Photo credit: Zoriah (via flickr)
Restricting aid: access and movement constraints in the Occupied Palestinian Territories
by AIDA September 2011

The occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) is subject to a variety of access and movement restrictions imposed by the Israeli government, the most significant of which include the blockade of Gaza and the Wall in the West Bank. These restrictions increase the impoverishment and vulnerability of Palestinians within the oPt, and directly impede humanitarian and development programmes. According to the results of a recent study by the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA), access and movement restrictions for INGOs are serious, widespread, costly and difficult to overcome. As a result, vulnerable communities are not being reached, the quality of programming is being compromised and the impact of humanitarian and development interventions is being reduced.

This article describes the access and movement restrictions imposed by the Israeli government and their impact on the Palestinian people, and outlines the findings of the AIDA research on how these restrictions have affected the humanitarian and development  programming of international agencies operating in the oPt.+The AIDA study was a compilation of three separate survey elements: a telephone survey of AIDA members on issues of movement and access, an annual AIDA online member survey and follow-up email questions. Between 20 January and 10 February 2011 representatives of 62 member organisations were interviewed out of a total of 86 member organisations.

Gaza restrictions

The Israeli blockade of Gaza has had severe consequences for the lives and livelihoods of Palestinians there. Freedom of movement for Palestinians wishing to leave the Strip is severely limited, with exceptions only for some business travel and critical emergency medical cases. Movement of humanitarian personnel in and out of Gaza is also problematic. The AIDA study found that almost three-quarters of respondents to the survey had experienced problems obtaining permits for their international staff to access Gaza, with a quarter frequently having permits denied or put on hold. For national staff the challenges are even greater: permission to travel between the West Bank and Gaza is rarely granted to Palestinians, and when it is applicants usually have to travel within 24 hours of being notified, and their stay is limited to a specified number of days. Ninety-two percent of AIDA members who required permits for Gazan staff to enter the West Bank or East Jerusalem reported that these were often denied or significantly delayed. Frequently the event for which the permit was requested, such as a meeting or a training session, had ended while the application was still pending, making pending permit applications effectively denials. Another 88% of AIDA members said that the same applied for permits for West Bank staff to travel to Gaza.

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Entry restrictions have also been imposed on a wide range of humanitarian goods and supplies, including food, water equipment, cement for construction and raw materials for private or commercial use. The blockade was eased in July 2010, and Israel increased the number of truckloads of imports entering Gaza by a monthly average of 66%. However, this still represents only 35% of imports before the blockade was imposed. The amount of non-food items allowed in – between 40% and 50% of all imports – remains disproportionately low; prior to the blockade, over 80% of imports were non-food items. The AIDA study showed that 90% of members faced difficulties moving goods and services into Gaza.

Disruption to the supply chain prevents long-term development work and channels efforts towards less sustainable short-term humanitarian projects. Restrictions on the types and quantities of goods allowed have also contributed to the stagnation of the Gazan economy, and have prevented core infrastructure from being repaired or built.+OCHA, Easing the Blockade: Assessing the Humanitarian Impact on the Population of the Gaza Strip, March 2011. For example, of 2,795 houses severely damaged during Israel’s military offensive Operation Cast Lead in 2008–2009, only 840 have been repaired and just 106 out of the 3,489 houses that were totally demolished have been reconstructed.+Shelter Sector Gaza – Unified Shelter Sector Database (USSD), http://www.sheltergaza.org. Anecdotal evidence suggests that restrictions on the import of construction materials are fuelling the unregulated black market trade through the network of tunnels that runs along the southern border. As these goods are not entering Gaza via official channels, international agencies that rely on funding from donors with strict procurement guidelines are unable to purchase them, making it very difficult for these agencies to acquire the necessary raw materials for reconstruction projects.

The Israeli government also restricts Palestinians’ access to land and sea in areas designated as ‘buffer zones’ designed to prevent attacks on Israel by Palestinian armed groups. The total population affected by these restrictions is estimated at 178,000 (or 12% of Gaza’s population).+OCHA and WFP, Between the Fence and a Hard Place: Humanitarian Impact of Israeli Imposed Restrictions on Access to Land and Sea in the Gaza Strip, August 2010. The restrictions cover sea areas more than three nautical miles from shore and land as far as 1,500 metres into Gaza from Israel’s security fence. The precise boundaries of these restricted areas and the rules of engagement that apply to them are unknown and are enforced in a highly arbitrary manner, often with live fire: according to OCHA, between January and June 2011 20 civilians were killed and a further 252 injured in Gaza’s restricted areas. As a result of the restrictions, agricultural production is no longer economically viable and the once-thriving fishing industry has withered away.

