Analysis

Israel Is Asking Palestinians Leaving the Gaza Strip: Are You Happy?

Palestinians leaving the Strip this week were met by an Israeli military survey. The first question: 'In general I'm happy with my life these days' - agree or disagree?

A Palestinian man and his son warm themselves by a fire during cold, rainy weather in a slum on the outskirts of the Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)
Khalil Hamra/AP

People leaving the Gaza Strip through the Israeli terminal this week were asked to complete a public opinion survey. The IDFs District Coordination and Liaison Office prepared the survey, asking 17 questions in Arabic.

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The first question was a statement of fact: "In general I'm happy with my life these days." An Israeli who saw some of the completed questionnaires said most of the answers seemed to be "completely agree" or "agree." The other options on the form were "partly agree," "don't agree," "completely disagree."

Questionnaire given by Israeli army to Palestinians leaving Gaza
Haaretz

Perhaps they are "happy" because they managed to get out of the Gaza Strip. In the past year the number of Palestinian residents in the strip that Israel allowed to leave has dropped sharply. In 2015 the number of departures (not the number of permit holders, because some people left several times a month) was an average of 14,276 a month. In 2016 the number dropped slightly to 12,150 while in 2017 the average plunged to 5,693.

In contrast, a monthly average of half a million departures was registered in the first half of 2000.

A report the Gisha NGO is to release next week sums up all the added restrictions on movement the Shin Bet security service and the IDFs Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which the District Coordination and Liaison unit (DCL) is subjected to, imposed.

These aggravations caused the drastic slash in the already small number of movement permits to Gaza residents. They run contrary to COGAT Major General Yoav Mordechai's statements about Israel's desire to bring about an improvement in Gaza's economic situation. For without freedom of movement for job seekers, students, businesspeople and government officials, artists and teachers, no economy has a chance of recovering.

"Happy" isn't the description one hears in telephone conversations with friends and acquaintances in Gaza. But as a high school teacher says: "We say praise the lord, everything's OK, meaning that at a certain moment no one in the family is sick, or wounded, or killed, that we have food and one of us is still working so that he can help his brothers' unemployed families."

"Some people have no money to buy zaatar. Who can't pay a shekel for a trip. A woman got into a taxi I was in, asked the driver to take her to a certain address, and told him up front she couldn't pay. A student I know walks all the way from Beit Hanoun to Gaza."

There's no need to guess their answer to the second question in the DCL's questionnaire: "Do you think the economic situation today is the worst in recent years?"

A general view of the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on January 4, 2018.
SAID KHATIB/AFP

A little more than a third of the average monthly departures in 2017 were made by sick people and their escort- 2,043. Will they answer "agree" to the first question? It is doubtful. Although one of Gaza's jokes has a girl saying to a friend: "How lucky you are. You have cancer and you're going to Nablus."

So question no. 16 sounds rhetorical: "Whose situation is better, the strip's residents' or the West Bank's?"

The number of sick people's exits is relatively stable over the years. In November 2017, for example, only 40 out of 2,047 requests for permits to leave for medical reasons were refused. However, 901 requests received no response at all, according to the World Health Organization. The meaning of this is refusal. Indeed, one of the most blatant aggravations is the delay in responding to the departure requests. Last year some 16,000 unanswered requests accumulated for a long time.

"Failure to respond is an especially harsh, insensitive step, because unlike a refusal, the waiting applicant cannot appeal or ask for reconsideration," Gisha's document says. Businesspeople, students, sick people and their escorts – the DCL's lack of response hasn't skipped any category. In the absence of response – nothing can be planned. Planning has become a luxury.

From the middle of last year COGAT has invented another restriction – the time for handling every request to leave for Israel, the West Bank or abroad has been extended considerably. Under the previous procedure the DCL needed 23 work days to handle "non urgent" requests. Today the allocated time is 50 or 70 days. Spontaneity is another right completely deleted from the Gazan dictionary.

An Israeli who happened at the departure building at the Erez pass this week told Haaretz that "two female soldiers in civilian clothes pleasantly called all those leaving to fill in "satisfaction' and opinion questions. Almost all those leaving went to the counter. Perhaps it seemed to them like another step in the administration of entering Israel."

The questions focus on the security and economic situation and the Palestinian reconciliation. For example: "Who do you think is responsible for the economic situation in the Strip – Hamas, the PA, Israel, Egypt or another."

Or: "In your opinion, how can the economic situation in Gaza be improved: export, infrastructure development, workers leaving to Israel, implementing the (inter Palestinian) reconciliation or other.

Had M.S. been able to cross the Erez checkpoint, he would surely answer that increasing the number of exit permits to the Strip's residents is vital to improving the economic situation. He is a veteran merchant, selling glue and paint, and has been receiving for years an Israeli permit to bring to the strip substances classified as "dual purpose." That means he is counted on not to make military use of his merchandise. But even so, his exit permit hasn't been renewed since April 2016, after many years. After all his requests for an answer failed and he received no explanations, he petitioned the High Court of Justice with Gisha's help.

He is not alone. The inexplicable harshening of the restrictions in recent years was the drastic cut in the number of businessmen and merchants who receive a permit to leave Gaza. According to the civilian Palestinian committee in Gaza, as of December 2017 there were only 551 valid merchant permits, compared to 3,500 valid ones at the end of 2015.

Here too there is no transparency. No explanation was given to the slash of some 85 percent in the number of business owners' permits – including people with ties of many years with Israeli manufacturers and importers.

Mordechai will participate in an emergency conference initiated by Norway and the European Union to discuss the continued aid to the Palestinians and the deteriorating situation in the Gaza Strip. Mordechai is the one who called on the international community to sponsor a Marshall Plan and send money to the Gaza Strip to save it from an economic crisis. Mordechai said similar things, which his office distributed to the press, on Thursday at the Globes Israel Business Conference in Jerusalem. Freedom of movement for Gaza residents and their right to at least travel to the West Bank and spend time there were not included in his vision, the same way it was no coincidence this detail was missing from the questionnaire the DCL prepared.

Israel denies it has effective control over the Gaza Strip and views it as a separate entity from the West Bank. This is the reality that Israel fashioned over the past 27 years. The fact is that Mordechai did not speak about removing Hamas rule at the conference. He said: To the extent that in Gaza Hamas disarms from its weapons, its tunnels, from smuggling weapons and a solution [is found] to the issue of the captives and missing, it will be possible to turn Gaza into a very great economic opportunity. It is possible to invest there in infrastructure, [natural] gas exploration and make it very successful.

It is expected that the European representatives, led by Norway, will be impressed at the conference by the expertise of the Israeli representatives. So it is worth their time to take a look at the list of limitations on movement their increased severity – and before they sign more checks to rehabilitate yet again the infrastructure in Gaza they should ask their counterparts: How will Gaza become very successful when its business owners are not allowed to meet their partners in Israel, overseas or in the West Bank? Or when students are not allowed to study in Nablus or Ramallah?

 How can the professionalism of its engineers, doctors and teachers improve if only a few of them are permitted to travel abroad, and when they are allowed, they are required to sign a statement that they will only return after a year has passed? How can Gaza prosper without transparency, spontaneity and the right to plan ahead?