Erez crossing used to extort ordinary Gazans

Erez crossing used to extort ordinary Gazans
Comment: Travelling between Gaza and Israel means running the gauntlet of the Erez checkpoint, where many Palestinians are arrested for seemingly arbitrary reasons, writes Belal Dabour.
5 min read
19 Apr, 2016
Palestinians are extorted at the Erez crossing, writes Belal Dabour [Getty]

Last week, the 37-year-old Palestinian athlete and karate trainer Hassan al-Raa'i was returning to the Gaza Strip through Erez when, instead of letting him into the biggest open-air prison in the world, Israeli soldiers escorted him to an Israeli prison - for reasons that remain unknown.

Raa'i trained the Palestinian national karate team. He also worked at a local sports club, where he trained a team of visually impaired children in a programme aimed at establishing a Palestinian karate team that includes children with special needs.

The project was sponsored by UNRWA, which carefully chooses who it partners with, and the story was featured at the agency's website.

Raa'i was on his way back from the United Arab Emirates, where the team he coached participated in an international Karate Championship for Persons with Disabilities. Still, his fandom and his work with international institutions did not serve him any protection against Israel's Shin Bet, whose officers scan every application to pass through Erez, often laying traps for unwary travellers.

A similar thing happened with Majd Oweida, the 23-year-old electric engineer and talent scout who was taken at Erez while attempting to travel to Ramallah.

Oweida, who became widely known in Gaza after his success at getting a band of young Palestinian singers and musicians to perform at Arabs Got Talent, was also given an Israeli permit to pass through Erez. However, his permit turned out to be just another trap laid to snag another Palestinian entrepreneur.

With the story repeating itself frequently over the years, arrests at Erez have become a pattern

Although anyone who is truly involved in such heavy-sounding activities is unlikely to walk straight into the enemy's hands, Oweida was charged with allegedly leading a group of hackers and orchestrating cyber-attacks against several Israeli targets - charges over which Oweida now faces an Israeli military court.

Targets for Israeli arrests are diverse. They include traders, students, medical patients and their companions.

Often, no reasons are given to the public for the arrests. But when Israel does offers reasons, they are usually security-related.

Traders have been arrested and sentenced to months or even years in prison for selling internet cables, lumber, cement, or similar materials that the Israeli army deems "items of dual-use", ie: items that could possibly have a military application.

Young students, as well as patients in their fourth or fifth decades, have been interrogated or arrested merely on suspicion of past affiliations with Palestinian factions.

The Rafah crossing into Egypt has been ruled out for most
[click to enlarge]

With the story repeating itself frequently over the years, arrests at Erez have become a pattern.

In 2015, 44 Palestinians were arrested crossing through Erez, including four patients and 30 traders, while eight others were arrested during the first three months of 2016, including two patients and one companion.

Most of those who have been arrested were initially granted permits to cross, but instead were denied entry, interrogated, arrested or, at times, blackmailed to collaborate with Israeli intelligence agents.

As it stands, there is no way for a Palestinian attempting to travel through Erez to know what awaits him once he has surrendered his luggage and entered the half-kilometre corridor leading to Israel.

Arbitrary arrests are but one mean of exercising humiliating control over Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The process of obtaining security clearance, even for those who are supposedly "clean", is a bureaucratic hassle that extends over weeks or even months.

More often than not, applicants are summoned to interview by Israeli intelligence officers at the crossing. Several Palestinians have been arrested during such interviews.

When permits are issued, travellers are notified via the Palestinian Authority's liaison office only on the day of travel, and are given just a two-hour window to show up at the terminal. Failing to show up means losing a rare opportunity that may not repeat itself for a long time.

One can only imagine the patients' suffering as a result of such complex process, having to show up for interviews, wait for weeks, then travel at an hour's notice.

The way Palestinians are extorted at Erez undermines Israeli claims that Gaza is 'unoccupied'

Months ago, Israel decided to limit the age of persons accompanying Gaza patients for treatment in Israel or the Occupied West Bank to 55 and over, an age at which companions may themselves need help.

But as they find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, Palestinians have no other options but to travel through Erez, especially with Rafah crossing in a state of near-permanent closure. Meanwhile, Israel carries on with coercion and collective punishment.

The way Palestinians are extorted at Erez undermines Israeli claims that Gaza is "unoccupied". Ever since its redeployment around Gaza in 2005, Israel used this particular claim as "moral" grounds for its siege and recurrent attacks on Gaza.

According to this logic, Israel has left, but Palestinians clung on, virtually because they are naturally violent.

It also used it as "legal" grounds to ditch its responsibilities towards the Gaza population.

However, that manoeuvre failed, although the failure never materialised for the blockaded population, and the harsh reality stands as a daily reminder of the falsehood of Israel's claim.

The reality is, since its occupation of Gaza in 1967, Israel has kept a tight noose around the necks of Palestinians in Gaza. After the Israeli redeployment, the noose only got tighter.

Belal Dabour is a Palestinian doctor in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter: @Belalmd12

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.