|May marks six months since the ceasefire understanding that ended the period of escalated hostilities between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in November 2012. The understanding presented a chance to improve the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and this month provides an opportunity to take stock.
Some Palestinian armed groups have not adhered to the ceasefire understanding and firing of projectiles at southern Israel has continued, raising serious concerns under international humanitarian law. The UN has repeatedly condemned such action in the strongest terms. The measures adopted by Israel in reaction to these attacks include imposition of heightened restrictions on free movement of people and goods. These restrictive measures have not directly targeted responsible armed groups, but rather have impacted the wider civilian population. As such, they have exacerbated existing high levels of vulnerability and have raised concerns regarding the prohibition on collective punishment outlined in international humanitarian law.
The ceasefire understanding provided indications that the long-term restrictions on access to land and sea areas would be relaxed. This month, the Israeli authorities extended the sea areas accessible to fishermen to 6 nautical miles (nm) from shore – a notable mark of progress. A further extension to 12 nm, as per previous commitments made by Israel, would allow fishermen to exploit high value fish stocks and increase the catch by about 65 per cent. Only then would there be a really significant recovery of the fishing industry and the livelihoods of the 3,000 families in Gaza who depend upon it.
Access of farmers to agricultural land between 300 to 1,500 metres from Gaza’s perimeter fence also saw an overall improvement since November 2012, with some farmers reporting being able to reach land that has been off limits for years. However, due to a lack of clarity on the scope of current restrictions and continued instability, many farmers and fishermen are reluctant to invest in the newly accessible areas, reducing the positive impact of the recent easings on people’s livelihoods. Concerns remain regarding the use of force to implement access restrictions in these areas. Some farmers have taken the risk of encountering live fire from the IDF in order to harvest crops.
Since December 2012, the Israeli authorities have also facilitated entry of a small amount of construction materials through the official crossing for the private sector in Gaza. However, the only functioning official crossing for goods (Kerem Shalom) was closed for approximately 50 per cent of the time during March and April, including in response to Palestinian rocket-fire, triggering temporary shortages of basic items, including cooking gas, fresh fruit and dairy products. This month the situation improved, with the crossing opened on almost all scheduled operating days.
No relaxation of the longstanding restrictions on the movement of people to and from Gaza via Israel (Erez Crossing) was envisioned as part of the ceasefire understanding. Moreover, during March and April access was further restricted largely to emergency humanitarian cases and international travellers only. While these additional restrictions were lifted in May, access to the Gaza Strip from the south deteriorated as Rafah was unofficially closed for about a week by Egyptian security officials, following a kidnapping incident in the Sinai Peninsula.
Six months on from the ceasefire, accountability for reported violations of international humanitarian law during the November 2012 hostilities, committed by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups, remains elusive. According to information available, both sides have failed to open effective investigations into cases of civilian death or injury occurring during the hostilities.
Despite some progress in certain areas over the last six months, the situation in the Gaza Strip remains fragile. There is growing frustration among Gaza residents over the lack of any significant improvement in their daily lives. In particular, expectations regarding the lifting of restrictions on the free movement of people and goods that are necessary to support real economic growth, improve food security and reduce dependency on aid have not been fulfilled.
There are a number of concrete measures that Israel could take immediately in this regard – measures that could affect an immediate improvement in the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip whilst also taking into account Israel’s security concerns. These include significantly relaxing access restrictions imposed on land and sea areas and allowing the flow of goods and people between Gaza and the West Bank to the fullest extent possible, subject to conditions outlined in international law.
Urgent action is also required, by both the Israeli authorities and by the de facto authorities in the Gaza Strip, to hold accountable those who violate international humanitarian law. Investigations into allegations must be conducted in compliance with the standards of independence, impartiality, thoroughness, promptness, effectiveness and transparency, and substantive and procedural barriers to an effective remedy must be removed.
The ceasefire presented a real opportunity to change the situation on the ground for the benefit of the civilian population in Gaza, and in southern Israel. This opportunity must be lost.