Shin Bet Steps Up Questioning of Traders Leaving Gaza

Gazan businesspeople arriving at the Erez crossing with exit permits are being forced to wait hours and then face questioning. If Israel eventually lets them through, they can expect similar treatment from Hamas upon their return.

The Erez border crossing between Israel and northern Gaza Strip.
Reuters

Residents of the Gaza Strip, including businesspeople and traders with ties to the Palestinian Authority, have complained that the Shin Bet security service has been grilling them to obtain more information about the situation in the Hamas-run enclave. The extensive questioning comes as they leave Gaza via the Erez crossing, even though they had already received exit permits after lengthy security checks.

Sometimes, the Gazans say, they are required to wait hours to be questioned, making them late for business meetings they have set up in the West Bank or Israel. Other times, they wait several hours but the questioning isn’t carried out and they’re instructed to return to Gaza and come back another day. From testimonies and complaints compiled by the Israeli Gisha organization (which works to ensure the freedom of movement for Palestinians), it appears the phenomenon has become much more widespread in recent months.

It was previously reported that patients on their way for medical treatment in the West Bank or Israel have been required to undergo Shin Bet questioning at the Erez crossing (as a condition for their being allowed to enter). And fishermen arrested on their boats under the pretext that they have crossed beyond their permitted fishing zone also told Haaretz they were immediately taken in for questioning by the Shin Bet, which sought to obtain information about their neighbors and relatives, and what was happening in Gaza. Reports from the Strip indicate that this practice is continuing, and that fishermen who are detained and released are later questioned by Hamas in Gaza.

What is new, however, is that the complaints are now coming from traders and other businesspeople who, in an Israeli effort to expand economic activity in Gaza, have been granted permission to cross into Israel on a regular basis with permits that are renewed every few months. Those delayed at the border are afraid to talk openly about having been questioned or what they have been asked – out of concern they will later be questioned by Hamas security forces.

The widespread assumption among residents in Gaza is that compulsory questioning at the border is one of the Shin Bet’s means of trying to recruit people who will collaborate with the Israeli security service on a regular basis. Gazans with whom Haaretz has spoken have said the questioning and delays at the border are creating and reinforcing an atmosphere of suspicion against various segments of the Gazan population – particularly those with ties to the PA.

One prominent Palestinian businessman, identified here as F.S., has close ties to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority. “[The Shin Bet] started harassing us for some time, even though we have identity documents as businesspeople and our connections [with Israelis and Israel’s District Coordination Office for Gaza (DCO)] are good,” he told Haaretz. “The entire process is very humiliating. They cause us to wait at Erez, sometimes for many hours. That’s what happened to me a few weeks ago. I went over [to the Israeli side] of the Erez border crossing at around 10 A.M. and was told to wait for a meeting until 4:30 P.M. People who identified themselves as Shin Bet [operatives] interrogated me and then let me go, and I continued on my way.

“Another time,” F.S. continued, “I arrived at the Erez crossing. They demanded that I wait, and then that I go back to the Strip and come back for a meeting [with the Shin Bet] another day. It happened to a lot of my colleagues [from the private sector], and all of us were late for meetings we had scheduled. And we’re wondering why. After all, Israel is touting the fact that it’s giving businesspeople and traders permits to improve the economy [of Gaza] and prevent disaster. But one hand gives and the other gets in the way.” The long waits, the practice of sending people back to Gaza without explanation and the interrogation itself are all very humiliating, he said.

M.A., 31, submitted a request to the Israeli authorities last October for an exit permit, prior to a visa-application interview at the American consulate. During the second week of November, he was told the permit request had been approved and he should come to the Erez checkpoint immediately. He was detained there for questioning by Shin Bet officials, who instructed him to return to Gaza and submit a new permit request. Which he duly did.

On December 7, a representative of the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee – which transfers such requests to the Israeli authorities – informed him that he could cross the border the next day. So, he reached the checkpoint on December 8, waited several hours without being questioned by security officials, and was once more told to return to Gaza. He filed a third request and was allowed to leave the Strip on January 20.

In a letter to Col. Gen. Fares Attila (the commander of Israel’s DCO in Gaza), the head of Gisha’s legal department, Naomi Hager, complained about the delays and questioning Gazans who have already been cleared for an exit permit have been experiencing, a practice she called illegal.

She wrote that only the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT, which includes the DCO in Gaza) had the authority to grant permits, following a background check, and that no other party has the right to reopen the process. However, an employee at the DCO in Gaza replied that the law did allow other security entities to interrogate and detain people at the crossing.

Asked for a response by Haaretz, the Shin Bet spokesperson’s office said, “During the security evaluation process of Palestinians seeking to enter Israel, a series of steps are carried out by security officials, including, as appropriate, the questioning of some applicants. Security officials are careful to deal with the applicants respectfully, despite the inconvenience (which is not unusual at crossing points between regions and countries).” Gisha, meanwhile, again highlights that those questioned have already passed a background check and received permits to cross into Israel.

Last year, Palestinians made a total of 171,309 crossings into Israel at Erez, according to Gisha’s figures. (This is not the number of people who crossed into Israel, since most crossers did so several times). About 55 percent of the recorded crossings were by traders and other businesspeople, while 18 percent were by patients and those accompanying them. The figures reflect a 127 percent increase over 2014, when there were 75,238 crossings at Erez.

This increase shows COGAT has responded to international calls to soften the stringent criteria that have officially been in place since 2007, and which formally provide for permits only in exceptional humanitarian circumstances. The number of those allowed to leave to study outside of the Strip or for work-related meetings abroad via the Erez crossing has increased (even though they are not considered “exceptional humanitarian cases”). In spite of the increase, Gisha stressed that the exit permits represent only a tiny fraction of the 1.8 million Gaza population. For example, in September 2000, 500,000 crossings of workers into Israel were registered.