Hamas prevented 37 Palestinian war orphans living in the Gaza Strip from entering Israel for a one-week visit on Sunday, claiming the trip would harm the children’s education and constitute “normalization” with the Jewish state.
The educational and recreational visit, organized by Yoel Marshak of the Kibbutz Movement in collaboration with the Arab Israeli towns of Kfar Kassem and Rahat, was meant to bring the teenage children of Hamas operatives killed during Operation Protective Edge to the Ramat Gan Safari and to Israeli towns along the Gaza border. But when their bus reached a Hamas checkpoint on the Palestinian side of the Erez border crossing, it was turned back.
“Security forces prevented 37 children of martyrs from entering the land occupied in 1948 for a suspicious visit to a number of settlements and occupied cities,” wrote Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman Iyad Al-Bozom on Facebook Sunday. “This move came in order to safeguard our children’s education and protect them from the policy of normalization.”
A spokeswoman for the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told the Times of Israel that the IDF was not surprised by Hamas’s refusal to allow the children, aged 12-15, to pass.
“This isn’t the first time that Hamas has prevented people from entering Israel. We saw this happen during Operation Protective Edge with the field hospital set up on the border,” she said.
‘These children are not to blame for the war,’ said Yoel Marshak of the Kibbutz movement
But Marshak, a member of Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha, said he was optimistic that Hamas would eventually change its mind and let the children in, as it did five years ago in a similar initiative following Operation Cast Lead.
“We tried to bring in 11 orphans for four days,” Marshak recalled in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel on Sunday. “We waited at the border for two days while Hamas didn’t agree, and then on the third day it did agree.”
Marshak said that Sunday’s intervention was the result of disagreements within Hamas leadership. “Yesterday they said yes, but this morning someone who said no was more successful,” he posited. Pressure was now being exerted on Hamas by Arab community leaders in Israel, including MK Ahmad Tibi (Ra’am-Ta’al), to allow the children to enter, he said.
“We initiated this to plant seeds of peace,” Marshak said of his initiative. “In a few years, when these children become the leaders of the Gaza Strip, they will remember this positive experience well and know that they can live in peace, nation next to nation. We don’t have to fight and kill, we can also hug and extend our hand in friendship. It’s the children who will bring about change in the future, not us adults.”
The kibbutz movement purposely did not involve any Israeli political parties in the initiative, he said.
“To turn this into a political act ahead of the Israeli elections [in March] is to exploit the pain of these orphans,” he said. “They’re not to blame for the war, or for the fact that an election campaign is underway and there are those [in Israel] who want to take advantage of it for self-aggrandizement.”
“The kibbutz movement stepped in where there was no one else,” Marshak concluded. “No one paid attention to them. We’re not going to build factories or towers with them, merely invest in their education.”