Rise in crossings of Palestinians from Gaza to Israel. What does it mean?

People waiting on the Palestinian side of Erez Crossing, July 2019. Photo by Asmaa Elkhaldi.

People waiting on the Palestinian side of Erez Crossing, July 2019. Photo by Asmaa Elkhaldi.

August 22, 2019. Over the past few months, the number of crossings of Palestinians from Gaza into Israel via Erez Crossing has increased. Does this signal that the closure is being lifted as part of talks between Israel and Hamas? Not necessarily.

In July, almost 19,000 exits of Palestinians were recorded at Erez Crossing, compared to about 15,000 in June and some 12,000 in May. The considerable increase, especially compared with the monthly average for 2018 of about 8,600 exits, can be chalked up to the rise in exits of “traders.” Traders or merchants are individuals who have been issued a trader permit by Israel.

Since January 2019, a little over 1,000 additional trader permits were granted, the total going from 2,275 valid permits to 3,337 as of August 1. Gisha learned this week that Israel instructed the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee in Gaza, which liaises between Gaza residents and Israeli military authorities, to stop accepting and forwarding new applications for trader permits until further notice, apparently due to a backlog on processing requests.

As recently reported in the media, it appears that a growing number of the trader permits held by Gaza residents are being used by day laborers, despite the fact that Israel has officially banned the entry of laborers from Gaza to Israel since March 2006. An individual with a trader permit, which can be valid for between one and six months at a time, can transit into and out of Gaza several times per week, thus accounting for the steep rise, relatively speaking, of crossings.

The number of exits (distinct from the number of people exiting) is, in fact, the highest since the closure was tightened in June 2007. While it is higher than the monthly average of previous years, and even 2015, the last record-breaking period when the average was 14,000 exits of Palestinians monthly, the comparison is not necessarily relevant. The increases of recent months, while welcome, are just a fraction of the rate of movement to and from Gaza before Israel began applying sweeping restrictions on Palestinian movement. For example in early 2000, there were at least 500,000 exits of Palestinians every month given about 26,000 laborers held permits to cross.

It’s clear that the increase in trader permits is meeting some part of a profound need for jobs in the Strip, but unfortunately it’s just a fraction. Unemployment rates remain staggeringly high, despite the rise in permits and despite cash-for-work programs recently introduced. Several hundred, perhaps thousands, of jobs for day laborers, important as they may be for individuals and their families, are making little impact on the dire state of Gaza’s economy.

Given the reporting in Israeli media on the increases in crossings, it seems that Israeli officials are interested in publicizing efforts to reach an agreement with Hamas. The way the story is being told allows Israel to present itself as doing everything in its power to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza without having to take responsibility for or even acknowledge the fact that bringing Gaza to this point of crisis has been and continues to be a political goal it is pursuing, largely through years of movement restrictions.

Allowing laborers to enter Israel for work is a positive thing, provided it comes above-board and there are protections in place for those workers. This is, however, just one of many, many things that need to be done to both alleviate the crisis in Gaza and importantly, for Israel to meet its obligations to the civilian population.