Arbitrary refusal of entry, harassment and secret accusations are increasingly the lot of international aid workers trying to alleviate the crushing poverty in the Palestinian territories.
Over 60% of Palestinians live below the poverty line and with Israel's military occupation showing no signs of a let-up, and many local Islamic charities forced to close, there is a greater need than ever for outside humanitarian assistance and development projects.
In the past two years, however, the staff of hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have faced ever-greater obstacles coming into and moving about the country.
Darryl Li, a 24-year-old Harvard graduate, was an employee with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza. He has not been allowed into Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories since August 2002.
“Beginning in January 2002, I experienced a pattern of systematic and gradually escalating harassment every time my passport details were entered into a computer that was incomprehensible.”
Eventually, access was denied altogether. Israeli authorities told his lawyer that there was “secret evidence” against him and that there was no way he could enter.
“It was like living in a Kafka novel. Everything was being done because of ‘security’, but nothing could be explained because of ‘security’. Since when is seizing a bar of soap or a jar of dried dates vital to Israel's security?” said Li.
He experienced arbitrary search and seizure procedures, where soap and date preserves among other things were confiscated from his luggage under the pretext of “security”.
“Israel's ‘evidence’ against me is secret precisely because it is not evidence at all”
human rights worker
“Israel's ‘evidence’ against me is secret precisely because it is not evidence at all,” said Li.
Li, an American citizen, said he was deeply disappointed at the US Embassy's refusal to make any efforts to resolve the situation despite repeated complaints.
International organisations have not been spared either. In addition to sometimes being denied entry to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, international NGO staff from organisations such as Save the Children, CARE, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are often harassed, and sometimes threatened by the Israeli military.
According to Tom Neu, chair of the Association of International Development Agencies, an umbrella network of over 60 relief and development organisations working in the occupied Palestinian territories, there are countless examples of NGO staff being denied entry into certain towns and cities, and even into the country.
Japanese and European NGOs are particularly vulnerable, says Neu. Just last month, an elderly Swedish couple invited by an AIDA member as part of a cultural delegation to Bethlehem was denied entry for no stated reason.
“Access seems only to apply to approved NGOs and Israelis define this,” said Neu.
“The position of AIDA is that humanitarian organisations should not be impeded [from entering]. They should be allowed through, period. It does not seem consistent with humanitarian law that [the Israelis] can stop some NGOs from going through,” said Neu.
This past May, a convoy delegation of groups representing AIDA protested their inability to access the Gaza Strip freely.
They drove up to the Erez Checkpoint and handed the Israeli head of the District Coordination and Liaison Office, Captain Joseph Levy, a statement urging Israel to abide by the Fourth Geneva Convention and to guarantee full and unfettered access for all humanitarian workers.
Levy denied that foreign aid workers were having difficulty entering Gaza.
“The soldiers interpret our identity cards on their own terms. They can be very rude and aggressive. Our ability to enter is arbitrary and subject to their mood,” said Neu.
“It’s a daily concern - there are staff members who worry they might not be allowed back and in many cases this does happen,” he added.
“The disturbing thing is that are no rules or norms. The Israelis tend not to set any rules … it’s like playing roulette” said Fabricio Lamanto, Coordinator of AIDA.
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In one absurd case, said Lamanto, a representative of a French member organisation of AIDA was held up for 10 hours on the Egyptian-Israeli border crossing, and was accused of having a falsified passport although it was legal.
“They just did not believe her. She was kept there, humiliated, and at the end after calling the French Embassy, they said ‘ok you can get in but we must tear the picture out of the passport’ even though the Embassy verified her identity.
“It’s a breach of a legal document. They don’t have a right to do that - they had no claim or evidence against her. Now she can’t leave the country or use her passport.”
According to leading Israeli human rights lawyer Shamai Liebowitz, the Israeli government makes it difficult for aid workers to enter precisely because of the work they do.
They fear they will tell a different story of Palestinian suffering to the world than the one posited by them, says Liebowitz.
“Israel likes to portray the Palestinians as one big mob of terrorists and this contradicts the image,” he said.
“They delay people in the most humiliating of manners to make them reconsider whether they want to return to work or not. Part of the policy is to make it completely arbitrary - make them wait for hours and hours without knowing what the problem is,” said Liebowitz.
Most people who are denied entry, says Liebowitz, are not told they have the right to fight it out in court. And even when they do decide to challenge the Israeli actions, they are faced with an increasingly tainted judiciary.
Patrick Connors, an American aid worker who was based in the Palestinian territories for more than three years, was denied entry and put in prison upon attempting to return to Gaza to continue work for a humanitarian agency. Connors was among the first aid workers to appeal to the Israeli courts.
“The Israeli court's treatment of my legal case was completely unfair, and even farcical,” Connors told Aljazeera.net.
"The one solid conclusion that we can make from all these cases is that Israel has a lot to hide in the occupied Palestinian territories"
Israeli human rights lawyer
“I was not allowed to enter Israel from Egypt to testify at my own hearing in Be'er Sheva, even handcuffed and under Israeli police guard.
Two Israelis present at my hearing, one a rabbi, were not allowed to testify on my behalf.
I was accused based on ‘secret materials’ which were given only to the judge by the Israeli General Security Services, and which we could not refute because we had no access to them.”
“Unfortunately, the Israeli court system, which in a democracy should serve as a check on the government, instead is serving to legitimise Israeli government violations of international law.”
Many defendants, like Connors, have been taking their cases all the way to the Israeli High Court. Even then, Liebowitz explained, their appeals are usually denied.
“The courts are supposed to be independent, and not the long arm of the government,” he said. “But the High Court is the kangaroo court now.”
The aid workers are left with few alternatives. They can sue the state of Israel for libel or simply stay out of the country for good. It is a lose-lose situation, but for many, a lingering sense of injustice drives them to keep trying.
“The one solid conclusion that we can make from all these cases is that Israel has a lot to hide in the occupied Palestinian territories. On the other hand, this gives more of an incentive for aid workers to try and return.”