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(Jerusalem) - Israel continues to obstruct independent investigations into allegations of laws of war violations by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas military forces in Gaza by preventing independent human rights monitors from entering Gaza, Human Rights Watch and B'Tselem said today. After submitting applications for permission to enter via the Erez crossing in January 2009, the groups faced continued delays from the IDF unit reviewing the applications. In February, the IDF told Human Rights Watch that it had rejected its application. The Israeli military denied B'Tselem's first request to enter Gaza and has failed to respond to a second.

"Israel's refusal to allow human rights groups access to Gaza raises a strong suspicion that there are things it doesn't want us to see or the world to know about its military operation there," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "If Israel has nothing to hide, why is it refusing to allow us in?"

Human Rights Watch requested permission to enter Gaza on January 5. After weeks of delay, the IDF rejected the application on February 9, on the grounds that Human Rights Watch "was not registered with the [Israeli] Ministry of Social Affairs." On all previous occasions, including several times in 2008, Israeli authorities permitted Human Rights Watch staff to enter and leave Gaza via the Erez crossing. The IDF never previously suggested such a requirement for access to Gaza, and Human Rights Watch is not aware of any such Israeli law or regulation. The IDF has not responded to Human Rights Watch's requests for clarification.

Israel does not allow Jewish citizens of Israel, other than security forces, to enter Gaza on the grounds that their security would be at risk. B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, on January 20 requested permission from the IDF to allow the organization's fieldwork director (a Palestinian citizen of Israel) to enter Gaza. The IDF refused the request nine days later. B'Tselem submitted an additional request on January 29 for entry for three staff members and an international consultant. The Israeli military has not responded to this request.   

Human Rights Watch and other international human rights groups were able to enter Gaza via Egypt in late January to carry out initial investigations. The international researchers left Gaza just before February 5, when Egypt had announced it would close the Rafah crossing. The IDF had told Human Rights Watch that because its researchers had entered Gaza through Rafah, they would not permit the researchers to exit through Erez.

B'Tselem has not managed to gain access for its Israeli or West Bank staff, or for international consultants. Only the organization's two field researchers, who are residents of the Gaza Strip, have been able to conduct research on the ground.

"Israel puts itself in the same league as Burma, North Korea, and Syria in keeping out independent human rights monitors," said Jessica Montell, executive director of B'Tselem. "The people of Israel deserve to know the truth about the conduct of our forces in Gaza. It is also in Israel's best interest that the full picture comes out."

The IDF prevented journalists from entering Gaza during the 22-day military operation, called "Operation Cast Lead," even after an Israeli Supreme Court ruling on January 2 ordered the state to allow entry to members of the Foreign Press Association.

Since the escalation of fighting in Gaza on December 27, 2008, both Human Rights Watch and B'Tselem have documented serious violations of international humanitarian law by Israel and Hamas. On January 10, Human Rights Watch exposed Israel's unlawful use of white phosphorus in civilian areas, an allegation the IDF initially denied but now claims to be investigating. B'Tselem has expressed grave concern over violations of the principles of proportionality and distinction, including the deliberate targeting of civilian installations, such as government ministries and the Palestinian Legislative Council. Both organizations have, for over two decades, documented violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Article 6 of the Human Rights Defenders Declaration ensures that everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, "To know, seek, obtain, receive, and hold information about all human rights and fundamental freedoms."

In addition, the apparent blanket denial of access to Gaza by human rights groups violates the right to freedom of movement. Although human rights law permits restrictions on freedom of movement for security reasons, the restrictions must have a clear legal basis, be limited to what is necessary, and be proportionate to the threat.

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