Here is some good news: Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories (“Our prime minister,” as a high-ranking Palestinian official puts it), announced last Thursday that the minimum age for Palestinian residents of the West Bank who are allowed to enter Israel without a permit was being lowered – to 55 for men, 50 for women. Mordechai, who is also known by his nickname, Poli, ordered last October that the minimum age for Palestinian residents wishing to leave the West Bank without a permit would be 60 for men and 55 for women. This was after about 17 years in which even 90-year-olds needed a permit. Now the threshold is being lowered: a reason for the Palestinians to hope they age quickly and in good health.
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In the six months that have passed since the previous order, the checkpoint computers have registered that 140,000 men and women left the Bantustans of the West Bank for a short while, with no need to navigate the bureaucracy of Palestinian Authority offices and the office of the Israeli Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). Now, at least 150,000 more Palestinians are expected to enter Israel and East Jerusalem without permits. Without even the additional biometric ID cards (known as magnetic cards) that Palestinian workers, especially, are required to have.
Setting a minimum age threshold for entrants not only does away with the need for an exit and entry permit – a waste of time and, some say, humiliation from having to request a permit to travel in your own country, your own homeland, to enter the Palestinian capital, Jerusalem. It also does away with the mantra that has been in use since 1991, when Israel started its own pass system – obliging Palestinians to ask for a personal permit to cross the Green Line.
The mantra was that the applicant needed a reason to leave: work, commerce, illness, family, or if he was under the auspices of an important organization and could prove he was a PA official, member of the clergy, or employee of an international NGO. Now the older ones can just use their right to free movement and go wherever they choose, without a special reason or reporting it.
Of course, the ones permitted to travel are only those who are not “prevented for security reasons.” This is a vague term, and the criteria for determining who may or may not travel for security reasons lack transparency. Experience shows that, often, they can be close relatives of someone who was killed by Israel Defense Forces gunfire; or participants in a demonstration; or activists in political groups that are not Fatah – and Shin Bet security service officers have put an X in their files. If someone is not allowed to travel freely for security-related reasons, he will only discover this at the checkpoint.
But let us rejoice for the ones who are middle-aged and older, and have no such X next to their names.
And not only them: a quota of 200 adult Gazans permitted to leave for prayers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, and then return, was set last October. In addition, for the first time since 2007, tomatoes and eggplants were permitted to be exported from Gaza and sold in Israeli markets. Was it because of the Jewish shmita (when land lies fallow for a year), or because of dire warnings from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund about the deteriorating Gazan economy? It does not matter. What matters is that the tomatoes and eggplants left last week on two trucks, 25 tons of produce on each. How extraordinary.
Adding and removing goats
The checkpoints, travel prohibitions and blocked roads are the innumerable goats that Israel has introduced into Palestinians’ lives. From time to time, “Poli” or “Bogie” (Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon] removes a goat or two – whether as a reward for the PA’s good behavior, an understanding that some pressure valves need to be opened, or to assuage the concerns of Western diplomats. COGAT carried out a decision that had been made in the political echelon – in other words, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ya’alon.
And when COGAT prohibits a mother and her son – Belgian citizens – from leaving the Gaza Strip, that is not malice, heaven forbid, but policy. R.G., a native of the Gaza Strip, has seven children. About 10 years ago, she and her husband moved to Belgium, where M., their 8-year-old son, was born. The entire family has Belgian citizenship. For health and family-related reasons, R.G. and her son went to Gaza for a visit some five months ago, via Egypt. They planned to stay a few weeks and then return. In the meantime, Egypt closed the border crossing at Rafah. However, each of the three times it was opened for a day or two since December, they failed to leave because of the overcrowding.
The children in Belgium need their mother, and M. needs to go back to school. But COGAT and the Gaza District Coordination and Liaison Office refuse to allow them to leave through the Erez border crossing and proceed from there – through Israel and the West Bank – to the Allenby Bridge crossing and Jordan. The reason? They do not meet the criteria, which are that only extraordinary humanitarian cases are allowed to leave.
Haaretz received no response as to why the needs of children and their mother is not a humanitarian case. The NGO Gisha is preparing to submit a petition to the High Court of Justice if the department of petitions at the State Prosecutor’s Office, which is headed by attorney Osnat Mandel, does not intervene.
Since 1997, Israel has forbidden the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip from going abroad via the Allenby Bridge crossing: This prohibition is one of the solid proofs that Israel decided to cut the Gaza Strip off from the West Bank long before the Qassam rockets and Hamas’ rise to power. The result is the de facto imprisonment of 1.8 million human beings. Where are Belgium, the European Union and President Barack Obama, who can order Israel to put an end to this crude violation of the Oslo Accords and the rules of basic decency?
Amira Hass tweets at @hass_haaretz