Israel Takes Exit Permits Away From Top Palestinian Officials in Gaza

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Palestinians at Erez Crossing, 2014.
Palestinians at Erez Crossing, 2014. Credit: Adel Hana / AP

The Shin Bet security service has rescinded the permanent exit permits from the Gaza Strip of 12 out of 14 senior officials of the Gaza Strip’s Civil Affairs Administration. The administration acts as a mediator between Palestinian civilians and the Israeli authorities in matters involving exit permits from the Strip and the entry of construction materials.

The officials whose permits were cancelled, some of whom are affiliated with Fatah, have worked for the Civil Affairs office for 10 years or more. The current team has not been changed since 2007 and Israeli officers and officials in the Civil Administration know them well.

The cancelation of the exit permits is part of a wave of cancellations and bans on leaving the Gaza Strip, which Haaretz reported in July. It has impeded exit for people whom Israel had in the past allowed to leave Gaza, particularly businesspeople and those in need of medical treatment.

Officials in the Palestinian Civil Affairs Administration who asked Israeli officials in the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories’ office were told the permits were being rescinded due to “security reasons.” The spokesman for the Civil Affairs Administration in the Gaza Strip, Mohammed Makadma, firmly rejected the implications of this reasoning. Makadma said he believed it was the beginning of the implementation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s policy, which he had openly declared when he took office, of disconnecting Israeli communication with Palestinian institutions under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and creating direct communication with Palestinian residents.

One of the exit permits rescinded was that of the Palestinian head of the Erez crossing, who has worked side by side with Israeli officials and officers for years. Permits of officials in charge of applications for permits for infrastructure projects (electricity, water, sewerage and roads) and rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip were also rescinded. The permanent permit of the official in charge of applications for permits for businesspeople and the official in charge of permits in general were also rescinded. Requests for one-time permits by some officials were also turned down.

Among the permits cancelled were those of officials who need to travel to work meetings in Ramallah, those accompanying worshippers traveling to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and people traveling abroad by way of the Allenby Bridge into Jordan.

Other than Palestinian security organs, the Civil Affairs Administration is the Palestinian body that maintains the daily contact with senior Israeli officials. It is headed by a member of the Fatah Central Committee, Hussein al-Sheikh. The latter is in close ongoing contact with senior officials in COGAT and the Civil Administration.

A spokeswoman for COGAT said in response: “There has been no change in the COGAT policy in which we work opposite the Palestinian civil committee in the Gaza Strip. It has recently been decided by the security bodies to re-examine entrance permits into Israel for everyone leaving the Gaza Strip, including members of the committee.”

At the same time, according to the COGAT spokeswoman, that agency’s work and the level of coordination with the Palestinian administration were continuing properly. “Any attempt to claim otherwise goes against the truth and we regret the manner in which these things are presented.”

The Shin Bet spokesperson’s office said decisions on granting or canceling a permit were made on a case-by-case basis. “We stress that no decision has been made on the mass cancelation of entry permits to Israel for Palestinian Authority officials working with COGAT. In any case, there is a proper procedure for appealing any decision to rescind a permit. Because the Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip are using Palestinians entering via the Erez crossing to promote terror and perpetrate attacks in Israel and Judea and Samaria, responsibility for the cancelation of the permits rests with the terror groups, first and foremost Hamas.”

The Shin Bet’s statement also “stressed that the extent of permits from the Gaza Strip into Israel and Judea and Samaria has grown immeasurably since Operation Defensive Edge,” referring to Israel’s 2014 military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

According to the NGO Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, Israel has indeed somewhat loosened restrictions on exiting Gaza since after the war in 2014. It began to include in the category of approved permits those granted to worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and students permitted to leave for studies abroad via the Allenby Bridge.

However, Gisha said that according to COGAT figures given to the news site Megaphone, the number of approved exit permits is clearly in decline, from about 80 percent in 2013 to less than 50 percent in the first half of 2016.

According to COGAT, in 2013, 56,173 applications for permits were made and 46,413 were approved, an 82-percent approval rate. In 2014, approval was down to 77 percent (84,835 applications as opposed to 65,539 permits granted), and in 2015, to 60 percent (170,788 applications as opposed to 103,784 permits granted). In 2016, the approval rate was 46 percent (17,267 applications as opposed to 49,734 granted – out of a population of 1.9 million).

Gisha notes that despite the rise in the number of permits issued, they constitute only 3 percent of the number of people who received permits to leave Gaza in 2000.

Gisha said: “The many times we approach COGAT (or are forced to appeal to the High Court of Justice) in the name of clients whose applications were turned down – the decision in their cases ‘suddenly’ changes and their requests are approved. This raises questions about the decision-making process and the arbitrariness with which a security ban is placed on a person, whether a 16-year-old girl accepted to a prestigious study program in Holland, or an 85-year-old man who wants to visit his son dying of cancer in the West Bank.”

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