Early Thursday morning, the only border crossing through which residents of the Gaza Strip can enter Israel opened. The pace was slow, with only a few dozen people going through per hour. But it was the first time in years that Gazans have gone through the Erez Crossing without meeting a single member of Hamas’ security services.
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In accordance with the Palestinian reconciliation deal, Hamas transferred control of Gaza’s border crossings to the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday. On Thursday, the PA assumed responsibility for what is known as Checkpoint 44, which is located about a kilometer from the Erez Crossing and had previously been run by Hamas. The PA doubted that it would actually happen. But, so far, the handover has gone exactly as planned.
Gazans who entered Israel on Thursday said they were pleased with the change, because unlike in the past, they weren’t interrogated before even entering the crossing.
Cars began arriving in the parking lot on the Israeli side of the Erez Crossing at 7 A.M. No Israeli buses serve the crossing and few taxis ever go there, so the Gazans are transported by Israelis who own cars and are seeking to earn some extra money. Most of the drivers were from the Negev Bedouin town of Rahat, and all were Muslims, aside from one skullcap-wearing Jew from Ashkelon who said he was unemployed.
“I charge 20 shekels [$5.70] per passenger, fill the car and go,” he said. “They generally ask to go to Ashkelon, then continue from there by bus.”
Because Gazans are forbidden to work in Israel as employees, most of those who had entered at 9 A.M. were listed as “merchants.” But several of the drivers – who, like everyone interviewed in this article, asked to remain anonymous – said that most of the Gazans do manual labor in Israel, working on construction sites, as repairmen or painters.
“In Gaza, he’d earn a few dozen shekels per day,” one explained. “Here [in Israel] he earns 200 to 300 shekels. So he does this every few days.”
There used to be some buildings near the checkpoint where Hamas would interrogate Gazans before they left and after they returned. Sometimes, Hamas would also confiscate their cell phones. But those buildings are now gone.
“They would ask whether anyone from the Mossad or Shin Bet had approached me in Israel,” said a Gazan merchant in his twenties, referring to two Israeli intelligence agencies.
He showed me a permit from Hamas authorizing him to pass the checkpoint. Since the PA is now in charge there, he didn’t have to show it to pass through on Thursday. But he’s keeping it in case Hamas takes over the checkpoint again someday.
A Gazan in his fifties said he was happy about the change. “Everything’s better now,” he said. “Once they would check you when you left and when you returned. Today nobody spoke to me or stopped me. I arrived at the Erez Crossing, showed my documents and my permit to pass, and I was through.”
A textile merchant from the Gazan town of Beit Hanun, also in his fifties, described how he used to be hassled by Hamas’ security personnel. “When I’d bring in shirts that cost me 10 shekels, at the crossing they would claim a shirt like that costs more and calculate the tax they collected from me as if I bought the shirt for 15 shekels. They all wanted money,” he said.
An American who works for an aid agency active in Gaza said this was the third time he had entered Israel from Gaza, and it was much easier this time. “The last two times, they’d check my passport number in the computer and only then let me pass. Today, I just had to show my passport and they let me pass.”
A Gazan professor of English literature was en route to Glasgow, where he planned to spend two weeks lecturing at a local university. He will have to travel via Amman, since he didn’t get a permit to fly through Ben-Gurion Airport. He’s hoping to get on a flight tomorrow, although he hasn’t yet bought a ticket.
Going through the crossing on Thursday was “completely different” than it had been in the past, he said.
“Today was easier,” he explained. “We didn’t have to go through all the hassle. We actually had to wait a little on the Israeli side, where they checked all our permits, but we understand that.”
On the Gazan side, in contrast, “nobody asked you where you were going and why. Nobody interrogated you. I hope things will continue this way.”