At the start of last week, the Government of Israel imposed a series of severe restrictions on the movement of goods through Kerem Shalom, the main commercial crossing to and from the occupied Gaza Strip, which will remain in place until further notice.
According to the UN, only food and medical supplies are now allowed into Gaza via Kerem Shalom, subject to being approved by Israeli authorities on an individual basis. The entry of all other items, including fuel, cooking gas, building materials, furniture, wood, electronics and fabric, has been halted, as has the exit of all goods.
We endorse the view of the Israeli human rights organisation, Gisha, whom in a letter to the Government of Israel dated 15 July states:
“Your decision constitutes collective punishment, first and foremost, of a civilian population suffering from extremely difficult living conditions already. As you are aware, both Israeli and international law categorically and unequivocally prohibit the use of collective punishment. We urge you to lift the restrictions imposed on the movement of goods immediately and to avoid further measures, as such acts cause deliberate and indiscriminate harm to the civilian population for actions over which they have no control.”
In addition, we assess that Israel’s ability to unilaterally halt the entry of needed building materials into Gaza is the latest demonstration of why the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) is fundamentally flawed, and underlines why it requires urgent revision and significant improvement.
LPHR’s long-held concerns about the GRM are outlined in a briefing, published two weeks ago, which highlights that the GRM is a) largely ineffective in meeting its stated aim of reconstruction; b) incompatible with international humanitarian and human rights law obligations; and c) serves to consolidate, perpetuate and legitimise the illegal closure of Gaza imposed by successive Israeli governments since 2007.
Our briefing notes that the UN reported last September that of the 100,000 people internally displaced at the end of the Israeli military offensive in summer 2014, an estimated 29,000 people remained internally displaced three years on, as a result of restrictions on basic construction materials and a lack of funding. The overall housing shortage in Gaza had increased from 71,000 in 2012 to 120,000 in 2017. The UN has also reported that the severe water, waste-water and electricity crises in Gaza are experiencing significant delays in being addressed due in large part to restrictions on imports of necessary materials. As noted in the Gisha letter, further damage to the already deeply fragile economy in Gaza risks leading to its collapse.
Our briefing concludes with a number of recommendations – outlined at the conclusion of this blog – that have the objective of remedying the critical weaknesses of the GRM. The tightened closure imposed by the Government of Israel in the last week emphasises the need for such recommendations to be carefully considered by the other parties to the GRM, as well as by the wider international community who are concerned by the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.
The GRM is fundamentally flawed and serves to consolidate the illegal closure of Gaza
As noted in our briefing, the GRM agreement made in September 2014 between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the UN, starts by setting out its five overarching parameters, of which the first is ‘to satisfy Israeli security concerns related to the use of construction and dual use material.’ Notably, this signals that such concerns are prioritised over all other considerations.
The GRM crucially ensures that control over the supply of materials into Gaza remains firmly in the hands of the Israeli government. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority and UN bear the burden of ensuring sufficient resources are in place to meet the GRM’s extensive monitoring requirements.
Basic construction materials such as cement and steel bars have been classified by Israel as being dual civilian and military use in specific relation to Gaza. This is an overly broad and harmful classification that is not replicated in the international standard for classification of dual-use goods, the Wassenaar Arrangement, of which the participating states include the UK, all other EU member states, the United States and Russia.
Israel’s definition of basic civilian items such as construction materials as “dual use” is not challenged by the GRM agreement, which accordingly permits extremely onerous restrictions on the entry of such materials under the GRM, and allows for blanket bans at any point. This is strikingly demonstrated by Government of Israel’s unilateral imposition of a blanket ban on construction materials into Gaza since the start of last week. According to Israeli authorities, the measures were adopted in response to the launching of incendiary kites and balloons from Gaza towards Israel.
The core feature of the GRM agreement thus ensures that the control over the supply of materials into Gaza remains firmly with the Israeli government. In addition, it fails to mandate that a certain amount of materials must be allowed through to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza. Accordingly, the GRM has been designed to effectively consolidate, perpetuate and legitimise the illegal closure of Gaza, and, in addition, produce a number of violations of specific human rights and humanitarian law obligations.
Urgent actions for all relevant parties to consider in relation to the future of the GRM
Even without the tightened closure restrictions implemented last week, it is a pertinent time to highlight the fundamental flaws with the GRM given the announcement earlier this year by the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, that the GRM is to be subject to ‘a joint review by the three parties to the GRM agreement to improve its functionality, predictability and transparency’.
It is vital for the critical flaws of the GRM to be acknowledged and addressed during this review process because, although it was stated at the time of its establishment to be a ‘temporary access mechanism’, the GRM troublingly appears to have become entrenched. No indication has been given that the ‘joint review’ will include the formation of a timetable for ending the GRM.
LPHR is therefore currently making the following recommendations to the parties to the GRM, and also directly to the UK government whom supports the GRM, in relation to the future of the GRM, so as to significantly improve its effectiveness and to importantly bring it into compliance with fundamental international humanitarian and human rights law obligations.
We recommend urgent work to revise the GRM agreement so as to:
- include guarantees that sufficient levels of humanitarian relief in the form of construction materials are expeditiously delivered to Gaza by specified time deadlines to meet basic human rights and humanitarian law obligations;
- provide flexibility in the operation of the GRM and independent expert oversight to ensure the rights and humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza are being progressively realised;
- prevent Israel from blocking imports that are necessary to meet these objectives; and
- provide a clear timeframe for ending the GRM and the ending of restrictions on the entrance of basic construction materials.
If the above cannot be agreed, the UN should aim to withdraw from the GRM and establish a UN-led alternative mechanism for the delivery of building materials and other humanitarian relief in which:
- the UN’s role as an impartial organisation is regained; and
- it is empowered to deliver humanitarian assistance free from overly broad and harmful Israeli security controls and possible prohibited involvement in international wrongful conduct.
Further, we urge Israel to bring its definition of “dual use” items in line with international standards, such as the Wassenaar Arrangement, to enable it to meet its international humanitarian and human rights law obligations owed to the people of Gaza.
The unilateral imposition of blanket ban restrictions on construction material by the Government of Israel on Gaza in the last week underscores the core weakness of the GRM, and its need for significant improvement. It is vital that such revision is urgently undertaken so as to ensure that the dire humanitarian needs of the population of Gaza in areas such as housing, water, power and sanitation, can finally be sufficiently met.
Tareq Shrourou, Natalie Sedacca