Civic space in Gaza under severe restriction by both external and internal security forces

Peaceful Assembly 

Israel forces: use of excessive force and "intentional" targeting of unarmed protesters, possible war crimes, according to the UN

On 15th May 2019, at least 65 Palestinian protesters, including 22 children and three paramedics, were injured by Israeli forces during protests in the Gaza Strip at the border with Israel. Thousands of civilians, including children and women, have gathered along the Gaza-Israeli border to commemorate the 71th anniversary of the mass displacement of Palestinians. The protesters demanded an end to the Gaza blockade by Israel and the right for Palestinians to return. According to media reports citing Gaza’s health ministry figures, the 65 were wounded by Israeli forces use of live fire, shrapnel, rubber-coated steel bullets and teargas.

Palestinian human rights organisations put the figure of injured protesters higher, as the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) reported that as a result of “excessive use of force” the Israeli forces injured “144 Palestinian civilians, including 49 children, 4 women, and 1 paramedic”. Additionally, the PCHR reported that also harm was inflicted on the protesters due to use of tear gas, such as “dozens of protesters, paramedics, journalists and PCHR’s fieldworkers suffered tear gas inhalation and seizures due to tear gas canisters that were fired by the Israeli forces from the military jeeps, riffles and drones in the eastern Gaza Strip.”

The Israeli forces blamed the protesters at the Gaza Strip fence to have “set tyres on fire and hurled rocks” and that “a number of explosive devices have been hurled within the Gaza Strip”.

However, the PCHR who had fieldworkers monitoring the protests claimed that the protesters “acted in a fully peaceful manner” and no attempts were made to burn tires , while , “in very limited incidents, some protesters approached the border fence and tried to throw stones at the fence”. Palestinian police officers were deployed to try to prevent the protesters from approaching the border fence.

The PCHR called on Israel to respect its obligations under the Geneva Conventions and reiterated that: 

 "continuously targeting civilians, who exercise their right to peaceful assembly or while carrying out their humanitarian duty, is a serious violation of the rules of international law, international humanitarian law, the ICC Rome Statute and Fourth Geneva Convention."

The PCHR also demanded that the International Criminal Court Prosecutor "open an official investigation in these crimes".

As protests at the Gaza Strip continue to be held every Friday, as part of the Great March of Return that started on 30th March 2018, the Israeli forces continue to use lethal and other forms of excessive force against unarmed Palestinian protesters, killing and causing serious injuries to hundreds. Among the casualties are often reports of women and children, as well as journalists covering the demonstrations and paramedics some of them hit while providing first aid to injured protesters. 

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, during the period between 30th March 2018 and 14th May 2019, about 305 Palestinian protesters, including 59 children and ten women, were killed by Israeli forces during the Great March of return protests. In addition, 3,565 children, 1,168 women and 104 elderly have been injured; some 564 were left critically injured. The UN estimate that around "29,000 people have been injured", of whom "7,000 have been shot with live ammunition". As a result of severe injuries inflicted on protesters, 120 amputations, including on 20 children, have taken place since the beginning of the demonstrations, according to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).

In February 2019, the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory issued its report and findings concluding that during the protests Israel may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity by "knowingly" and "intentionally" targeting civilian protesters, including children, medics, journalists and disabled protesters. The UN Commission condemned these killings by the Israeli forces, saying:

“There can be no justification for killing and injuring journalists, medics, and persons who pose no imminent threat of death or serious injury to those around them. Particularly alarming is the targeting of children and persons with disabilities.”

Below are accounts of the most recent incidents: 

  • On 19th April 2019, during the Friday protests in the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces reportedly wounded at least 33 Palestinian protesters, including five paramedics andfour journalists. Media reports cited the Gaza health ministry also confirming that Israeli forces wounded and shot in the head with a rubber-coated metal bullet Ahmed Weshah from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. The PCHR put the figure of wounded protesters at 100, including 23 children. 
  • On 12th April 2019, during the regular Gazan demonstrations, Israeli forces targeted unarmed protesters and injured 125 protesters, 39 of whim children, three women, three paramedics, and one journalist; 44 of the injured were wounded by live fire and 44 by tear gas canisters - according to the Palestinian human rights NGO, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.
  • On 22nd March 2019, the Israeli forces killed two protesters in Gaza and injured 189, including 51 children, seven women, four journalists, and a paramedic, as documented by the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. The majority (100) were hit by live fire and 63 were hit directly by tear gas canisters. 
  • On 8th March 2019, the Israeli forces reportedly opened fire at Palestinian protesters, killing a young man and injured 145 protesters, including 35 children, three women, three journalists, and three paramedics. 

