Walid Wafi and his wife, who are in their sixties, have been waiting for weeks to leave the Gaza Strip and travel to Cairo to organize a wedding for their daughter who lives there. The family cannot set a date for the event because they have no idea when they’ll be able to cross the border into Egypt – and if they do, when they’ll be able to return.
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Wafi, who works in construction, says that going to Egypt via the Rafah crossing is difficult because it’s closed most of the time; even if he does succeed in entering the country, he will have to return home the same way and doesn't know how many days or weeks that might take.
In early 2013, the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt served as an alternative for Gaza residents who wanted to leave Gaza. On average, Gazans recorded some 40,000 entries and exits during the early months of 2013. Since then, the Rafah crossing has been closed more and more frequently, and in the past few months it was open only for three days, and less than 4,000 people and entered and left through the crossing.
Wafi’s second option would be going from Gaza to Ben-Gurion International Airport and flying from there to Cairo, but that’s impossible because Israel grants Gazans such permission only under urgent humanitarian circumstances.
The most realistic option would be for the couple to go from the Erez crossing to the Allenby checkpoint at the Jordanian border, to travel to Amman, and from there fly to Cairo. But for that to be possible they need a special transit visa from Jordan, without which neither Israel nor Jordan will let them make the trip. And for months now, Jordan has been very stingy with these visas, known in Arabic as “non-impediment” permits; as a result, thousands of Palestinians in the territories who are seeking to travel abroad via Jordan are basically trapped.
Many Gaza residents who want to leave, whether for humanitarian reasons or for their studies, have used the Erez crossing at the northeast end of the Gaza Strip. From there they traveled to the Allenby Bridge and crossed into Jordan, and flew to other countries via the airport in Amman.
Over the past few months, the Jordanians have made it more difficult for Palestinians from Gaza to receive an entry permit into Jordan, and many have been left with no solution for leaving Gaza, said Palestinian sources in the Gaza and the West Bank.
The number of Palestinians leaving Gaza through the Erez crossing and traveling to Jordan from there has actually risen in recent months, as well as the number of those returning, but this increase is mostly testimony to the great demand to leave Gaza for foreign countries in light of the steep drop in the use of the Rafah crossing.
“This is an impossible situation and you feel totally helpless, faced with this bureaucracy,” Wafi says. “For me to go to Cairo could take half a day if everything was open, but nowadays I have to take a circuitous route across the Middle East just to meet my daughter, and now there’s another unexplained obstacle on the Jordanian side.”
Hiba Almajaida, a resident of Khan Yunis, has a 7-year-old son who lives with his father in Holland, whom she is longing to see. Over the past year she has been unable to leave the Strip because Jordan won’t give her the transit visa allowing her to fly to Holland from Amman. “My visa to Holland is waiting at the Dutch representative’s office in Ramallah but without the non-impediment permit, I can’t leave the Strip. I haven’t seen my son for two years and I just don’t know what to do.”
Jordan issues the non-impediment permits to Palestinians with blue identity cards – i.e., Palestinian residents of Gaza or the West Bank with origins in other Arab or Muslim countries, whose families never lived in the West Bank before 1967, when it was under Jordanian control. Those with green ID cards, whose families did reside in the West Bank before 1967, don’t need the permits, nor do Palestinians who are Jordanian citizens.
Subject to security checks, the Jordanian Interior Ministry used to routinely issue these transit visas to Gazans seeking to reach foreign countries via Jordan. Since August, however, private individuals, as well as lawyers and members of human rights groups, have found that requests are being rebuffed by Jordan with no explanation.
Mashour Abu Daka, the former Palestinian communications minister, is trying to persuade the Jordanians to change their policy, which he said has no discernible justification. “People are getting refused with no explanation. We don’t know why,” he said, adding that some 50,000 West Bank residents are blue-card holders, along with nearly all the residents of Gaza.
Daka, and others who spoke to Haaretz, said that if Rafah is closed and the Jordanians aren’t issuing transit permits, then Israel has to take responsibility for the situation.
“In the end Israel controls the crossings between Gaza and the West Bank and doesn’t permit the building of a seaport or airport [in Gaza], so it’s obligated to provide solutions. If Israel would allow Palestinians with blue cards to leave via Ben-Gurion it would make things much easier,” he asserted.
Israeli officials said that for security reasons, the airport is generally off-limits to Palestinians, but if a special request is received to leave the country via the airport, it is evaluated and a decision is made based on the specific circumstances.
Palestinian government officials are aware of the problem, but have not received any official explanation for the toughening of Jordanian policy. But sources in Ramallah say that one reason is Amman’s unwillingness to bear the brunt of Egypt’s decision to keep the Rafah crossing closed. Palestinian sources also point to diplomatic tensions between Jordan and the Palestinian Authority over the past few months.
It should be noted that during that time, Israel has been making exceptions with respect to its regulations and has allowed up to 100 Gazans per week to enter Israel and traverse the West Bank, so they can cross into Jordan to proceed elsewhere. These are primarily students and businessmen who have a visa to a third country or a foreign passport. According to Human Rights Watch, Jordan has been allowing such people to enter the country.
But in general, there has been a sharp increase in the number of persons being refused visas by Amman. The Gisha organization, which helps Gaza residents seeking Israeli permission to travel, says it does not know of cases of persons who were refused visas by Jordan before last August. Between August and January, however, 58 individuals sought the group’s help because Amman had either refused to issue them a transit visa or hadn’t responded to their request.
Both international and Palestinian educational institutions have reported that they have not been able to get Jordanian travel visas for students or faculty members; senior businessmen have also been refused.
Human Rights Watch recently asked Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour to ease the transit of Gazans, emphasizing that Amman must show transparency in its decisions and ensure that they aren’t arbitrary, and also take into account the rights of those affected by its decisions.
Haaretz approached the Jordanian Embassy in Israel with questions about the permit refusals and noted the Human Rights Watch request, but received no response by press time.
The response of the Coordinator of Government Activity in the territories: “The civil policy of the State of Israel toward the Gaza Strip allows Gaza residents to depart for destinations abroad via Israel and the Allenby Bridge for certain reasons, primarily humanitarian and medical, as well as academic studies abroad. Special requests to leave via Ben-Gurion International Airport are examined and approved in accordance with the circumstances. We note that since the beginning of 2015, more than 300 students were allowed to leave for studies abroad via Israel.”