By Kaamil Ahmed
Palestinians have had markedly more trouble leaving the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip in recent months, aid workers and activists have told Anadolu Agency.
The number of permits granted to Gazans to leave -- whether for humanitarian, professional or business purposes -- has fallen dramatically since the beginning of the year, with international organizations complaining of unprecedented difficulties bringing local colleagues out of Gaza for meetings, workshops and training seminars.
The number of approved permits for UN staff members, for example, declined from 93 percent in January to less than a quarter by April, according to figures released in July by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
A coordinator for a European organization, meanwhile, said two staff members in Gaza had permits rejected in early August -- purportedly for "security reasons" -- for the first time in 10 years.
Concerns have also been raised about the potential impact on movement out of Gaza by the arrest last month of the Gaza director of U.S.-based charity World Vision and a UN Development Programme (UNDP) engineer.
Both were accused by Israel of taking orders from Palestinian resistance movement Hamas -- which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007 -- and were arrested when returning to Gaza through Israel’s Erez border crossing.
"I think it has a lot to do with World Vision. I'm still not sure if I believe [the accusations]," the coordinator for the European organization said, speaking anonymously due to restrictions on speaking to media.
"Maybe it's just the next move in the game," he added, going on to assert that the situation in recent months was "getting more radical".
Others were unsure about whether ongoing investigations into World Vision's Mohammed al-Halabi -- who is accused of siphoning off millions of dollars for Hamas -- had contributed to the increased restrictions faced by Gazan aid workers.
Shai Grunberg, a spokeswoman for Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates for freedom of movement, said attempts to find reasons for the change through Freedom of Information requests had been blocked by Israeli authorities.
"It's probably part of the same phenomena; it's getting harder and harder [for people to leave]," said Grunberg, adding that applicants were seldom told why their permits had been rejected or revoked.
According to data collated by Gisha, July saw a more than 20 percent decrease in the number of departures from Gaza compared to January -- including a decrease of 2,000 in the number of traders allowed to leave for business reasons.
"Limitations on access -- particularly for Gaza’s most prominent business people, students and others -- fly in the face of the logic embraced by many Israeli politicians and security officials that economic well being in Gaza would benefit Israeli security," said Grunberg.
While the Israeli authorities say permits are rejected for "security" reasons, Grunberg says that external pressure often leads to the decision being reversed.
Grunberg noted that intervention by football governing authority FIFA had led to several Gazan footballers -- who had previously been denied permits -- being allowed to travel to the West Bank for a championship match.
At the time of publishing, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli military authority that controls the border crossings with the Palestinian territories, had not responded to Anadolu Agency’s requests for comment.