Israel has toughened its policy on allowing Gazans to enter the country, denying hundreds of exit permits to those determined to have a close family member with connections to terror group Hamas, a rights group said Wednesday.
“In the first quarter of 2018 alone, 833 exit permit applications by residents of Gaza were denied by Israel on the grounds that the applicants’ ‘first-degree relative is a Hamas operative,'” Gisha, an Israeli left-wing NGO that monitors the blockade of the Gaza Strip, said in a statement.
“For comparison, the Israeli authorities refused 21 applications on these grounds throughout 2017.”
Gisha along with three other NGOs based their findings on data obtained through a freedom of information request from the Defense Ministry.
The three other organizations are Adalah, Al Mezan and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, all accused by many in the Jewish state of being anti-Israel.
The Defense Ministry unit that oversees the permits, known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, told AFP that the 833 declined applications represented 529 people since some had applied more than once.
COGAT said “the entry of Palestinians who are residents of the Gaza Strip into Israel is not a vested right, and is made possible according to existing policy and subject to security checks.
“In accordance with the decision of the government, residents of the Gaza Strip who are first-degree relatives of operatives of the Hamas terror organization are not entitled to entry permits into Israel.”
Those declined permits have included people seeking medical care for cancer, Gisha has alleged.
COGAT declined to say how many were seeking permits for medical reasons.
“Denying patients’ access to medical treatment on the grounds that they have family relations to Hamas members is a breach of international law, and completely immoral,” the NGOs said in a statement.
Gisha claimed that “importantly, some of the cancer patients who have been denied exit permits are not aware of any family relation to a Hamas member.”
The NGOs said the change in policy appeared to be the result of a decision taken by Israel’s security cabinet authorizing action to pressure Hamas to return the remains of two IDF soldiers killed during a war in 2014, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, which it is believed to be holding.
Two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — both said by their families to be mentally unstable — entered Gaza of their own accord and are also believed to be held by the Palestinian terror group.
Gisha spokeswoman Shai Grunberg said 2017 marked the “worst year” for Israel’s granting of entry and exit permits for Gaza since Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
Israel — along with Egypt — has imposed a blockade on Gaza since Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized the territory from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. It says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip.
Critics point to worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza and say the blockade amounts to collective punishment of the two million Palestinians living there. There have been many reports that the coastal strip is “on the verge of collapsing,” and could plunge into a new round of fighting with Israel if conditions do not improve.
It also lacks infrastructure and key medical equipment, with many patients seeking to travel elsewhere for treatment.
Egypt, too, has kept its Gaza border crossing largely closed during several years of sour relations with the Islamist terror group ruling Gaza.
Hamas has fought three wars with Israel since 2008.