The AIDA study showed that security and lack of access to the buffer zone was a major deterrent for agencies wishing to provide assistance to communities there.  Forty-two percent of AIDA members who answered the question reported that they had decided not to work in the Gaza buffer zone due to access and security restrictions.

West Bank restrictions

In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, a complex system of movement restrictions, including permits, roadblocks, checkpoints and the Wall, severely limits Palestinians’ access  to essential services and markets.  The Wall is a series of fences, cement walls, patrol roads and guard towers that Israel began constructing in the West Bank in 2002. The International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled in a 2004 advisory opinion saying that the construction of the Wall was contrary to international law and that it should be dismantled. In East Jerusalem the Wall winds through Palestinian neighbourhoods, separating neighbour from neighbour and cutting large communities off from the city’s essential services, including schools and hospitals.  In general restrictions limit or cut off access to towns and villages, to essential services and to agricultural land behind the Wall and in Area C,  which comprises 61% of the West Bank.+Area C is under full Israeli military control. It includes all of the Israeli settlements, most of the main roads in the West Bank and some 150 Palestinian villages. Area C also includes tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land. Palestinians with land near Israeli settlements or military zones are either physically barred from accessing it or face an arduous permit regime. Lengthy permit request procedures and frequent delays, as well as the risk of demolition, mean that agencies and donors are reluctant to invest in essential infrastructure, despite the need. In the AIDA study 87% of respondents operating in Area C have modified their programmes due to access restrictions.

Impact of restrictions

The survey results identify the permit system as the most important obstacle faced by international aid agencies. Those most affected are local staff, short-term staff, consultants undertaking monitoring and evaluation missions, auditors and trainers, who typically have only brief opportunities to visit, but are unable to acquire access permission in the short period of time available to them.

Organisations have developed various ways to deal with the restrictions – all of them costly. Many have duplicated roles: finance, administration, security and technical posts have been established in both Gaza and West Bank offices, where previously one would have sufficed. Role duplication alone accounts for $2.6 million per year in unnecessary costs. A third of agencies have taken on extra staff in order to cope with the workload associated with applying for permits and visas, at an estimated cost of $620,000 a year, and have created positions for extra international staff, given that they are less constrained in travelling between Gaza and the West Bank than their national counterparts. This is substantially more expensive and offers fewer employment opportunities for the local workforce. Some organisations have also relocated training and retreats to Egypt or Jordan, with obvious cost implications. In all, the total financial cost for INGOs of dealing with movement restrictions on staff and goods in the oPt is at least $4.5 million a year.

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As well as the financial cost the study highlights the impact access restrictions have had on the quality, reach and sustainability of the programmes that agencies are trying to deliver. Sixty-seven percent of AIDA members said that access issues had affected their programming priorities, indicating that they were sometimes forced to select beneficiaries based on access criteria rather than needs or vulnerability. Almost three-quarters of respondents said that the quality of their programming had been affected by access issues.

Israel’s obligations as an occupying power

Under international human rights law, as an occupying power in the Palestinian territory Israel’s obligations are clear. Under Article 55 of the Fourth Geneva Convention Israel has a duty to use all available means to ensure ‘the food and the medical supplies of the occupied population’. Israel has a responsibility to facilitate not only humanitarian relief but also development activities undertaken by international organisations and their national partners. As a result of Israel’s failure to meet these obligations, international agencies have had to try to fill the gap in meeting humanitarian needs and supporting the development of the oPt, without waiving the obligations of Israel. However, the access restrictions and permit regime outlined above have severely impeded their ability to do this.

This article was written by members of the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA). It is based on the AIDA report Restricting Aid: The Challenges of Delivering Assistance in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The full report can be viewed at www.aidajerusalem.org. AIDA is an umbrella association of over 80 international development agencies operating in the oPt with headquarters in 15 different countries.

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