This past weekend was very special for Siham, 45, and her five children, who live in the West Bank village of Bil’in, and who crossed the separation barrier and traveled to the beach in Jaffa.
“My children had never seen the sea – as far as they were concerned it was as if they were coming to the most important attraction in the world,” Siham said. “To touch the salty water and play in the sand was the dreamiest and least expensive entertainment I could have offered my children.”
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Siham’s account is one of a thousand such stories of Palestinians, adults and children alike, who were allowed to cross the separation barrier and go to beaches in Israel over the past week. Anyone coming to the beach over the weekend couldn’t miss the Palestinian families, especially in Jaffa but in Herzliya, Haifa and other beaches as well.
The average Israeli wouldn’t be able to tell whether an Arab family came from Nablus or Tul Karm in the West Bank or Umm al-Fahm or Kafr Qasem in Israel, but a sharp eye could tell that the Palestinians were different, people for whom going to the beach is a rare treat and getting there involved some difficulty. “We came to Kafr Biddu and we crossed the barrier at an opening – not at a checkpoint or anything, just an opening in the [separation] fence like many others,” said Inas, a mother of three who came to Jaffa. “On the Israeli side there was a bus waiting for us – I paid 30 shekels (nearly $9) and we went to Jaffa. There was nothing threatening. I was surprised when I saw the Jews [soldiers] looking at us without bothering us at all.
“They told us just to just bring a mask and food,” she said about the drivers waiting on the Israeli side. “We haven’t been to the beach in years, certainly not the little kids. My husband and I were able to go years ago, but the kids were waiting for this moment. The coronavirus has left all of us financially stressed and apparently the Israeli economy needs us now. In Ramallah none of the parks, pools or even the zoo are open. Do you know how much it costs for the hotel pool in Jericho? Who has money, so what could be better than the sea?”
The presence of Palestinian families at Israel’s beaches has been a topic of discussion on the West Bank, raising numerous questions. Was this a spontaneous act, or an act of protest by the population against the Palestinian Authority, which is trying to restrict movement and prevent gatherings as part of its battle against the coronavirus? On the other hand, why was Israel turning a blind eye and letting thousands of people cross through random breaches in the barrier without any supervision or inspection?
After Eid al-Adha, which straddled the previous weekend, a few Palestinians managed to get through the fence and reach Jaffa. This past weekend, the numbers grew considerably.
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The Israel Defense Forces declined to comment.
A Nablus-area resident who was involved in arranging buses to the Jaffa beach said he didn’t coordinate the trips with any Palestinian or Israeli entity. “People are simply fed up and wanted to go to the beach,” he said. “The Palestinian government is imposing closures and Israel is apparently interested in taking in thousands of Palestinians to prove to the PA that it doesn’t control anything. The fact is that thousands chose to defy everything and go, and there’s always someone who takes on the role of organizer or the agent that helps people get to their destination.”
Many people explained that the breaches in the barrier, near Far’un, Biddu and Shuweika, are an open secret; people just come and cross. Araf Sha’aban, a resident of Jenin who organized buses to the beaches at Jaffa and Herzliya, explained how it works.
“You advertise on social media and people register; then you bring a bus or minibus to an open point in the barrier, and people go there, cross and on the other side another bus is waiting that brings them to the beach and then returns them. The price is 150 shekels per person as part of a family,” explains Sha’aban, who didn’t express any concern about being detained by the army.
“What delays? In many cases they helped people cross or opened the gate,” he said. “The truth is, the soldiers also saw that these were families with flotation rings, beach balls and baskets of food, and not grenades.”
Other people told Haaretz that the behavior of the Israeli security forces was surprising. “We saw the army jeeps but we didn’t feel any threat; on the contrary, in the evening, when we came back and it was dark, they turned on the lights so we shouldn’t miss the opening in the fence.”
In Jaffa itself, many residents said there was no sense of threat. In fact, there were those who acknowledged the presence of the visitors and opened kiosks, including merchants from East Jerusalem.
One West Bank resident who came with an elderly woman and wouldn’t give his name, said, “I don’t know how Israel views this but as far as I’m concerned, these are the beaches of Palestine. So we are at the beach with or without permission. They turned a blind eye or didn’t enforce; who cares. The point is that we got here and it was fun.”
The PA did not come out against these visits but some saw it as Israel poking a finger in the PA’s eye. “They want to prove to us that with or without coordination, they are letting in civilians, even at the risk of a coronavirus outbreak, even though they knew in advance that the Palestinians wouldn’t mix with the Israelis,” a senior Palestinian official said. “What’s more, instead of Palestinians taking their leisure in the West Bank and spending their money there, they preferred having the money to spend in Israel and not the West Bank, even if we aren’t talking about large sums.”
The coronavirus restrictions are continuing in the West Bank as part of the state of emergency declared by the PA, but many are now saying that keeping major leisure sites closed serves no purpose if thousands of people are going into Israel and returning.
Near the Meitar checkpoint there is another breach in the fence that four people can go through at once. At the edge of the road that leads from the crossing to the South Hebron Hills, cars stop every few minutes and men and boys get out carrying packs and suitcases. One of them, 16, said he was breaching the barrier to seek work in Israel, since the coronavirus eliminated most workplaces in the Hebron area.
Another man said he had worked in Israel in the past, but when the PA halted coordination with Israel he was unable to renew it. He crossed with his younger children. “The soldiers just don’t care, after all, they could stop this is a minute,” said one of them.
On the other side of the barrier there are cars waiting, most of them driven by Israeli Arabs, to bring them the Palestinians to their destinations. Some of them even wait on the Palestinian side of the barrier, in full view of everyone. “A guy just wants to work; if there’s no money you find a way to work,” said one of them.
One young hipster, carrying only a small pack, said he had crossed the barrier to have a good time. “On the other side they bring us to Be’er Sheva and from there we’ll continue, maybe we’ll get to Jaffa,” he said, before crossing through the opening.
On the road, a Jewish woman from the area stopped her car to look at what was going on. “This is crazy,” she said. “Every day I see them coming out in droves and I’ve even reported it a few times and nobody cares.” An elderly Palestinian man who works in construction in Jaffa stopped alongside her and started to argue with her.
“Do you know how I live? Do you know I have a sick grandson and we don’t have money for his treatment?” he said angrily.
“But this is a border,” she replied.
“For me this is no border,” he said, and continued on his way.