Israel to Let Gazans Leave via West Bank - as Long They Don't Return for at Least 12 Months

A change in Israel's long-standing policy reopens Allenby crossing for some Gazans.

A Palestinian family at the Rafah border crossing in Gaza, February 2016.
AP

Israel will permit residents of the Gaza Strip to go abroad via the Allenby border crossing with Jordan, on condition that they do not return the same way for at least a year. This is in addition to the weekly quota of up to 100 exit permits via Allenby that are given to people who fall under the categories of needing special medical treatment, attending special conferences and students pursuing advanced degrees abroad, according to a public document from the office of the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories.

This appears to mark a change in a policy of almost 20 years: Since 1997, Israel has not permitted Gazans to travel abroad and return via the Allenby border crossing, i.e., through Israeli territory and the West Bank, with very few exceptions. Thus, the Rafah border crossing became the only departure gate for Gazans to go abroad. Theoretically, Israel is now increasing the number of Gazans who will be able to travel abroad. On the other hand, the condition that one must remain outside the country for at least a year is a strong deterrent, since there is hardly any possibility of returning via Egypt.

The change appears in the “status of authorizations for entry of Palestinians into Israel” that appeared on the COGAT website in late February. The announcement read as follows: “As a rule, any resident of the Gaza Strip who wishes to enter Israel and the West Bank for the sake of going abroad for various private purposes, if he gives a written commitment not to return to the Gaza Strip via Israel and the West Bank for one year, his request will be approved, subject to a detailed security assessment.”

The applicant must include a preliminary permit from Jordan, giving him permission to pass through that country. The trip to the Allenby Bridge will be done in groups either with a military escort or escort by an official representative of the Palestinian Authority.

The COGAT spokeswoman said that the announcement of the change was relayed to the head of the Palestinian Civilian Committee “for the sake of informing the population.” Yet, according to Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, earlier this week the Civilian Committee and concerned NGOs still did not know about the new clause.

The COGAT spokeswoman did not respond to an inquiry from Haaretz about the logic behind the condition of not being able to return for a year.

A senior Palestinian official in the Civilian Committee, who is based in Ramallah, told Haaretz that COGAT informed the Palestinian side about the upcoming change two weeks ago. He said it is an improvement meant for people from Gaza who live abroad and have come back for a visit, or those who plan to get married abroad or are planning a long trip. Such people, he said, found themselves trapped in Gaza due to the closing of the Rafah crossing, because they didn’t fit the Israeli criteria for exceptions who are permitted to depart via Allenby. Now, with the new change, they will be allowed to leave. “The wording of the clause may sound wrong, but it’s an improvement,” he said.

In January, 351 departures were recorded from Gaza abroad via Allenby, and 301 in February. The monthly average in 2015 was just 121.

Since July 2013, Egypt has kept the Rafah border crossing mostly closed, cutting off Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants from the world. In the first half of 2013, there were 40,000 entries and exits a month through Rafah, according to the website of Gisha. In 2015, the Rafah crossing was only in operation for 32 days. The average monthly number of entries and exits then was just 2,396. So far in 2016, the Rafah crossing has only been open for operation for three days.

Until 1991, Israel allowed all Palestinians (except those who were restricted for security reasons) from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to enter Israel and move freely between the two areas. West Bank residents and Gazans could travel abroad (subject to a security permit) via Rafah, Allenby and Ben-Gurion Airport. In January 1991, Israel reversed this situation: It introduced widespread restrictions on movement, prohibiting all Palestinians, except for certain defined categories of people who received permits, from entering Israel or passing through it. Then Israel began gradually implementing a policy of cutting off Gazans from the West Bank, by limiting the number of permits issued for Palestinians to transit between the two sections. It continued with this policy despite having signed the clause of the Oslo Accords that says the two parts are a single territorial unit.

Gazans, mainly university students and traders, discovered that they could enter the West Bank via the Allenby crossing or even Ben-Gurion Airport. So those who could afford it, left via Rafah, flew to Amman and entered the West Bank from there. Some also flew to Cyprus, then from there to Ben-Gurion and on to the West Bank. But in 1997, Gazans learned that transit via Allenby required a request for a permit, given to exceptional cases. In those years, Gazans were also prohibited from flying out of Ben-Gurion Airport.

Since 2000, the restrictions on leaving Gaza via the Erez crossing have also been stiffened. Students were prohibited from studying in the West Bank, and Gazans who were in the West Bank were declared “illegals.” Since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Palestinians from Gaza have been prohibited from working in Israel.

In 2007, after the Hamas takeover of the PA security apparatus, Israel introduced an extreme closure policy in which the entry and exit of people and goods, including food, was restricted to humanitarian needs. These restrictions have also gradually been eased, but most Gazans are still not permitted to leave Gaza via Erez.

In February 2016 there were 15,108 exits via Erez to Israel (part of this figure refers to people with permits who left a number of times): 8,618 traders and businesspeople, 2,593 patients and their escorts, 811 to attend prayers on the Temple Mount, 791 foreigners, 791 workers for international organizations, 147 to attend conferences and supplemental training, 301 to travel abroad, 583 prisoner visits and 198 for miscellaneous other purposes.