Israel Out to Destroy Lifeline of Gaza Business Owners
‘You can’t suddenly cross out all merchants,’ says one factory owner from the enclave.
The Shin Bet security service replied to my query three days after the relevant article had been published and seven days after I had asked the service’s spokesperson about its decision to revoke the exit permits of around 1,400 Gazan merchants and prohibit 250 of them from importing goods into the Gaza Strip.
The response — this one a timely one — was attached to another one regarding the new procedure of questioning patients needing urgent care before they leave Gaza, in their ambulances.
This is their reply with respect to the merchants and the stricter regulations on travel: “The numbers clearly show that there has been an increasing number of Palestinians entering Israel from Gaza since 2014!!”
The exclamation marks appear in the original text, meaning that either the Palestinians are lying or I am. I can picture the writers of this response sitting there with a smile on their faces, pleased with themselves at the confidence they express in their forceful reply. It’s true: The number of people allowed to pass through the Erez checkpoint has grown in the last two years. That’s not so difficult given the draconian limitations, where five more exit permits can be noted as a dramatic rise in percentage. I’m not comparing present numbers to those of 2007. I’m comparing them to the number of Israelis traveling from city to city or going abroad. Imagine only one hundredth of all Israelis being allowed to leave their hometown or district and even fewer getting permission to leave the country. That’s the real comparison.
In any case, my main questions about travel restrictions on merchants and business people were not answered. Starting with isolated incidents which suddenly became sweeping, the Shin Bet canceled their permits and forbade the more prominent ones to continue importing goods that they’ve brought in for years — even for decades. Most of those allowed to cross through the Erez checkpoint have been merchants. In January, out of a total of 14,100 exits, 7,884 were by merchants (including several crossings by the same permit holder). In June, merchants accounted for 6,930 out of 12,493 exits. The drop is clear but there is no reason given. On one hand Israel invites Turkey to rehabilitate Gaza; on the other, it limits contractors and importers who are needed for the rehabilitation to proceed.
This is the situation, according to A., a key figure in the association of Gaza businessmen whose family has owned a factory there for decades: “These are the most prominent merchants in Gaza who aren’t getting permits. It’s as if Israel wants to change an entire country overnight.
“Once we fknew that they’d cancel one permit every month or two, not 160 a day. The last letter that the Israeli Coordination and Liaison office sent to the Palestinian one stated that 160 special permits for businessmen would not be renewed. Out of 350 senior business people with such permits only 160 still have them. Do you know what? We don’t want these permits, they didn’t give us any advantages. The families can’t get out. We can’t go through Ben-Gurion Airport. It’s all a game. We want regular permits, but let them provide these. Don’t let the Israeli liaison office send us to the Shin Bet, which then says it doesn’t want to. If there is someone with a problem, we can talk to the Shin Bet about him. That’s not a problem.
“Some people set up businesses in the West Bank or abroad (some of whom invested overseas due to the prohibition on exports from Gaza). They invested millions. They came to renew their permits and were denied. M., who set up a plant in Jericho for $16 million, is denied? You wipe his whole life out, someone whose whole business is elsewhere, who has invested in the West Bank, you tell him he’s not allowed to, just like that? It doesn’t work like that. Never. Would you all of a sudden tell the biggest meat importer to Israel that his permit is revoked? I myself haven’t had a permit for two months now.
“Two weeks ago we had a meeting at the Erez checkpoint with the liaison officers, with Poli (the nickname of major general Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories) and all those folks. How can you sit here with us if we’re all suspects? What are we, ISIS? You sit with us trying to solve problems and after that you say we’re denied? You sit with Poli, who says things will ease up and then you complicate things? Let them talk to people not with a Shin Bet mentality, which is restricting the entire country and causing economic hardships. People are going bankrupt.
“Israel is a big country with institutions and traditions. You can’t suddenly cross out all merchants. I sat with H. (from the Palestinian civilian affairs committee) two days ago. He said he’d brought it up with the head of the Palestinian ministry for civilian affairs, Hussein al-Sheikh. He brought the matter to Poli’s attention. Al-Sheikh told him it was unreasonable and a bad thing and asked him to find a solution.
“It doesn’t work that way. Let them sit and discuss and meet the big merchants. It’s not our business if Poli has problems with the Shin Bet.”