A Hamas policeman checks passports at Rafah
A Hamas policeman checks passports at the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, June 2010 Photo by AP
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Over the course of six days - between the 4th and 10th of July - 2,120 people left the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing. Another 396 who wanted to cross the border were turned away by the Egyptian authorities. And another small but significant number of people could not even reach the border, due to the struggle between Fatah and Hamas - even over the dubious authority to restrict their people's freedom of movement.

The competition between the two Palestinian factions is nothing new, but in recent months it has been felt more acutely - ever since Egypt opened its border with the Strip following Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla at the end of May. Since early June, over 2,000 people leave Gaza every week and about 3,000 enter.

In contrast to the crossing into the West Bank (via the Erez checkpoint ), which is almost hermetically sealed, the Egyptian authorities restrict the type and number of the people passing through Rafah. They primarily permit the passage of students, as well as the entry of sick people who need treatment outside Gaza (and are not permitted to go to the West Bank ) and those with visas to other countries.

As of mid-May, according to data compiled by Oxfam, only 45 people were permitted to leave Gaza through Rafah, 748 were allowed to enter Gaza and two were turned away.

In some cases, one document separates people from their ability to leave the Strip - a passport. For about 30 of these individuals, the reason is clear: They are members of the Fatah movement whose passports the Hamas authorities have simply confiscated. There are also Fatah members who occasionally receive transit permits to the West Bank from Israel, on the basis of their special connections with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, but the Hamas government prevents them from leaving.

Independent sources in Gaza believe these practices are a reaction to the policy of the Interior Ministry in Ramallah, which neglected to issue passports to dozens of Gazans in recent months who sent in applications. Since January, the Interior Ministry in Gaza holds, the Palestinian General Intelligence service (the Mukhabarat ) has been checking every passport application before it is approved or refused.

At the human rights organizations in Gaza, which confirm this claim, complaints are piling up from residents whose requests have been denied. Some of the people who have been denied passports are associated with the Hamas government, like Fiza Za'anin, a member of the elected council in Beit Hanoun, a midwife who won a United Nations prize for her work with women and children during the IDF offensive in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9. Although she received a permit to take a course in East Jerusalem, she told Haaretz by telephone, her request for a passport so she could attend the prize ceremony in October in the United States was denied.

Some of those being denied passports are actually Fatah members, the apparent victims of false reports alleging they have connections to Hamas. One such person, from the Khan Yunis area, told Haaretz that after his request for a passport was denied he used all of his connections with Gazans now living in Ramallah - members of the PA security services - whose intervention finally brought him a passport, six months later.

After the takeover

Until 2007, the Palestinian population registry was concentrated in the Interior Ministry in Gaza, where the passports were printed (including those of West Bank residents ). But after the Hamas takeover of the Strip in June of that year, Ramallah managed to transfer the population registry to its jurisdiction. It also made sure that no blank passports, which are produced in France, would reach Gaza.

In November 2007, there were still about 10,000 blank passports in Gaza. At the time, the two halves of the Palestinian Interior Ministry - in Ramallah and in Gaza - worked in some coordination. With a shortage of blank passports in Ramallah, Gaza sent over 5,000. But when over 300,000 blank passports arrived in the West Bank from France, Ramallah sent only 2,000 to Gaza, in two batches. The last 1,000 arrived in the summer of 2008, and since then Ramallah has refused to include Gaza in its quota of blank passports.

For some time, the authorities in Gaza renewed residents' old passports. But in April 2009, the Palestinian Authority changed the color of its passport from green to black, began using a different kind of paper and changed the document's validity from three to five years.

The Gazans, as usual, found solutions. The minority, which is identified with the Palestine Liberation Organization in general and Fatah in particular, managed to send forms to Ramallah and receive passports through friends, acquaintances and relatives permitted to leave the Strip. Others sent their requests via various express mail services, which demand very high prices. At the Hamas checkpoint in the Beit Hanoun area, security people sometimes confiscated passports returnees were bringing back to friends.

The Gazan authorities reconciled themselves to the situation and began allowing dozens of special agencies in the Strip to become overt intermediaries between the Interior Ministry in Ramallah and residents. The move caused a drop in the exaggerated prices (up to NIS 1,000 for a passport for which the Interior Ministry charges NIS 210 ).

"We used to be a travel, tourism and pilgrimage agency," the owner of one such company told Haaretz. "Now there's no travel and no tourism, so we've become a passport agency."

He says he charges about NIS 300, with the difference covering express delivery, phone calls, notary public stamps and agents in Ramallah. His agency receives several dozen requests per day, which they then submit to the Interior Ministry. Based on the information that has made its way to Gaza, the passports are first sent for perusal by a special Palestinian General Intelligence officer.

One such agent told Haaretz contradictory stories: that there were attempts to forge details (mainly in order to obtain passports for Hamas members under other names ); that it's not true that the Palestinian General Intelligence interferes in issuing passports; and that the government in Ramallah promised that from now on it will not deny anyone their right to a passport.

The owner of another travel agency in Gaza said that every month he sends approximately 500 requests for passports. In June, he estimates, 10 requests that had been sent through him were denied.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry in the Strip, Ihab al-Ghussein, told Haaretz that every month 10,000 new passports are needed in Gaza and that about 100,000 residents are in urgent need of a passport. According to Al-Ghussein, since the summer of 2008 Ramallah has issued only 18,000 passports for Gazans. He is confident about that figure because the Interior Ministry in Gaza instructed every resident who receives a new passport from Ramallah to register its details with the ministry in Gaza.

According to data obtained by Mustafa Ibrahim, a researcher at the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights - Palestine, over 100,000 new passports from Ramallah have arrived in Gaza since 2007, including 22,000 in the first five months of 2010 alone.

'A natural right'

Haaretz sent a list of questions to the Interior Ministry in Ramallah via the Palestinian Government Media Center there, but did not receive any direct answers or data. Instead, Haaretz was referred to a press release from the interior minister in Ramallah, Sa'id abu Ali.

While this press release does not directly mention the complaints about the involvement of Palestinian intelligence in issuing passports, it implies the existence of irregularities and problems, and in general announces its commitment to transparency, serving the population and its view that "the Palestinian passport is a natural right for every citizen."

The number of applicants who have not received passports because of the Palestinian Intelligence interference is not known. But the very fact that there are Gazan residents denied passports from the ministry in Ramallah merely adds to the sense of imprisonment in the Strip.