Last week, we at Gisha breathed a collective sigh of relief when we finally received the phone call notifying us that all 47 children whose cases we handled would be receiving permits to travel from the Gaza Strip along with their five adult chaperones, music teachers and an administrator, to music summer camp in the West Bank.
If you didn’t know what went on behind the scenes of this story, you probably wouldn’t be that impressed. So a bunch of kids got permits to exit Gaza. But in Gaza, exit permits don’t come easy, even if you’re just a kid who wants to learn to play a musical instrument.
More than a month ago, we contacted the Israeli army on behalf of 47 children and 11 music teachers from the Gaza Strip and asked that they be allowed to leave Gaza for a music summer camp in the West Bank. We knew that the request didn’t match the criteria for travel, but we dared to hope that it would nonetheless be approved. After all, the children range in age from 8-16, there were no security allegations against their adult chaperones, and what’s more, last year, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), allowed 30 children to go to the very same camp. So we were hopeful…
It was only on a Sunday evening, one day before the kids were set to leave, that we got an answer. The request was approved, but only for 30 kids and three chaperones. Meaning, the music teachers would have to look the kids in the eye and decide which of them would not be able to go, this after they’d all been preparing and practicing for the camp all year.
The number 30, by the way, was entirely arbitrary. The children were supposed to leave in two groups – 36 kids in one and 11 in the other. COGAT notified us that they would allow only 15 kids from each group to exit. In other words, it wouldn’t actually be 30 kids getting a permit but rather 15 from one group and 11 from the other, making 26.
We decided not to give up. We contacted COGAT again to have the request reconsidered. We also contacted a journalist to have the story publicized. Half an hour after we contacted the media, and maybe because of it, a COGAT representative called us and said they’d retracted the approval: none of the students would be permitted to go to music camp this year. Suddenly, their request “did not meet the criteria”.
A month’s work was falling apart in front of our very eyes. Just to clarify, submitting a request to the Gaza DCO took a week and a half of work: getting signatures and permission from each of the students’ parents; obtaining the invitation to the camp from Birzeit University, a letter from the organization that was funding the camp and a confirmation from the director. What’s worse – how to notify the kids, who were already packing their bags for camp, that for no reason at all, they wouldn’t be allowed to travel? What do you tell them?
After COGAT received another phone call from the journalist we had spoken to, and after MK Zahava Gal-On wrote a letter to Adv. Ruth Bar, an aid to the defense minister, we were told that the decision had again been reversed, and all 47 children, along with five accompanying adults could go to the camp.
A kind of a happy ending, but not all is good and well. The retraction of permits which have already been approved, albeit a rare occurrence, is just an extreme version of the reality that residents of Gaza face every day – a reality in which, for kids to go to summer camp, they need an army-issued permit which can just as easily be taken away as it’s given, at the stroke of a pen and on an arbitrary whim.
We long for the day when the work of human rights group won’t be necessary in order for 47 kids to go to music camp. We think it’s not too much to ask.