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."
On a recent morning, nine students gathered around a conference table at al-Quds Open University, a one-building campus here. They opened spiral notebooks, turned off cellphones and flipped on the large television set at the front of the room.
Lecture notes filled the screen before an insert appeared in one corner showing a man addressing a full auditorium. The professor's talk on medical ethics was being beamed to the occupational therapy students here from the West Bank campus of Bethlehem University, which Israel forbids them to attend.
In one of the cases before Israel's high court, the students have petitioned for the right to cross Israel and study in the West Bank despite their Gaza residency status. Israel's government counters that allowing them to do so would "lead to the conclusion that there is allegedly a legal obligation owed by the State of Israel" to permit Syrian citizens into the Golan Heights, which the United Nations also considers occupied territory.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed the region in a move not recognized internationally. An armistice ended fighting between the two countries in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, but Israel and Syria do not have a formal peace agreement.
"Is the Israeli government obligated to permit entrance of residents of the Syrian Golan Heights to the Israeli Golan Heights? The answer to that question is apparent and obvious," the government contends in court filings.
After the Oslo accords, tens of thousands of Palestinians returned to the territories on temporary travel documents from places of exile around the world, with the understanding they would receive Israel's authorization to hold identity cards issued by the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli government allowed the Palestinian Authority to issue the newcomers such cards -- needed to secure travel documents, enroll in universities and obtain medical insurance, among other basic services -- through an annual quota system.
Israel froze the process in the fall of 2000 after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, leaving 25,000 to 30,000 Gaza families in need of identity cards.
Without them, they cannot arrange Palestinian travel documents needed to leave the strip, even for Israeli-sponsored humanitarian reasons. Israel canceled plans to restart the program after Hamas's election victory; the Israeli government now defends the cessation by citing its argument that the occupation has ended.
Last month Riad Zaytunyah, director of the Palestinian Interior Ministry's civil status division in Gaza, began issuing identification cards, but they are not recognized by Israel or foreign governments. Palestinian agencies accept them as valid identification, and more than 10,000 Gazans have applied so far.
"These people were essentially born without any nationality at all," Zaytunyah said.
Gaza's legal status is also of increasing interest to Israeli military strategists, who have relied on long-range artillery fire and ground incursions to counter the rocket attacks and weapons smuggling that have spiked since the army abandoned its bases in the strip.
In the year after its departure, Israel's army launched more than 10,000 artillery shells into the strip in an effort to stop the rocket fire, which last year killed two Israelis. During 2006, nearly 400 Palestinians were killed in periodic Israeli tank incursions.
Israeli officials say Palestinians last year smuggled 30 tons of explosives through tunnels under Gaza's border with Egypt. Some Israeli officers have begun arguing that the military should reestablish a permanent presence inside Gaza, a move that would undermine Israel's claim of having left.
"We left them the option to take a better route, and they chose the terror route," said Maj. Gen. Yoav Gallant, head of Israel's Southern Command. "We have a military solution, if it is needed."
With a ruling in their case months away, the occupational therapy students have looked abroad to finish their studies. Last semester, they met their West Bank professor in Cairo for two weeks of seminars and hands-on training.
There is no occupational therapy program in Gaza, where years of war with Israel -- and, more recently, among Palestinians themselves -- have made the demand for physical rehabilitation far greater than can be met by the one trained practitioner in the strip.
"They say that Gaza is now like Syria," said Mohammed al-Rozzy, 22, who has never set foot on the West Bank campus where he is getting his degree. "But we are Palestinians under occupation."