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Here's an example of Israeli criteria for entering Gaza, in these days of well-publicized liftings of sieges: Palestinians (meaning West Bankers and East Jerusalemites) are allowed in Gaza only if they have first-degree relatives there who have just died or are on their deathbed, unless they are part of a divided family - i.e. one in which one of the spouses lives in Gaza and the other in Israel. These IDF rules, together with their obscure criteria, are never publicized openly along with the stamp of authority of the commander responsible for them. Presumably, also they were not made known to General Anthony Zinni for him to become aware of how comprehensive Israel's fight against Palestinian terror has become. The rules become known only through phone calls to the soldier-clerks at the coordination and liaison office in Gaza, formerly known as the Civil Administration, now known in the IDF by Matak (the Hebrew acronym). Those calls are made by people who are trying to determine why they are not allowed to see their loved ones.

Dr. Omar Abdel Shafi is a surgeon, and resident of East Jerusalem. He wanted to see his father, an 80-year-old retired doctor, who lives in Gaza, and is the brother of veteran Gazan leader Haider Abdel Shafi.

They may live only 70 km apart, but they haven't seen each other for a year due to the closures. In November, Dr. Shafi made a request to Matak for an entry pass to Gaza. The request was rejected. His father went through a second Ramadan without seeing his son or grandchildren. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), based in Tel Aviv, asked the Government Coordinator in the Territories (GCT), who is responsible for Matak and the coordination of all civilian affairs with the Palestinians, for help. The GCT repeatedly answered, verbally, that the matter was under consideration. No written answer was provided. Hadas Ziv, from PHR, also called Matak in Gaza, whose offices are located in an area that was de facto annexed to Israel in the northern end of the territory. According to Ziv's notes, here is the conversation that transpired when she tried to determine why Dr. Shafi is not allowed to visit his father:

Soldier: There's a closure. Visits are only allowed if the parent died.

Ziv: And if he's sick?

Soldier: It depends on the illness.

Ziv: The father has diabetes.

Soldier:That's not serious enough.

When Dr. Shafi called Matak, he received a similar response: His father has to be either dead or dying, for him to visit.

L.H., a Ramallah resident born in Gaza, also doesn't meet IDF criteria for visiting relatives. During a recent IDF bombing of Gaza, her 75-year-old father panicked, tripped and broke his leg. She asked for permission to spend time with him to help him get around. Medical authorizations and lobbying by Israeli friends and acquaintances didn't help. The IDF said no.

Attorney Yossi Wolfson, from the Center for the Protection of the Individual, called this week, at his own initiative, to find out if the closure had been eased. Already in November, at the start of Ramadan, he became aware of the IDF's mystery regulations covering only a dead or dying relative. Wolfson knows of a Palestinian who approached the center asking for help so that he, his wife and children could visit his 90-year-old mother. Matak received confirmation that the woman had undergone an operation to remove a cancerous tumor in March. Matak refused the request. They wanted authorization of a more recent medical diagnosis of a serious illness - one from the last two weeks.

But it's difficult to reach funerals and deathbeds as well. On Monday, the "Israel department" (the department that deals with Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem or Israel proper) informed Wolfson that during the last three weeks no new applications for visiting passes have been accepted because the fax machine is broken and the Defense Ministry's repairs department is on strike. They also told him that they don't deal with people who arrive directly at the Erez Junction, and, in addition, applications are not being handled if sent to other departments.

Yoram Barak, a spokesman for Matak, told Ha'aretz that there is a problem with the fax, but anyone who asks can get an alternative phone number, and he knows nothing about a three-week hiatus in handling requests. He also said the criteria for entering Gaza are by order of the IDF Southern Command.

Matak called the Center for the Defense of the Individual yesterday to apologize about the misunderstanding concerning the inadmissibility of applications and provided an alternative fax number. The IDF Spokesman in the Southern Command provided the following response: "The procedures for entering Gaza to visit families have not been changed. The criteria are defined in the articles concerning humanitarian and medical cases, such as reunification of families, family celebrations or tragedies, and are conditioned on the approval of the Government Coordinator in the Territories. The case specifically raised by Ha'aretz is well known, and Dr. Abdel Shafi's request was examined and rejected."