JERUSALEM – Israel on Friday tightened restrictions on foreigners entering the Gaza Strip (search), prompting charges it is trying to keep out those monitoring the actions of Israeli soldiers in hot spots.
Also Friday, an Australian human rights monitor and a pro-Palestinian activist from Chicago were arrested on charges they were in a West Bank (search) town without permission. The two were ordered deported.
The policy was announced just a day before the arrival of Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) to the region. Powell is to hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on getting started on a peace plan presented last week by international mediators.
Under Israel's new rules, foreigners entering Gaza must sign a document that they agree not to enter military areas along the Israeli-Egyptian border and "other areas of combat," the military said in a statement. The statement did not specify what was meant by "areas of combat."
The statement said the aim was to keep out foreigners trying to interfere with the military and specifically mentioned the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which sends volunteers to the West Bank and Gaza to serve as buffers between soldiers and Palestinians.
But the regulations appear also to give the military considerable discretion in keeping away other foreign nationals, including journalists, from areas of friction between Israeli troops and Palestinians.
In the past, the military did occasionally declare temporary "closed military zones" in certain areas, but enforcement was sporadic and violators were not severely punished.
The new policy also suggested an effort to release the army of responsibility when foreigners are hurt. The statement said those signing the document would "agree" that Israel and the army "cannot vouch for their safety."
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International issued a statement saying it was concerned that "one aim of these new and drastic restrictions is to prevent outside monitoring and scrutiny of the conduct of the Israeli army."
The military's statement insisted that "there is no intention to limit or encumber the passage" of diplomats, aid workers and journalists.
An Israeli military spokeswoman, Capt. Sharon Feingold, said the restrictions are not meant to hamper news coverage but to keep out ISM members and other foreign activists.
There was no immediate reaction to the new policy from the ISM.
The restrictions were imposed after an American volunteer with ISM and a British filmmaker were killed in recent weeks, while observing soldiers along the Israeli-Egyptian border, in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza. Another British activist was critically wounded by troops in Rafah last month, and remains in a coma.
Feingold claimed the restrictions also were aimed at keeping foreign nationals with ties to terror groups from entering Gaza, but did not explain how the new policy would help detect possible militants.
Two British men, who visited Gaza on April 25, were later involved in a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv pub. One blew himself up April 30, killing a waitress and two musicians, and the second escaped.
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw criticized the Israeli demand that foreigners sign a safety waiver, saying it was unacceptable. Straw said he would take it up with the Israeli government.
In the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, the military raided an office and arrested Christine Razowsky, 28, of Chicago, an ISM member, and Miranda Sissons, an employee of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Soldiers also confiscated computers, said ISM spokeswoman Laura Gordon.
Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said the two were being held pending deportation on charges they illegally entered a restricted military zone.
Also arrested was Palestinian Fida Gharib, 22, a secretary for the organization, Kleiman said.
Rory Mungoven, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said Sissons was "making a routine visit to pick up some documentation" when she was arrested. Human Rights Watch will appeal Sisson's deportation and is calling for her immediate release, Mungoven said.
"Human rights monitoring should be part and parcel of the road map to peace," Mungoven said. "And this arrest sends completely the wrong symbol, particularly on the eve of Colin Powell's visit."
The army said the restrictions being imposed in Gaza are already in place in the West Bank, where residents, diplomats, journalists, U.N. personnel and humanitarian workers are the only foreigners allowed to enter.
Journalists do not have to sign waivers to enter the West Bank.
Amnesty International said Friday it was "categorically opposed to any attempt to get people to sign away their rights."
"The signing of 'waivers' does not absolve the Israeli army of its responsibility in any way, nor the Israeli authorities of their duties to ensure that armed forces respect human rights in all circumstances," the group said in a statement.