Tens of Gazans crossed into Israel on Tuesday, July 25, travel permits in hand. As they prepared to board the weekly bus from the Erez Crossing to Amman, they were presented with an ultimatum: sign a form saying you won’t return home via Israel for at least year, or head back into Gaza.
With the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt closed for most of the year, the only way out for residents of the Strip is usually through Israel. Palestinians generally fly out of Amman to their desired destinations, since they are forbidden from flying out of Tel Aviv and there are no Palestinian airports.
The Israeli group Gisha, which deals with Palestinian freedom-of-movement issues, described the events of July 25 in a report published some two weeks later. Israel acknowledged the truth of the report, saying employees at the crossing were following official procedure.
In February 2016, Israel implemented a new policy allowing any Gazan, for the first time in 20 years, to go via Israel to Jordan in order to travel abroad. However, the new policy came with a stiff requirement: Gazans must commit to not return to Gaza via Israel for at least 12 months.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Defense Ministry body that administers the crossings from Gaza, in emails to The Times of Israel for the first time publicly explained its rationale for obligating Gazans traveling abroad via Israel to stay away for a year or more.
COGAT argued that it went above and beyond its obligation toward Gaza by allowing Gazans to travel via Israel, but that the security risk inherent in the new policy required limitations.
“Free movement between the Gaza Strip into Israel is not enabled, including to travel abroad,” because Hamas, which COGAT called a “murderous terror organization,” “takes advantage of the entry of the Gaza Strip’s residents into Israel to carry out terror acts.
“Despite this, and the fact the Gaza Strip’s residents do not have the given right to enter Israel,” COGAT added, “it was decided to enable their entrance to Israel in exceptional cases, including to travel abroad, under the condition that they will commit to not return to Gaza through Israel for a year at least.
“This condition was set due to the need to provide a solution for the security risks involved in the many and frequent entries to Israel,” COGAT concluded.
In a separate response, a COGAT spokesperson said only those who state on their applications that they intend to stay abroad for over 12 months are required to sign the commitment form.
However, this clause is not stated in the procedures published on COGAT’s website.
Despite the new policy, the past year has seen a massive reduction in the number of exit permits granted to Gazans by Israel.
Gisha said in a July report that Israel approved on average 6,302 permits per month in the first half of 2017, compared to 14,000 on average per month in the first half of 2016 — a 55% decrease.
Commenting on the incident of July 25 in a separate response, COGAT said 22 Gaza Strip residents arrived at the Erez Crossing in order to leave for a long-term stay abroad.
COGAT explained that in the case of Gazans who do not “sign the commitment within the first application, a ‘conditional approval’ is sent to the Palestinian Civil Committee, alongside a clarification that the permit will be approved finally after signing the commitment in the Erez Crossing.
“Informing the Gaza Strip residents about the procedure of signing the commitment is under the responsibility of the Civil Committee in the Palestinian Authority, as the coordination factor between the Israeli offices and the resident,” it said.
COGAT also noted that the requirement to not return through Israel for at least a year is stated clearly on its website.
However, the website does not say that those who did not sign the commitment form in their original application will be required to sign it after crossing over to the Israeli side of the border.
Tania Hary, executive director of Gisha, criticized COGAT’s policy in a statement to The Times of Israel.
“The fact that they made people sign after they had already received permits and were on the shuttle to go abroad indicates that the military authorities had already concluded that they met the criteria for travel from Gaza and did not pose a security threat,” she said.
“Wherever they are made to sign and at whatever stage, this is an unacceptable practice,” she added.
One man who contacted Gisha about the case said he had been visiting his sick mother in Gaza.
“How can he be expected to guarantee that he will not need to go back to Gaza within a year, if her condition worsens?” a Gisha spokesperson argued.
Prior to the new policy, the only Gazans allowed to leave through Israel were students traveling to higher education programs and special conferences, those who need medical treatment, or people traveling on humanitarian grounds (visiting an first-degree relative who is ailing or getting married).
“As a rule, any resident of the Gaza Strip who wishes to enter Israel and the West Bank for the sake of going abroad for various personal purposes, if he gives a written commitment not to return to the Gaza Strip via Israel and the West Bank for one year, his request will be approved, subject to an individual security clearance,” COGAT said in announcing its new policy in February 2016.
Since 1996, most Gazans have left the Strip via the Rafah crossing into Egypt. But starting in 2013, Egypt has kept the Rafah crossing mostly closed, opening it periodically for only a few days at a time.
On Monday Egypt allowed Gazans to exit through the Rafah crossing for the first time in five months.