Swiss seek to improve access to Gaza

Israeli soldiers check Palestinian workers at the Rafah Yam crossing in the Gaza Strip Keystone

A Harvard expert, commissioned by Switzerland to develop a system of access to Gaza, tells swissinfo the proposal has met less resistance than expected.

This content was published on June 11, 2005 - 22:08

Claude Bruderlein led a consultation process with Israel and the Palestinians aimed at guaranteeing access to the Gaza Strip after the planned withdrawal of Israeli forces.

The plan, proposed by the Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey in February, foresees setting up a system to ensure the transit of people, essential goods and services.

Experts at Harvard University in the United States were asked by the Swiss government to develop such a system through research and consultation among all parties in the Middle East.

The expert team has held two rounds of talks with representatives of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

A formal draft will next week be presented to the Swiss foreign ministry, which funded the process.

swissinfo: Where did the idea come from?

Claude Bruderlein: It is an old idea that was brought back to the attention of the parties and was a bit sidelined during the Oslo peace process.

Under the disengagement plan Israel will continue to control access to the Gaza Strip and therefore the old occupation law continues to apply.

The regulations say that Israel has to respect the rules of the four Geneva Conventions [on humanitarian law] pertaining to access to the Gaza Strip.

But these rules were never particularly clear in practical terms. They require Israel to provide continued access for emergency assistance – any assistance essential for the survival and dignity of the people – but implementation has not been specified.

swissinfo: What concrete measures do you suggest in your proposals?

C.B.: It is a set of clear rules to make the system predictable and transparent. Particularly, it calls on Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the UN to set up a registry and a tracking system for requests.

Currently access is possible, but difficult. There is no record of the granted requests, or the cases where Israel denied them or on what grounds. Therefore it is hard to monitor the implementation of Israel’s obligations.

Finally, another proposal is to establish a review mechanism in order to improve access over time. The assumption is that the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip could lead to insecurity at the checkpoints.

You could say we proposed a monitoring regime based on the Geneva Conventions, to protect the rights of those living in the Gaza Strip.

swissinfo: How did Israel react to the proposals?

C.B.: All parties were interested in the technical aspect and its contribution to ongoing negotiations. It was also of interest for them to see that international law can be something else than a stick, but can also provide guidance.

swissinfo: What kind of input did Switzerland provide to the debate?

C.B.: The Swiss contribution is very important in this context. It recalls the importance of international law, and a predictable mechanism. It also stresses the importance of maintaining a minimum access at all times.

swissinfo: What obstacles did you come up against during your work?

C.B.: Having worked in the region for more than 15 years, I was surprised to see how few obstacles we faced.

It appears that there is a general interest in seeing the Israeli withdrawal pass off smoothly and to ensure that the lives of people in the Gaza Strip improve.

I’m not too concerned about reluctance in some circles to the planned changes. The current system, negotiated by the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and NGOs took a lot of effort to negotiate.

But it is complicated, unpredictable and based on personal relations between senior security officers in Gaza and on the Erez checkpoint.

It will take time to adjust current procedures to the more predictable law-based system.

swissinfo-interview: Elham Manea Knecht

In brief

The Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, launched a proposal last February to improve access for people, goods and services in the occupied Gaza Strip.

Experts from Harvard University, led by Claude Bruderlein, are due to present the findings of their research and consultation to the foreign ministry next week.

Switzerland is the depository state of the Geneva Conventions – a series of rules to guarantee human rights during times of conflict.

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Key facts

Claude Bruderlein is director of the programme on humanitarian policy and conflict research and lecturer on international health at Harvard University, Massachusetts.
Born to Swiss parents in Canada he studied in Montreal and Geneva. He received a Master’s degree from Harvard Law School.
He served with the International Committee of the Red Cross and later became advisor on humanitarian issues for the UN in New York.

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