Lack of accountability by Israel: investigation on killing of wheelchair-bound protester closed due to lack of evidence 

Israeli's army criminal investigation division closed its probe into the killing of wheelchair-bound Ibrahim Abu Thurayeh during a protest in Gaza without any prospect for redress and reparations. The Israeli investigation claimed he was killed in a “violent riot” and said that it  found "no evidence that Abu Thuraya was killed by direct Israeli army fire". The decision was reportedly made based on an investigation that “questioned soldiers and commanders who had witnessed the incident and also examined video footage of the incident". Thurayeh who had both legs amputated after a previous Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008, was shot dead during a protest in the Gaza Strip in December 2017, in what UN High Commissioner for Human Rightsand international and Palestinian human rights groups said that appeared to be as result of an excessive use of force by Israeli forces.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) condemned the Israeli Military Prosecution’s decision to "close without prosecution" the case of Thurayeh and the "Israel’s systematic denial of justice before the Israeli Judiciary". The PCHR’sown investigation into the incident indicated that Abu Thorayah, "was shot directly in the head during a peaceful demonstration while he was about 30 meters away from the border fence."

Restrictions imposed on civic space by Hamas de-facto authority in Gaza 

In addition, the civic space and right to peaceful assembly is also restricted by actions of the Hamas de-facto authority in the Gaza Strip. 

On 10th March 2019, security personnel in Gaza raided a private meeting held in a house, convening activists of the “Yasqot Al-Ghalaa” movement (from Arabic “bring down the rising cost of living”). According to the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, the Hamas security arrested eight of the participants, without an arrest warrant. The participants were planning activities to protest the increasing costs when they were interrupted. Amnesty international reported that prior the arrest the group launched a social media campaign titled ‘The revolt of the hungry’ and ‘Down with price hikes’, calling for a protest on 14th March 2019. The activists were released two days later, while being subjected to "torture and other ill-treatment in detention", with a "warning not to continue with their plans", according to the Amnesty International

In March 2019, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip mobilised  to protest against the rising cost of living and deteriorating economic conditions under the Hamas de facto administration. However Hamas has used violence to suppress the protests. According to Amnesty International, "hundreds of protesters have been subjected to beatings, arbitrary arrest and detentions, and torture and other forms of ill-treatment". 

Saleh Higazi, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International condemned the Hamas security forces' for committing human rights violations against protesters: 

“The crackdown on freedom of expression and the use of torture in Gaza has reached alarming new levels. Over the past few days, we have seen shocking human rights violations carried out by Hamas security forces against peaceful protesters, journalists and rights workers."

Association 

An Israeli court on 16th April  2019 upheld the Israeli government’s order to deport Omar Shakir, the Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director and was given until 1st May to leave the country. The court accused Shakir of violating Amendment No. 28 of the Entry into Israel Law, a law which "prohibits the grant of a permit for entry to, and residence in Israel, to any person who has knowingly published a public call to engage in a boycott against the State of Israel or has made a commitment to participate in such a boycott." According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the court based its ruling "on a determination that Shakir has “continuously” called for boycotts of Israel, citing his student activism dating back to 2006 before he joined Human Rights Watch, as well as his subsequent work for the organisation." HRW appealed the decision to the Israel's Supreme Court. 

The Palestinian human rights NGO, Al-Haq said that "the ruling constitutes a vague and reprehensible interpretation of the Entry into Israel Law". Al-Haq further noted that the court ruling is "a dangerous precedent" that targets "advocacy organisations as a whole" and raise concerns that "the State of Israel is using the 2017 Amendment No. 28 of Entry into Israel Law as a way to associate the human rights monitoring and advocacy work of human rights organisation with boycott activities in order to hinder them core human rights work".

The case of HRW follows a trend of previous refusals of entry and deportation of international human rights activists under the so called anti-boycott law, the Amendment No. 28 of the Entry into Israel Law. In October 2018, the Israel government denied entry to a Palestinian-American student and held her for 15 days at the airport, however then the Supreme Court permitted her to enter the country stating that denials of entry are authorised "only for those currently active in promoting boycotts and who might use their presence in Israel to promote boycotts". 

Al-Haq noted that these cases are indicative of the Israel's attempts to "silence human rights defenders" and to "systematically prevent the monitoring and documentation of Israel’s ongoing human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territory". 

Expression

On the World Press Freedom Day on the 3rd of May, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) stated that attacks against Palestinian media freedoms have increased since last year and journalists and media outlets "continue to be the target of a series attacks in order to silence them." During the first four months of 2019 MADA documented a total of 215 attacks against Palestinian journalists, committed by both the Israeli forces and Palestinian authorities. For comparison, in 2018, MADA documented a total of 584 violations against media freedoms in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including East Jerusalem (455 of them were committed by the Israeli forces and 129 by Palestinian authorities).

March has witnessed a spike of violations against media freedoms. MADA has documented a total of 117 attacks against media freedoms, majority of which were as a result of the "large-scale crackdown" carried out by the Hamas de-facto authority security services in Gaza Strip "in connection to covering popular demonstrations".  

UN inquiry: Israeli forces shot journalists "intentionally" during protests in Gaza 

In its report of 25th February 2019, the U.N. independent commission of inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, in Gaza between 30th March and 31st December 2018 said that it "found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot journalists intentionally." According to the UN report, Israeli snipers shot journalists despite that they "were clearly marked as such". 

