COVID Has Given Israel an Excuse to Tighten the Blockade of Gaza

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Palestinian children look out of their family's home window on a rainy day at Deir al-Balah refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip December 17, 2020.
Palestinian children look out of their family's home window on a rainy day at Deir al-Balah refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip December 17, 2020.Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

“I’ve worked in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv since I was a kid,” Issam Barakeh told me on the phone, and I pictured him as a young boy hauling crates, husking corn, culling overripe tomatoes, sweeping the shop at the end of the day, and picking up Hebrew all the while.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Israel respected the Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement: With a few exceptions, and except for during periods of curfews, they could freely move between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and back and forth from the occupied territories to Israel. Israel had its own economic and political incentives to permit the freedom of movement, but still many youths from Gaza, like Barakeh, who is now 56, were able to use their school vacations to help support their families. Many Israeli families owe their own wealth to Palestinian workers and the low wages they were paid.

Barakeh married an Israeli woman and has lived in Jaffa since 1991; he eventually obtained Israeli citizenship too. Today he works as a vendor in a produce store. On December 1, his 89-year-old mother died in Bani Suheila in southern Gaza, about 85 kilometers from his home. He hadn’t seen her in 13 years.

“Shortly before she passed away, I wrote a post about how much I miss my mother’s hug,” Barakeh says. “When I got married, I never imagined that this kind of separation from my family would be the price I’d pay.”

The District Coordination and Liaison Administration – which is subordinate to the Defense Ministry’s unit for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT – did not permit Barakeh to travel to the funeral. The nonprofit organization Gisha fought hard for him to be able to mourn together with his brothers and sisters. When his father died four years ago, he was not able to join his family in mourning.

This time around, on Barakeh’s behalf, Gisha’s three weeks of efforts included, as usual, endless phone calls and emails to the district liaison administration, a petition to the High Court of Justice, an appearance in court and a written update to the justices thereafter. Ultimately, the High Court ruled that the state should allow Barakeh to go to Gaza. But as yet he has still not had the opportunity to visit his family and his parents’ graves.

The Erez checkpoint at the Israel-Gaza border. Coronavirus rules change in Israel, always amid much public debate. But the more hermetic sealing of the Strip occurs without oversight or discussion.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The amazing thing about this fairly typical saga is how much bureaucracy, time, vehemence and indifference the government’s emissaries – soldiers and officers of various ranks from the liaison administration and from COGAT, and a lawyer from the State Prosecutor’s Office named Ilanit Bitau – invested to prevent Barakeh from being able to grieve with his closest family members, whom he hadn’t seen in more than a decade.

All of the above-mentioned individuals juggled two balls in explaining their decision: the coronavirus pandemic, on the one hand, and Israel’s policy of barring passage in and out of Gaza aside from exceptional humanitarian cases.

Attending the wedding or funeral of an immediate family member is defined as an “exceptional humanitarian case,” permitting entry or exit from the Strip, according to COGAT’s strict criteria. But since March, the coronavirus has given the Israeli authorities an excuse to tighten the blockade of Gaza and to avoid issuing even the rare permits that were given out in the past. In Israel, coronavirus regulations have changed numerous times, always amid much public debate. But the even more hermetic sealing of Gaza by the jailers of the Defense Ministry occurs without oversight or discussion.

Gisha’s petition on behalf of “divided families” (that is, of Israeli citizens who are married to residents of Gaza and divide their time between there and Israel) have managed to crack the iron wall a bit. The justices ruled that those Israelis who found themselves “stuck” in Israel should be allowed to travel back to their homes in the Strip.

Following Gisha’s legal activities over the summer, the government had to announce that in cases of the death of a deceased first-degree relative, a Gaza resident would be permitted to enter Israel to grieve with their family, while a West Bank resident would be permitted to enter the Strip. But why prohibit an Israeli citizen, who is a native of Gaza, from traveling to his family home, under similar circumstances?

According to the minutes of the High Court hearing on December 9, Justices Daphne Barak-Erez, Anat Baron and Ofer Grosskopf pressed Bitau, the state prosecutor, for the reasoning behind the refusal to allow Barakeh to mourn with his family. “Is the issue here one of public health?” Barak-Erez asked. Bitau said yes. “If [Barakeh] is prepared to self-isolate (upon his return to Israel), what’s the problem?” the justice continued, adding, “There has to be a rational connection between the means and the end.”

Bitau explained that Israel cannot supervise the extent to which coronavirus restrictions are adhered to in the Gaza Strip. To which Barak-Erez replied: “That’s true for any Israeli anywhere in the world. What about an Israeli who travels to Dubai?”

The justices criticized COGAT’s lack of transparency when canceling or changing instructions regarding exiting and entering Gaza. Despite the comments from the bench, Bitau informed the court the next day that COGAT was standing by its refusal. Then, after a court injunction was issued, Bitau was forced to announce on December 20 that Barakeh would be permitted to enter Gaza. On Tuesday, December 22, Barakeh was told that a three-day entry permit to the Strip was waiting for him at the Erez checkpoint. He excitedly drove there – only to find that he was prohibited from leaving Israel due to a debt that he’s still paying off in installments.

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