Amid promise to Turkey, Israel tightens Gaza access restrictions

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Sunday, March 24, 2013 – Amid assurances to Turkey by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of easing Gaza access, Israel has tightened restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza, as part of what appears to be a new policy of openly blocking civilian access in direct response to fire by combatants. Gisha-Legal Center for Freedom of Movement sent an urgent letter today to the new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, demanding that the new restrictions be lifted.

Since Thursday, Gaza's only goods crossing has been closed, and travel by Palestinians into and out of Gaza through Israel has been blocked, except for medical patients and other exceptional cases. Israel also reduced the fishing zone off the coast of Gaza from six to three nautical miles. The restrictions came after militants from Gaza Thursday fired rockets at civilian population centers in southern Israel.

On Friday, in a phone call in which Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan for mistakes made during the May 2010 interception of a flotilla bound for Gaza in which nine Turkish citizens were killed, Netanyahu noted that Israel had substantially lifted restrictions on goods entering Gaza. News reports quoted Erdogan as saying that Netanyahu also promised to improve humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip.

In Gisha's appeal today to the defense minister, the human rights organization condemned the rocket attacks as a blatant violation of the international law prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate fire toward civilians and noted that Israel, too, is obliged to avoid harming civilians:

"Because of the severity of the prohibition against deliberately harming civilians, the steps taken by Israel, also aimed against civilians, are entirely unacceptable", Gisha Director Sari Bashi wrote. "In the last month, there appears to be a new policy toward the Gaza Strip, in which Israel is openly restricting civilian movement to and from Gaza, not because of a concrete security necessity, but rather as a punitive step taken against the civilian population – in direct response to fire by combatants".

The letter noted that this is the second time in less than a month that Israel has openly blocked civilian travel and goods transfer, in direct response to rocket fire by militants, and called on the defense minister to refrain from engaging in collective punishment.