearing, on October 7, did the state finally agree to give Gisha the three documents whose disclosure it had initially claimed would undermine security.

But it still refused to hand over another document, from April 2009, whose existence Haaretz journalists Uri Blau and Yotam Feldman had revealed in a June 2009 article. The state said this was just a draft that was not used as a basis for decisions, and it therefore had no obligation to disclose it.

On October 21, the three documents, which detail the pre-flotilla raid rules, were handed over as promised. Gisha is still seeking access to the guidelines in force today.