For Gaza, a Question of Responsibility

At the Erez crossing, Palestinian workers caught in Israel without proper permits await their return to Gaza. Israel in 2000 froze a process for issuing identity cards.
At the Erez crossing, Palestinian workers caught in Israel without proper permits await their return to Gaza. Israel in 2000 froze a process for issuing identity cards. (By Tsafrir Abayov -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

GAZA CITY -- The Israeli government is arguing in domestic courts that it no longer occupies the Gaza Strip, a designation that under international law holds the Jewish state responsible for the welfare of Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians.

Israel declined to seek a change in Gaza's legal status with the United Nations following its September 2005 departure from the coastal territory, when it pulled out thousands of Jewish settlers and shut down its military government. The move was hailed internationally as a step toward peace.

But the government is making the case now in order to defend its restrictions on the ability of Gazans to trade and travel. If successful, the legal claim could also make it more difficult for the Israeli military to enter the 140-square-mile region, where Palestinian rocket attacks and arms smuggling have increased sharply since the army's departure.

Israel says its legal argument, which appears in at least two cases pending before the country's highest court, is rooted in security concerns that have grown since the January 2006 election of Hamas to run the Palestinian Authority. The Islamic movement derives much of its political power from Gaza, and keeping the strip's rising militancy from spreading to the West Bank has become a top priority for Israeli security officials.

"We regarded the area as the seed of a Palestinian state," said Shlomo Dror, spokesman for Israel's coordinator of government activities in the territories. "But now Hamas rules there, we disengaged, and now we have nothing to do with it." In February, Israel opened a $35 million terminal at the Erez crossing on the Gaza border, where travelers now receive Israeli exit and entry stamps in their passports.

In court filings over the past year, the government has asserted that "with the abolition of the military government in Gaza and in light of the current security situation, the State of Israel bears no responsibility to take care of the various interests of Gaza residents."

Israel likens Gaza to a country such as Syria, with which Israel has maintained a hostile calm since 1973, and argues that "the responsibility over the economic situation in Gaza lays with the Palestinian Authority."

"The question goes to who is responsible for what is happening in Gaza," said Ruth Lapidoth, professor emeritus of international law at Hebrew University and a former government legal adviser. "In my view, only in the areas that Israel has not given up its responsibility does the occupation continue."

But the Israeli government retains control over all of Gaza's border crossings, except for the transit point to Egypt; the strip's airspace and coastal waters; and the population registry used to assign Palestinian identity cards. The United Nations continues to designate Gaza as occupied territory.

By declaring the end of the occupation in Gaza while maintaining it in the West Bank, said Samir Hulileh, a Palestinian economist who has been involved in negotiations with Israel for more than 15 years, Israel is trying to push the regions apart to prevent a future state from emerging. In the past, Israeli officials have talked favorably about Gaza eventually joining Egypt and about the West Bank establishing political links with Jordan, two countries with peace agreements with Israel.

While allowing thousands of Gazans into Israel each year for brief medical visits, the government now bars them from entering the West Bank, which remains a closed Israeli military zone. Israel pledged in the 1993 Oslo accords to treat Gaza and the West Bank as "a single territorial unit" pending the creation of a Palestinian state.

"This is why their talk of the occupation of Gaza being over is meaningless," said Hulileh, director of the Ramallah office of the Portland Trust, a private economic development program. "This whole case of Gaza is not an economic one, but a social one."

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