In recent months, Gisha’s legal department has been working on the cases of eight women from the Gaza Strip who had requested to visit their sick relatives in the West Bank. Getting a travel permit involves a long and arduous process. Some of the women have been waiting for a permit for months; some have not seen their relatives for a decade. They finally received a permit and were supposed to exit Gaza on Wednesday, but they didn’t, and they didn’t travel on Thursday either. Today the crossing was also closed to passage of most kinds. Israel has decided to limit travel to “humanitarian cases” through Erez Crossing in response to the shooting of a grad rocket at Ashkelon on Tuesday. Family visits just aren’t important enough.
On Tuesday, there were some sporadic media reports about the decision to limit movement through the crossings. Wednesday and Thursday there was nothing, though the crossings remained closed. Perhaps this is because many Israelis consider this a proportionate response, a signal to the Hamas regime and nothing more. But it’s important to explain why this measure is cause for concern.
Hundreds of people travel through Erez each day. About 150 of them are not able to travel each day that passes following the rocket fire over at Ashkelon. Five working days later, the number would be more than 600. Some of them are merchants, some were hoping to attend a professional conference in the West Bank and some were just hoping to see their relatives. Most of them got their permits after months of filling out forms and making phone calls. They will now have to wait again.
But the travel restrictions at Erez and Kerem Shalom are of additional significance, a matter of principle. To the best of our knowledge, Israel has not officially closed the crossings in direct response to the firing of rockets that was not aimed at the crossings themselves since 2008. So, for example, during Operation Pillar of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs flaunted the fact that Israel continued to allow goods and people to enter and leave the Gaza Strip despite the firing. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) has also said on a number of occasions (Hebrew) that Israel “is committed to distinguishing between the population and terrorist elements”. In the past four years we have heard an increasing number of government officials declaring the end of the “civilian closure” on Gaza and talking about how the closure undermined Israeli interests.
So yes, there are still sweeping access restrictions that are not necessitated by security concerns and that the Israeli government must remove, but those who have been following the situation closely have seen how more and more of these restrictions have been lifted over the past two-and-a-half years. This sparked hope that the government was very slowly “getting with the program” and instead of allowing the minimum level of movement necessary, the policy was slowly shifting toward the maximum level of movement possible. The decision to close Kerem Shalom and once again limit travel into and out of Gaza represents a very, very troubling step backwards.