Consistent with this trend, between March 2019 and April 2019, there have been additional number of incidents of Israeli forces targeting and injuring journalists while covering Gaza protests, by using excessive force and live bullets. According to reports by the international NGO, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 14 Palestinian journalists covering protests in the Gaza Strip were injured, some of them by gunfire, others by rubber bullets and tear gas canisters fired by Israeli soldiers.

During April 2019, MADA recorded 11 cases of violations against media committed by the Israeli army in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as 9 of these were categorised as "serious attacks (physical attacks)", that include journalists injuredby gas bombs to their limbs and gun shots while covering the weekly protests in Gaza.  

During the increase of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in May, the Israeli forces launched warplane bombardment on the building housing the Turkish-stated owned news outlet Anadolu Agency's Gaza office. The building that also housed the Palestinian prisoner's rights advocacy NGO, Asra Media Office, was destroyed, with no casualties being reported. The CPJ Middle East and North Africa Representative condemned the attack: 

"It is completely unacceptable for Israel to bomb and destroy the Gaza office of Turkey's Anadolu Agency and endanger the lives of journalists, who are civilians and guaranteed protection under international law." 

Arrests of journalists and HRDs by Israeli forces

Human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists who document human rights violations continue to be restricted.

Journalists are among the thousands of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. According to a report in April 2019 by the media rights watchdog, Journalists Support Committee (JSC),  22 journalists are currently imprisoned in Israel

On 12th May 2019, seven journalists and one human rights activist from the Palestinian human rights NGO, Al Haq were detained during monitoring of the forced evictions by Israeli forces of Palestinian residents from their homes in Hemsa al-Foqa village. They were reportedly detained in an Israeli military camp and released after few hours. 

In their statement at UN Human Rights Council, in March 2019, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) called on the UN Human Rights Council to follow up on the "Israeli violations committed against Palestinian journalists" and to take "legal measures" to compel Israel "to comply with and abide by international human rights law, in particular those relating to freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of the press". 

Crackdown on freedom of expression during protests by de-facto Hamas administration in Gaza

During the first four months of 2019, Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Hamas de-facto administration security forces have committed a number of violations against media, majority including arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists during which there have been reports of torture and ill-treatment.

In April 2019, a total of 8 attacks by Palestinian authorities and Hamas against media freedoms were registered by MADA taking place respectively in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These included arrests of journalists and journalists house raid by Hamas security in Gaza.

In March 2019, media and journalists witnessed 80 attacks by the Palestinian authorities, most of which (72 attacks) were committed by Hamas forces in Gaza Strip as part of thecrackdown on freedom of expression to suppress peaceful protests in March calling for better economic conditions. MADA described 60% (48) of these attacks as serious attacks against media and included: 25 cases of arrests, 11 cases of detention that included reports of torture in some cases, and 10 incidents of beatings targeting journalists during their coverage of events or during their arrest; as well as some house raid of journalists.

According to Amnesty International, also several journalists across Gaza were beaten and banned from documenting the demonstrations. In addition, the organisation reported that many journalists, lawyers and NGO workers were reportedly summoned for interrogation after recording testimonies on the conduct of the Hamas police.

Additionally, Hamas in Gaza also summoned and arrested human rights defenders to prevent them monitoring and documenting human rights violations during the March demonstrations.

On 16th March 2019, the security forces in Gaza arrested four HRDs as they were monitoring a "scene of tension between protesters and police and security forces"; they were released after a few hours.

On 18th March 2019, the Hamas security in Gaza arbitrary detained an Amnesty International Research Consultantand she was interrogated for working with Amnesty International. During the three-hour interrogation, the four male interrogators subjected her to ill-treatment according to Amnesty, as they "used abusive language and warned her not to carry out human rights research and threatened to prosecute her for spying and working as a foreign agent".

Amnesty International condemned these acts:

“It is clear that Hamas security forces are trying to stop human rights defenders from carrying out the vital work of documenting and reporting on the severe violations they are perpetrating during this ongoing violent and arbitrary crackdown."

Israeli company spying tool used for attacks on HRDs and journalists 

In May 2019, a legal action has been taken to compel the Israeli Ministry of Defence (MoD) to revoke the export license of the Israeli company NSO Group, whose spyware products have been used in attacks on human rights defenders around the world. The legal action has been supported by Amnesty International as one of their staff has been among the targeted CSOs.

It has been documented that the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware has been used to target civil society in a number of countries, including at least 24 human rights defenders, journalists and parliamentarians in Mexico; an Amnesty International employee; Saudi activists Omar Abdulaziz, Yahya Assiri, Ghanem Al-Masarir; award-winning Emirati human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor; and allegedly, murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

AI has noted that "without effective oversight based on proper regulation of the sale of commercial spyware, and absent adequate action by NSO Group to prevent, mitigate, and remedy misuse of its technology, civil society actors remain vulnerable to unlawful surveillance simply for exercising their human rights."