Palestinians from Gaza attempting to enter Israel claim that Israel's Shin Bet security service has recently begun demanding they hand over their cellphones when being questioned and that those who refuse are barred from entering.
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According to two female cancer patients from the Gaza Strip, who need medical treatment that is unavailable in Gaza, when they told Israeli officials they did not have cellphones, they were sent back and were later told their request to enter Israel has been denied.
The phenomenon is apparently part of the ongoing intelligence war between Israel and Hamas.
According to Physicians for Human Rights Israel, the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet often mine such patients’ phones for intelligence purposes, downloading contact information, intercepting text messages, emails and pictures, eavesdropping on conversations and monitoring data traffic. According to the organization, which helps Gazans obtain medical care in Israel, without a cellphone the women lose their intelligence value to Israel, and as a result they are often denied access to essential and lifesaving medical care.
Gazans explain that Palestinian patients seeking to cross into Israel at the Erez checkpoint must first undergo a security interview. Now they must first pass a Hamas checkpoint, known as “Point 44,” where Hamas security officers ask the patients to leave their cellphones so they cannot be examined by Israeli security authorities.
Rabab Zarnadah, 47, of Jabalya, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2014. She was first treated in Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, and in June she had a bone-marrow transplant at A-Najah National University Hospital in Nablus, the West Bank. A few months ago, when Zarnadeh was scheduled to return for an additional course of chemotherapy, Israeli authorities refused to let her and her husband into the country in order to reach the West Bank.
After applying several times since September for a transit permit, in January Zarnadah was instructed to report to Erez. Before reaching the crossing, she passed through the Hamas checkpoint, where her phone was confiscated by Hamas officials.
“I waited for seven hours at the [Erez] checkpoint and after that the Shin Bet agents asked for my cellphone and I explained that I had left it at Point 44,” Zarnadah recalled. “I was told to go home, and a few days later I got an official notice that I was being refused entry to Israel.” Zarnadah said her next medical appointment is on Sunday, February 26. She will probably miss it.
Hazar Algazar, 36, of Khan Yunis, had a similar story. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. For a number of years she was treated in Egypt and in the West Bank cities of Hebron and Nablus, obtaining a transit permit through Erez each time. For several months, however, her applications were refused, until she was recently instructed to report to Erez for security questioning. She, too, had to first leave her cellphone at the Hamas checkpoint, and when she was unable to present the device to the Shin Bet agents at Erez she was turned back. Algazar was forced to miss a treatment scheduled for February 21.
“This isn’t the first time Israel has abused patients from Gaza and exploited the fact that they are totally dependent on its goodwill,” said Abed Abou Shhadeh, the coordinator of PHRI’s freedom of movement project.
“What could be more cynical than treating a cancer patient as a tool for extracting intelligence and denying them lifesaving treatment because they don’t have a phone they can tap?” Abou Shhadeh said this was a blatant violation of fundamental human rights that must end, adding that patients’ health must be the primary consideration.
Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement has also received complaints about the issue. Officials from the organization said the practice of demanding an applicant’s cellphone as part of the security interview began around a month and a half ago. The center added that the patient is not told about this requirement before reaching Erez; the demand is made when the patient reaches the Israeli side of the crossing.
In a statement, the Shin Bet said that applicants for medical transfer permits were subjected to thorough searches and questioning, "in light of the security situation and due to the relentless efforts of terror groups in Gaza to undertake terror attacks inside Israel, including by taking advantage of humanitarian mediation. Accordingly, we have no intention of detailing the manner by which this process is conducted."