Palestinians Accuse Shin Bet of Harassment at Rafah Border

Palestinian officials have told men between the ages of 16 and 35 not to go to Rafah border crossing because of "Shin Bet harassment." Men in that age bracket are prevented from crossing to Egypt and this holds up all passenger traffic at the crossing.

Furthermore, say Palestinians, the Shin Bet is offering a "you help us and we'll help you" deal to some, but in general they are simply not allowing young men to cross. They say an estimated 1,500 people in that age bracket have been stuck in Gaza since mid-August. Many are students overseas, now missing the start of their school year.

The IDF and Airports Authority, which manages the Israeli side of the border crossing, say that since July, there have been no official age restrictions and 16-35 year olds are allowed to go to the border without prior coordination. But military sources admit that de facto there is a delay because the security services question some people.

The army sources are quick to point out they are not responsible for the delays. Haaretz was told by the Shin Bet that "from August 2004, the Shin Bet has not been preventing young people from leaving Gaza through Rafah crossing" that more than 300 have left since the restrictions were lifted in September.

Palestinians say the orders to lift the age restrictions, which had long been in effect, came from the Government Coordinator in the Territories, and the Shin Bet "didn't like it" so "they are deliberately preventing young people from crossing for no good reason." Rafah crossing provides the only access for 1.4 million Gazans to the rest of the world.

After the army closed Rafah in the middle of July, reopening it on August 8, there was an enormous build up of people who wanted to get through but couldn't get home. The IDF said it would double the number of people allowed through from 250 to 500, and lifted the restriction on the age bracket.

This week, that has meant delays for people seriously wounded in the IDF operations in northern Gaza as well as others needing other medical attention in Egypt. Hours of delays lead to all the other passengers in the same bus or service taxi being held back, and those behind them.

The pressure at the border led to racketeering, including bribery and special treatment for those with connections. That led to protest demonstrations - including by armed groups, who prevented PA officials from leaving. Palestinians call this a Shin Bet way to set Palestinians against one another.

Lately, the men have been signing up daily in the hope they will finally be let through, but by doing so they are denying others a chance to get out. The pressure is building up and so have Palestinian concerns that some of the young men will succumb to pressure to cooperate with the authorities. Hence the PA decided to order the young men to stop trying to leave.

Though his doctoral studies in physics make him somewhat unusual, Hussam al Akra's story is not atypical of someone like him, a 34-year-old from Jablya. He is studying in France and spent his vacation at home in Gaza, but was due back in France to defend his thesis on September 24. Three times he was turned back at the border because of long lines. On the fourth time, on September 10, he arrived at 7 A.M., and finally reached passport control at 4 P.M. The older people with him, including his father, were allowed through. Two hours later, he and another 20 young men waiting with him were told they could not cross. He was never questioned. After he petitioned the High Court, he returned to the border with a letter from the State Attorney's saying that "the security services have told us that the prevention against the petitioner leaving the country has been lifted."

Only three of 13 waiting 16-35 years olds were allowed through that day. Al Akra was not one of them. The Shin Bet told Haaretz the Akra case was the result of "a bureaucratic mistake that was corrected a few days ago." Meanwhile, he is still in Gaza.