Israel has significantly reduced the number of exit permits for Gaza Strip residents over the past few months.
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According to Gisha, a nonprofit organization in contact with Palestinian authorities, the number of Gaza residents entering Israel dropped by 40 percent last month compared to the 2016 monthly average, and the number of businesspeople who entered Israel from the enclave fell by 60 percent compared to February 2016.
In February, only 7,301 people passed through the Erez crossing, which connects the Strip to Israel and the West Bank – the lowest number since the end of the Gaza war in the summer of 2014.
This figure is 40 percent below the monthly average for 2016 (12,150 people) and is just over half of the number of permits issued in February 2015.
Gisha says its figures are based on information from the Palestinian civil commission, the official body that works with the Israel Defense Forces’ Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to issue Israeli entry permits for Gaza residents.
The more stringent limits on permits started at the beginning of the year: In January, the number of exit permits for Palestinians from Gaza dropped by 44 percent compared to the same period last year, and by 30 percent compared to the 2016 monthly average.
After the fighting ended in 2014, Israel said it would join the efforts to economically rehabilitate Gaza, and announced specific moves to ease the passage of people and goods to and from the Strip. This gave hope for growth in trade between Gaza and the West Bank and Israel, the natural markets for Gaza, as well as trade with foreign countries.
Senior Israeli politicians and defense officials said time after time that promoting the economy of the Gaza Strip and improving living conditions for its residents were in Israel’s interests. This was reiterated more recently, in the wake of the State Comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge.
The unemployment rate in Gaza reached 42 percent last year, but the greatest drop in permits was among traders, including those with many years' experience in the business. Gisha recorded only 3,287 exits for traders in February, a drop of over 50 percent compared to the monthly average in 2016 (6,637) and a 60 percent reduction compared to February 2016, when the figure was 8,226. Workers in the furniture industry, which flourished before the blockade, tell of difficulties in manufacturing furniture because of the ban on importing sufficiently wide wooden planks and boards, as well as other raw materials such as paint. These limitations are imposed by Israel for security reasons.
Today, only 1,363 traders have valid entry permits, a bit more than a third of the some 3,600 permits Israel had approved in late 2015, and about a quarter of the quota set by Israel, which was never filled. Senior Hamas leader Fathi Hamad said this week that the situation in Gaza is on the verge of boiling over: “Either lifting the blockade, or an explosion,” he declared at a demonstration. Even though Hamas is not interested in an escalation with Israel for now, the situation could create pressure that Palestinian factions, including the ruling Hamas, will no longer be able to withstand, said Palestinian sources.
COGAT responded that over the past two years, in number of cases Gaza residents were discovered to have “exploited their entry permits to smuggle money and weapons to Hamas members in Judea and Samaria, forged medical documents, smuggled dual-use materials, exploited international aid and more.”
“The figures do not reflect reality when every day, the [IDF’s] Coordination and Liaison Administration to the Gaza Strip coordinates over 1,000 [entries and exits to and from Israel] for purposes of trade and business, medical treatment, academic studies overseas, participation in conferences and training, and more,” said COGAT. “In urgent medical cases we immediately coordinate entry for life-saving medical treatment.”