Jordan and Egypt join Israel in imprisoning Gaza
Gaza has long been nicknamed the "world's largest prison" - usually in reference to tight Israeli restrictions on traffic in and out of the home for 1.8 million people. But lately, the Israeli government has been joined by officials in both Jordan and Egypt - thus increasing their isolation even further.
Since September, Jordan has systematically refused most applications made by Palestinians from Gaza to enter the country in order to fly to another location from Amman (since Palestinians are rarely permitted to travel from Israel's Ben Gurion airport).
And with Egypt keeping its border with Gaza closed most of the year, reports of Palestinians paying bribes of up to 6,000 USD or more to be among the "privileged few" who are allowed out, are surfacing.
"We regret to inform you that your application was not accepted." This message has been received by almost every Palestinian from Gaza who has applied for what is called a "non-objection" letter from Jordan since August of 2015. Such a letter is required before a Palestinian can cross into Jordan from the West Bank to fly out of Amman to other locations.
Prior to that time, the Israel-based Legal Center for Freedom of Movement (Gisha), reports that its clients received Jordanian transit permission relatively easily. There were almost no recorded cases of rejections, says spokesperson Shadi Butthish.
However, that has changed, and rather abruptly. Between August 2015 and the end of January, for instance, Gisha received requests for help from 58 people who were refused the no-objection letter, including 16 seeking family reunification, 37 students with university acceptance letters and visas to study in third countries, and five people accepted (with visas) to conferences and training programs abroad.
The Jordanian authorities either refused these requests with no explanation or did not respond at all, even after months of waiting.
"We have asked Jordan for the numbers - how many people are traveling now, how many are requesting to travel - but have yet to receive a response," says Sari Bashi, who is the Israel and Palestine country director for Human Rights Watch. "I want to emphasize that the people requesting the no-objection letters are requesting permission to transit, not to stay in Jordan. Most provide, as part of their application, a copy of a foreign visa or residence permit, and a copy of a plane ticket originating in Amman and taking them elsewhere."
|Desperate to get on the list of the "coveted few," some Gazans are giving in to demands for bribes|
The only Palestinians from the targeted groups who have eventually been able to enter Amman legally - in order to fly out - appear to be those with VIP connections. Alternatively, they participants in programs sponsored by third governments with influence over Jordan, and who are willing to intervene directly, such as the United States and France. For example, Gaza rapper Ayman Mghamis succeeded in exiting to Amman with the help of the French consulate, which put all of its efforts into obtaining the letter so he could perform in concerts organised by the French Institute of Gaza.
Why is Jordan suddenly shutting the door on these Palestinians? No one has been able to get a straight answer. Human Rights Watch staff say, "We hear informally that Jordan doesn't want to be asked to 'solve Gaza's problem' or be seen as an alternative to Egypt for crossing."
However, in an investigation led by a writer from We Are Not Numbers (a youth project I founded), many others in Gaza - who do not want to be named for fear of retribution - said they are convinced that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority has asked Jordanian officials to refuse entry to Gazans, and thus further pressure its arch rival, Hamas (which governs the Strip).
The Israeli publication Haaretz reported that the chairman of the Jordanian parliament's Palestine Committee had asked the kingdom's interior minister to provide an explanation, but to date, none has been made public.
|Why is Jordan suddenly shutting the door on these Palestinians? No one has been able to get a straight answer|
"I applied for a no-objection letter from Jordan three times this year and I was rejected every time," Nasha al-Ramlawi, who was awarded an archaeology scholarship to visit Italy for a month, told the We Are Not Numbers team. "The university I was to attend has a laboratory that can't be found here, with experienced supervisors." The Italian university contacted the Jordanian embassy, as well as the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, but all in vain. Ramlawi lost her scholarship.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt has long served as the primary exit point for Palestinians wanting to leave the Strip. However, since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized control of Egypt in a military coup in 2014, it has been closed more and more frequently - thus accommodating only eight percent of Gazans needing or desiring to travel.
In 2015, Egyptian authorities opened the Rafah crossing for only 21 days to limited traffic, according to Gaza's Interior Ministry. To date in 2016, it has opened for a few days each time in February, May and June.
|The change is a clear reversal of what had been a trend in the past six years of gradually easing restrictions|
Typically, fewer than 4,000 Gazans are allowed out each time Rafah is opened, although more than 30,000 are on the waiting list. Desperate to get on the list of the "coveted few," some Gazans are giving in to demands for bribes.
"I paid about 2,000 US dollars to a middle man who is in touch with Egyptian intelligence," says one Gazan who does not want his name used, since he needs to get back in to see his family. "I have a scholarship that I didn't want to lose; my future depends on it. I tried multiple times, and the Egyptians sent me back every time. I don't know why; my guess is that they want to make as many Palestinians as possible pay in order to pass."
Based on the research he conducted, he estimates that half of those Palestinians who finally travel through Rafah bribe the Egyptian side to pass. "Some people now believe Rafah does not open until Egyptian officials have guaranteed that enough people to fill at least 10 buses have paid bribes,” he says.
Meanwhile, Haaretz recently reported that on the initiative of the Israeli Shin Bet security services, restrictions have been tightened on Palestinians seeking to depart the Gaza Strip through the Erez crossing, as well as on imports.
Those most directly harmed by the change are Gazan merchants and importers, senior officials in charge of infrastructure and rehabilitation, doctors and academics who take in-service training courses and exams in the West Bank, the ill, those with families abroad and in the West Bank and workers for international humanitarian groups and diplomatic missions.
The change is a clear reversal of what had been a trend in the past six years of gradually easing restrictions on the Palestinian business sector.
This is Gaza: locked in by all parties that control the land borders, and no access to its own sea and airspace. What better example of a prison?
Pam Bailey is a writer based in Washington who travels extensively in the Middle East. She is the founder and director of We Are Not Numbers, a project of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor that promotes young refugee writers.
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.