While the Israeli army's crossings into Gaza have gone into near-
lockdown mode since Hamas wrested control of the coastal strip more
than two years ago, Israeli human rights organizations have
regularly stepped in to intervene, with some success.
That is, until last week. On Sunday, a group of the most active
human rights groups here were informed that the government-run body
that controls access to and from Gaza will no longer deal with them.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories
(COGAT) sent an official letter on Sept. 13 to three human rights
groups informing them that they would no longer be able to act on
behalf of Palestinians with urgent requests to leave Gaza -
generally for medical care, to visit a sick family member, or to
attend a funeral. They must instead refer such requests to the
Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee, in accordance with the Interim
Agreement - the basis of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation established
in 1995 under the Oslo peace process.
The letter notes that the "longstanding" policy of carrying out
such appeals in conjunction with Palestinian authorities has been
approved by Israel's High Court of Justice. But the organizations
say it is part of the military's increasing resistance to working
with human rights groups in the wake of the Gaza war.
The organizations include Gisha: the Legal Center for the Freedom
of Movement, Physicians for Human Rights - Israel, and HaMoked:
Center for the Defense of the Individual. They say they have
increasingly had their appeals ignored since the war in January.
This latest step, the groups complain, takes away one of the few
avenues of recourse available to desperate Palestinians.
"Gaza residents have no direct access to the [Israeli] military
officials who decide their fates, and up until now they had a chance
to have an advocate bring their case before the military and get
some sense of due process," says Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha,
based in Tel Aviv.
Ms. Bashi, a lawyer, says Gisha and other groups only pick up
cases where Palestinians who applied for permits - which they are
told to do through the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee - either
had their applications rejected or were never given an answer.
"The new procedure means that Palestinians no longer have a right
to have an advocate that they chose to help them, and everyone has a
right to an advocate," Bashi says.
The case of baby Mutasem
The case of 9-month-old Mutasem Billah Abu-Mastfa, a Gazan baby
diagnosed with a severe heart condition, illustrates well the delay
and confusion Palestinian families with urgent health issues are
facing - and the powerlessness of human rights groups to help. Due
to a deterioration of his condition, his doctors in Gaza referred
him for treatment at Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer, Israel.
His family submitted an application to take him there on Aug. 28,
and the hospital was expecting them on Sept. …