TEL AVIV — Amer al-Jallad sat on a discarded hotel towel at Tel Aviv’s Sheraton beach, gazing into the vast blue sea.

A 27-year-old day laborer from the West Bank city of Tulkarem, Jallad was one of nearly 180,000 Palestinians who received special permits to enter Israel throughout the month of Ramadan this year. Though his town is located just 16 kilometers (10 miles) east of Netanya, Jallad had never previously entered Israel, and had never seen the Mediterranean.

“It’s magnificent, indescribable. The moment I entered Israel I was surprised; I felt like I was in Europe. There’s a total difference between the West Bank and Israel,” he said.

According to Israel’s office for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which issues the entry permits, some 800,000 Palestinians crossed into Israel from the West Bank last Ramadan “for family visits, prayers, and pilgrimage to holy Muslim sites.” The number this year is expected to surpass 1 million.

“Given the successful entry of many Palestinians last year, and in light of the positive reactions to this policy, Israel decided to adopt an even more lenient policy this year, thanks to the stable security situation in Judea and Samaria,” a COGAT spokesman told The Times of Israel in an email message.

The change in Israeli policy includes exempting all Palestinians over the age of 60 from entry permits to Israel and allowing all men over 40 to attend Friday prayers in Jerusalem with no need for a permit. Extended family members of Israelis are also allowed to enter, as well as children under the age of 12 accompanied by their parents.

‘The moment I entered Israel I was surprised; I felt like I was in Europe. There’s a total difference between the West Bank and Israel’

COGAT has issued 6,000 daily prayer permits this year; 23,500 permits for Friday prayers; and some 150,000 family visitation permits.

“We believe this will contribute to the Palestinian economy and well-being, and make for a successful holiday,” COGAT’s spokesman wrote.

But Jallad decided to use his permit Wednesday not to visit family or pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque, but rather to watch people swim. 

“We have no beach in Palestine,” he said (evidently referring to the land-locked West Bank). “Here everything is beautiful, while we have nothing.”

“Nothing,” he then admitted, was a bit of an exaggeration. Tulkarem boasts an amusement park called Mega Land, which draws Palestinian families from across the West Bank. Last year, the park’s owner appealed to the since-resigned Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad to limit the number of permits given to Palestinians to enter Israel, since it was costing him business. The businessman’s request was disregarded.

“Mega Land has been around for eight or nine years and we go there every year,” Jallad said. “They rip people off with a swing. We want something new in life.”

Obtaining a permit required Jallad to attach a photocopy of an Israeli relative’s ID to his own and get his fingerprints digitally scanned at COGAT. At the Tulkarem crossing terminal, he had to present his permit to an Israeli soldier and place his plastic bag on a conveyor belt to ascertain whether or not he was carrying any weapons.

Last year, Jallad tried twice to attain an entry permit to Israel, but was unsuccessful. He said that, this year, many of his friends were also rejected for no apparent reason, although he read online that 8,000 Tulkarem residents got the permit.

Not far from Jallad’s spot, Hassan and his 8-year-son Tamer frolicked in the warm, shallow water. It was also Tamer’s first time at the beach, and he could not swim.

“We adults barely know how to swim,” said Hassan, a government clerk from Ramallah, explaining that few of Ramallah’s residents could afford to enter their city’s swimming pools.

‘It is our right to be here just as much as it’s the Jews’ right’

Standing under a small, green lighthouse at the end of a long, stony breakwater, three young men from Hebron were taking photos on their mobile phones of the yachts docked in the Tel Aviv Marina. They had come to Tel Aviv once before as part of a group, and decided to return on their own. For them, the newfound freedom was mixed with a deep sense of humiliation.

“It is our right to be here just as much as it’s the Jews’ right,” said Atef, 17, who makes his living cutting potatoes into french fries for West Bank restaurants. “Our permit says ‘Israel’ on it. This isn’t Israel, it’s our land. Why should you enjoy yourselves while we can’t?”

Visiting Tel Aviv on a hot summer’s day, toward the end of the long Ramadan fast, was quite the culture shock for the three. Hebron is, arguably, the most traditional city in the West Bank.

“If a woman walked around like that in our city, her family would slaughter her with a knife,” remarked Rami, 19, who sells shoes in his family’s shop, pointing at a bikinied woman in the distance.

“No, you’d have 5,000 people running after her,” retorted Amjad, a 24-year-old construction worker.

Back at the Sheraton beach, Jallad of Tulkarem said that, although his permit required him to return home before 10 p.m. and forbade him to work in Israel, he would like to spend another day or two in Tel Aviv trying to earn some money for the upcoming holiday. As a laborer in Tulkarem, he makes NIS 60 a day ($17), of which he gives NIS 50 ($14) to his family. A friend working as a construction worker in Tel Aviv told him that salaries in “the city that never sleeps” could reach NIS 400 ($113) a day.

But, unmarried and without children, Jallad is ineligible for a work permit.

“I’ll go ask around at the construction sites,” he said. “I’d like to buy my family some clothes, fruit and candy.”