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Restricting humanitarian aid

Al-Ahram Weekly – 18 July 2002
 
Eva Rimsten, a 34-year-old Swedish lawyer, arrived at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on an early morning flight on 24 June. She had with her a letter from one of the leading humanitarian organisations in Gaza, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, explaining that she was a volunteer specialising in children’s rights.
 
The centre’s legal investigations of human rights violations committed by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have earned it an international reputation.
 
But Rimsten never made it to Gaza. In fact she never made it beyond passport control. Asked the purpose of her stay, she showed officials the letter. After a brief interrogation, Rimsten’s passport was stamped “no entry”, her luggage was searched and she was escorted on to a plane bound for Sweden. Her visit to Israel lasted only a few hours.
 
Rimsten’s experience is far from isolated. Since Operation Defensive Shield, Israel’s invasion of West Bank cities in April, there has been a surge in humanitarian and aid workers being refused entry, and dozens of established volunteers have been deported.
 
According to Claudia Rodriegez of the Spanish charity MDPL, which offers medical relief to Palestinians, the refusals are part of a systematic assault by the Israeli authorities on the work of humanitarian organisations in the occupied territories.
 
MDPL was one of 33 international aid organisations that issued a statement two weeks ago protesting at the obstruction of their work in the occupied territories. The coalition, under the umbrella of the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA), says restrictions on the organisations’ movements at checkpoints have made their work all but impossible.
 
“As a direct result of increasingly restrictive closure policies, we have now reached a point where we can no longer adequately fulfil our mandate,” the statement says.
 
This, say the organisations, is all the more worrying given the dire plight of ordinary Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. The international community has expressed growing concern at figures showing that unemployment in some areas is as high as 80 per cent and that half the Palestinian population is living on less than $2 a day, the official poverty line.
 
Humanitarian groups have been trying to step up their work to ease the crisis, particularly since Operation Determined Path, the Israeli army’s current offensive, effectively dismantled the Palestinian Authority and its ability to provide even basic services.
 
But the refusal of entry to humanitarian workers is further undermining the aid organisations’ effectiveness, stripping them of the staff needed to carry out their work.
 
Israel’s Interior Ministry stated seven weeks ago that 200 foreigners had been barred from the country and 120 existing volunteers deported. Though a spate of such cases have been reported each week since, the Israeli press has continued quoting these figures.
 
When pressed by Al-Ahram Weekly, ministry spokeswoman, Tova Ellison admitted that the numbers were now higher but was unable to say by how much.
 
Some of those barred or deported belong to peace or solidarity groups, whose members often live in Palestinian communities, antagonising the Israeli army by monitoring military activities during curfews. The interior minister, Eli Yishai, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, has labelled such activists as “supporters of terror”.
 
But many have been professionals, including lawyers and doctors, who arrive to help local or international organisations. A Dutch doctor living in Wales, Ben Alofs, who was refused entry to work for the Palestine Red Crescent Society in May, publicised his own case on the internet.
 
Organisations like CARE and Save the Children have also had staff turned away. Even two officials from the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Office were reported to have been refused entry.
 
And last week two Australians were arrested at Ben Gurion airport when they arrived on behalf of Muslim Aid Australia to assess the humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories. They were released only after the Australian consulate intervened.
 
In another high-profile case, an American citizen, Jonathan Miles, was banned from Israel last month. He is the founder of a Christian charity, Light to the Nations, that raises funds to pay for surgery for Palestinian children in Israeli hospitals.
 
Miles has been living in Israel with his family on a relief worker’s visa for several years. His attempts to apply for residency were repeatedly blocked by the Interior Ministry, he says. When he returned from a trip abroad, he was turned back at the airport on the grounds that he was living in Israel illegally.
 
Lawyers for the Nahariya-based Centre for Religious Pluralism accuse Yishai of a “secret policy” of barring anyone who is not considered patriotic enough. According to the centre, those perceived as supporting Palestinian rights are automatically turned away.
 
Spokeswoman Ellison denied such a policy but said the ministry was justified in refusing entry to “anyone who is a peace activist or a supporter of the Oslo agreements”.
 
According to Adalah, the legal centre for the Arab minority in Israel, the refusal policy is even being extended to peace activists who want to work inside Israel.
 
Last Sunday Adalah managed to free a German humanitarian worker, Nuran Yigit, who had been held for three days in a detention centre at Ben Gurion airport.
 
Yigit was due to help set up a conference being organised by Al-Baladna, a youth exchange project based in Haifa.
 
Jamil Dakwar, a lawyer with Adalah, said: “The problem is that under the Law of Entry to Israel from the 1950s the interior minister has wide discretion in deciding who can and who cannot come into the country. There are no clear criteria.”
 
Ellison, however, says there is a procedure: humanitarian workers must obtain a permit to work in Israel before they can be allowed into the country. She adds that activists planning to go to Palestinian areas like Gaza or Ramallah are likely to be refused entry because they would be breaking the law by entering closed military zones.
 
Rodriegez accuses the Interior Ministry of a catch-22. “Volunteers can only get a B1 tourist visa [which lasts a year and allows them to work] from inside Israel, they are not available from Israeli embassies abroad. So if they are being turned back at the airport they have no chance to get the permits they need.”
 
Dakwar dismisses the closed military zones argument as well. “The Palestinian territories come under Israeli sovereignty and therefore Israel has an obligation under international law to assist humanitarian groups in easing the lives of Palestinians.
 
“And anyway this is not grounds for refusing entry. The military zones are closed and opened all the time. As long as volunteers only enter Palestinian areas when curfews are lifted they are not breaking Israeli law. The authorities can still deport people if they find them in closed zones.”
 
He believes the Israeli government is allowing entry to the more powerful organisations like Amnesty International to prevent a confrontation with the international community. “But in the main, the government thinks barring workers from Israel will do less harm than foreigners witnessing what is going on in the occupied territories.”
 
The 33 groups that signed the AIDA petition include Medical Aid for Palestinians UK, which was recently supported by Cherie Blair, the British prime minister’s wife, Oxfam, Rabbis for Human Rights, CARE and the International Christian Committee.
 
They state: “On a daily basis we are subjected to excessive delays at military checkpoints, inconsistent and sometimes complete refusal of access to our project sites and beneficiaries, and harassment and severe restrictions on the movements of local as well as international staff.”
 
They also call on the international community to put pressure on the Israeli government to end the restrictions.
 
Rodriegez says: “There is absolutely no respect shown by soldiers for our work. The authorities tell us they will facilitate our activities but on the ground, it’s a different story. There are an incredible array of obstacles put in our way to prevent us from reaching Palestinian towns and villages. And each time we are told a different excuse at the checkpoints.
 
“When the curfews are lifted we try to gain entry to deliver food or medicine but we have to explain to the soldiers at the checkpoints what a humanitarian organisation is and why they must let us through. It only takes one who refuses and the whole mission has to be abandoned.”

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