Israel has been barring Palestinian passports from being moved in or out of the Gaza Strip for the past six weeks because they’re not regarded as humanitarian items — even though they are being issued or renewed only in Ramallah. With thousands unable to receive passports from Ramallah or various consulates and thousands of others unable to send their passports for renewal or to be stamped with visas, residents have been forced to cancel or postpone urgent trips abroad, through Egypt, for medical reasons, studies or work.
No mail has entered or left the Gaza Strip since May 8. During the last war, the crossings were shut down most of the time. With the cease-fire, Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered to resume the stringiest blockade on Gaza, and close the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings until progress was made to return the civilians and soldiers’ remains held in Gaza. Hence, leaving Gaza is only allowed for certain medical treatments and only goods classified by Israel as humanitarian, such as food and medicine, are allowed in.
Due to the political split between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah, and the international recognition of the latter, only the Interior Ministry in Ramallah is permitted to issue Palestinian passports.That is why Gaza residents depend on postal services and delivery companies in order to get their passports.
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Wasim Mushtaha, head of the Association of Travel Agents and Tourism in Gaza, says some 10,000 people are currently waiting for their passports or have been unable to renew them. Some 5,000 passports are ready and waiting in the Ramallah Interior Ministry, he told Haaretz. The rest are passports that are held by travel agencies for transfer to Ramallah, require a visa stamp from consulates in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, or have already been stamped in the embassies and cannot be returned to Gaza.
Mushtaha said the ban on bringing mail in and out affects about 75 travel agencies in Gaza and their 3,000 employees, who also handle passports. “Everything depends on the passports – travel arrangements, ordering flight tickets, making hotel reservations,” he said. “When there are no passports – we cannot do anything.” In addition to the passports, he said, the ban applies to the entry of checks and other bank documents, as well as signed legal documents and other authorizations from the Palestinian Authority. These include various diplomas that require the Palestinian Foreign Ministry’s signature to allow students who are abroad to continue their studies.
A Gaza resident who must go to Egypt because of dire family circumstances told Haaretz he had to extend his passport’s validity in Gaza’s Hamas-run Interior Ministry. However, only Egypt recognizes the extension stamp issued in Gaza. The extension is seen as illegal by the Interior Ministry in Ramallah and he could end up being penalized for it when he asks for another extension or when he needs a new passport. “I had no choice,” he said.
Some Gaza Strip residents personally know employees of international aid organizations who have recently entered the strip and have asked them to bring the ready passports from Ramallah, but they are few.
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Gisha, a human rights organization dedicated to protecting freedom of movement for Palestinians, has been asked to intervene on behalf of people who need medical treatments abroad but have no passport due to the mail ban. Israel has refused to grant them a permit to travel to a hospital in the West Bank, and so they are forced to go to Egypt.
M.S. is one of them. He suffers from an eye condition, and after Israel refused to approve his departure for treatment in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority said it would fund his operation in Egypt. His brother is meant to accompany him, but his passport has been stuck in Ramallah since May. The patient filed a request for a passport on June 10 through a travel agency, where he was told there was no way of knowing when he might receive it.
Attorney Muna Haddad of Gisha has appealed twice over the past couple of weeks to the defense minister; the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian; and David Cohen, the Civil Administration officer in charge of communications and postal services, demanding that the transfer of mail be renewed. Her letters did not get a response, and Gisha is now considering taking the matter to court.
COGAT’s spokesperson said that “due to security considerations and attempts to smuggle weapons and dual-use items, the transfer of postal items from Israel to the West Bank via the Erez border crossing is not possible at the moment. This is in accordance with the orders of the political leadership since the end of Operation Guardian of the Walls,” referring to last month’s war. COGAT did not respond to Haaretz’s query as to who decided to classify postal items as “non-humanitarian” services – the defense minister or COGAT officials.