The number of merchants from Gaza that are permitted into Israel will be increased from 7,000 to 10,000, Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories announced Wednesday.
The decision, which will be implemented Thursday, was taken by Israeli government officials at the political level following a security assessment. The permits to enter the country will be issued only to Gazans who have either been vaccinated against the coronavirus or who have recovered from COVID-19.
The move comes against the backdrop of an even worse economic situation in the impoverished Hamas-ruled coastal enclave, where unemployment is rising. According to the Palestinian Authority's Central Bureau of Statistics, in the first quarter of the year, unemployment stood at nearly 50 percent, a figure that is thought to be substantially understated.
When word came out two weeks ago about an initial increase in the number of Israeli entry and work permits, thousands of Gazans congregated outside chamber of commerce offices in the Strip to apply for them.
A senior Hamas official told Haaretz about two weeks ago that more than 300,000 Gazans are looking for work. He said he believed that Israel was seeking to increase the quota of Gazans permitted to enter Israel to defuse tensions in the Strip and in response to an Egyptian request to ease the plight of the residents there.
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Nevertheless, he said, as long there isn't a further easing of the situation, through the granting of additional entry permits to merchants or permitting construction material into the Strip, it won't make a substantial difference in the humanitarian situation. "The mass exodus of people only underlines the deep distress, and that needs to send a signal to everyone – to Israel, Egypt and the international community," he said.
Gaza’s more than 2 million Palestinian residents have lived under a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian Authority forces in 2007. The Israeli government has said that the closures are necessary to contain the Hamas, while critics view it as a form of collective punishment.
The Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, headed by Maj. Gen. Ghasan Alyan, said the expanded number of permits to enter Israel is “conditional upon the continued preservation of the region’s security stability for the long term." Tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank also work in Israel, where wages are much higher. They mainly work in construction and agriculture.
Following the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in May, Hamas demanded the easing of the blockade as part of an informal cease-fire brokered by Egypt. Israel has lifted some restrictions while warning that any broader easing depends on continued calm.
Israel stopped issuing work permits to Gazans after the Hamas takeover. A few thousand senior businessmen retained their entry permits to Israel, and in recent years, Israel has quietly expanded the program to allow Palestinians from Gaza to work in construction, agriculture and manufacturing.