Sacrificing the Holiday at the Erez Checkpoint

Israeli residents and citizens who, following prior planning and coordination with authorities, traveled to the Erez checkpoint Sunday morning with the hope of celebrating Id al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) with family members living in Gaza were informed that there would be "no entry."

Political consultations after Thursday's terror attack in Jerusalem produced headlines declaring that alleviations in the territories were not being canceled. However, Israeli residents and citizens who, following prior planning and coordination with authorities, traveled to the Erez checkpoint Sunday morning with the hope of celebrating Id al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) with family members in living in Gaza were informed that there would be "no entry."

So dozens of families from East Jerusalem, the Negev and the Galilee spent the first couple of days of the holiday waiting (and sleeping) in cars or in the Erez checkpoint parking lot. The group, including some 60 children, braved the cold and rain. On Monday afternoon most of them gave up and returned to their homes.

Responding in the High Court to a petition submitted by the HaMoked Center for the Defense of the Individual on Monday, the State Prosecutor announced yesterday that immediate family members (parents, siblings, children) who are residents and citizens of Israel can cross into the Gaza Strip. But yesterday afternoon, the State Prosecutor announcement had yet to reach either soldiers at the Erez checkpoint or the few hardy stalwarts who remained at Erez and knocked at the door despite being told repeatedly that there is "no entry."

This is yet another unreported detail of the Palestinian routine - or, phrased more accurately, of the routine of Israeli control of Palestinians. The norm is that Palestinians are not entitled to be united with their relatives, particularly those who reside on the Gaza Strip. Even before the current intifada, rare visits to the Gaza Strip were arduous journeys in a bureaucratic maze. This fact of life has held true with or without terror attacks (simple visits to friends aren't even dreamed of). During the past three years, the rule has been that Palestinians are allowed to visit relatives in extreme "humanitarian" cases: when a parent is on his or her deathbed, or when the parent has died. Entry is rarely permitted in order to attend weddings. When Hamoked Center activists have tried to understand the rationale behind preventing regular visits, they have been told frequently that there is concern that the Israeli residents/citizens might be kidnapped.

The office of the defense minister's media adviser, Eli Tamir, informed Haaretz that the decision to forbid entry for family visits during the Feast of the Sacrifice "was made in response to a number of security warnings and threats, including the threat of kidnapping, and it is reconsidered anew each day."

During the last Id al-Fitr (end of Ramadan) holiday, the "alleviations" framework was resumed, for the first time since 2001, and some 5,000 Israeli residents and citizens were allowed to visit their relatives on the Gaza Strip. A small group of West Bank residents were allowed to visit their relatives on the Strip, after prolonged waiting and bureaucratic and military torment, for a day or two. Visitors' belongings were inspected carefully upon entry to, and exit from, the Gaza Strip. About a week or two before the Feast of the Sacrifice, the Hamoked Center received a promise from the Defense Ministry saying that Israeli citizens and residents who are "immediate" family relations would be able to cross into Gaza during the holiday (this permission did not extend to spouses). Entry was coordinated a week or two before the holiday with IDF representatives.

In one of many examples, Umm Salah, a 60-year-old from East Jerusalem, had not seen her married daughter, who lives on the Gaza Strip, for five years. Last week, her visit to the Gaza Strip was authorized; she was to visit with a son and daughter. On Sunday morning, the three, along with dozens of others, were held up on the Israeli side of the Erez checkpoint. Had the fact that the "alleviations" were being canceled been announced on the news, they would have been wiser and not wasted time and undergone anxieties. As it turned out, they withstood the rain and cold at the Erez checkpoint until late Monday afternoon; finally, they returned to Jerusalem.

IDF delegates told Haaretz that an announcement on the cancellation of alleviation measures on Monday was relayed to the Palestinian liaison office - that is to say, the Palestinian Authority was responsible for spreading the news. But the people who waited at Erez were Israeli residents and citizens. Procedurally, their matters are supposed to be handled by Israeli authorities. If the Israeli officials were so worried that Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Israeli citizens might be kidnapped by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, they could have used Arab-language state media to inform the would-be Gaza visitors that the entry decision had been overturned.

The absurd part of the story is that "alleviations" in most parts of the West Bank were not overturned. Palestinians aged 16-45 are forbidden from traveling abroad (via the Allenby Bridge), but some roadblocks which were dismantled in the past few weeks were not restored, and in some Palestinian communities (particularly between Ramallah and Qalqilyah) virtually unimpeded movement has been allowed. That is, members of many families can, in fact, enjoy the holiday together. This being the case, "why are they singling out for punishment Israelis and Gaza residents, who have no geographic relation to the terror attack," asked an Umm al-Fahm resident who also waited despondently for two days.

In his answer to Haaretz, Tamir did not relate to the claim that collective punishment has been in effect. Security officials are banking on the view that a majority of Israeli Jews will understand and condone the infringement of Palestinians' basic human rights, and will overlook the arbitrary nature and illogic of these policies. With this being the case, security officials do not feel obliged to prove to anyone that Salah was a genuine target of a kidnapping plot planned on Sunday or Monday, while on Tuesday, in a rare, fortuitous coincidence timed with the state's response to the Hamoked Center's High Court petition, intelligence officials announced that warnings about possible kidnappings were no longer in effect.