Middle East
2:21 am
Sun August 26, 2012

Palestinians Flood Into Israel, If Only Briefly

Originally published on Sun September 2, 2012 8:27 am

As Palestinian Muslims in the West Bank celebrated the end of Ramadan this past week, many traveled to a place that's usually off limits: Israel.

At the main Israeli checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem, you could hear the taxi drivers offering to take Palestinians to the beach in Tel Aviv.

The drive is no more than an hour from the West Bank boundary to Israel's Mediterranean coast. Yet many Palestinians have not taken a dip in years, if ever.

Back in the 1990s, when Israelis and Palestinians were holding peace negotiations, more than 100,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip entered Israel every day. Most came to work, but also to shop, study, visit relatives or go to the beach.

But after the Palestinian uprising began in 2000, Israel systematically cut back on the number of Palestinians who could enter Israel, and now relatively few can enter.

"After years of Palestinian attacks, terror attacks against Israel civilians, the government of Israel decided no more. No one enters here without a reason. In order to get to Israel, you need a reason," says Ofer Meital, a lieutenant colonel in Israel's army.

Some Palestinians still get permits to work or to visit hospitals in Israel. The permits are now hard to come by, though this past month was an exception.

Opening The Doors For The Holiday

Israel loosened entry restrictions for Ramadan and the three-day Eid el-Fitr holiday that followed. Israel gave permits to 100,000 Palestinians, double the number from last year.

One morning last week, hundreds of Palestinians lined up at the Qalandia checkpoint on the edge of Jerusalem, clutching their permission slips.

Majida, a 20-year-old from Ramallah, waited in line with her husband. They were headed straight to the Mediterranean, which Majida had never seen. She spoke about Israel as if it were a faraway land.

"I heard the shopping there is wonderful," she said.

One Israeli mall manager reported Palestinian shoppers this week gave his stores a 10 to 50 percent spike in sales. At an outdoor mall in Jerusalem, Israelis were browsing alongside Palestinians.

Rana Matour, 40, was checking out a pair of khaki pants at The Gap, a store she had never been able to shop in before. Her West Bank home in Ramallah is just a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem, but this was the first time since the 1990s that she had received a permit to visit.

Asked what it felt like to be in Jerusalem, she said, "After 15 years, to come for first time, it's good, nice."

Mixed Israeli Response

Across from The Gap, the Israeli cashiers at Abercrombie and Fitch say they've seen a lot of Palestinians come through their doors this month. Reactions are mixed.

"They don't like me and I don't like them," said one cashier.

"It's good they are coming in. They have to live, also," said another.

In addition to issuing special permits for Palestinian visitors to Israel, authorities also let in large numbers of Palestinians who wanted to attend prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

The mosque compound is in East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians are seeking this part of the city as the capital for a future state. Israel, which captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, though this is not recognized by any other nation.

All together, Israel recorded 1.2 million Palestinians visitors this past month. That's about 40 percent of the entire Palestinian population in the West Bank. The army says there were some thefts by Palestinians, but no attacks.

So why aren't more Palestinians allowed into Israel the rest of the year, asks Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

"If 1.2 million Palestinians were allowed to enter Israel, the question about so-called security is not valid," he says.

The Israeli army says it stepped up security significantly during the Ramadan period and can't afford to stay at that level all the time. Now, with the holiday over, the Palestinian permits have expired and the Tel Aviv beaches and Jerusalem malls are no longer packed with Palestinians.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This past week, Muslims celebrated the end of the holy month of Ramadan with three days of feasting, family visits and sightseeing. This year, many Palestinians in the West Bank did their sightseeing in a place usually off limits to them. Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tel Aviv, Yaffa, Tel Aviv.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: This is something you don't usually hear: At the main checkpoint between the West Bank and Israel, taxi drivers offering to take Palestinians to the beach in Tel Aviv.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

ESTRIN: The West Bank is a short drive away from the Mediterranean Sea, but many Palestinians have never taken a dip. They need special permits to enter Israel. For years, Palestinians were able to cross in freely. Not any more, says lieutenant colonel Ofer Meital of the Israeli army.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL OFER MEITAL: After years of Palestinian attacks, terror attacks, against Israel civilians, the government of Israel decided no more. In order to get to Israel, you need a reason.

ESTRIN: Some get permits to work in Israel or to visit hospitals there, but most don't have permits. This past month has been different: Israel loosened entry restrictions for Ramadan and the closing Eid il Fitr holiday. Israel gave permits to 100,000 Palestinians, double the number from last year. One morning this week, hundreds lined up at the Qalandia checkpoint clutching their permission slips.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

ESTRIN: We're looking here at like kind of a caged-in entrance where people are waiting single file, waiting to come into the checkpoint into Jerusalem from the West Bank. Twenty-year-old Majida from Ramallah waits in line with her husband, who's 25.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Through Translator) He has his swimming suit.

ESTRIN: They're going to head straight to the sea. Majida's never been. She speaks about Israel as if it were a faraway land.

MAJIDA: (Through Translator) I heard that the shopping there is wonderful.

ESTRIN: One Israeli mall manager reported Palestinian shoppers this past week gave his stores a 10 to 50 percent spike in sales. At an outdoor mall in Jerusalem, Israelis were browsing alongside Palestinians - a gaggle of 20-somethings from Bethlehem, a family from Nablus. Forty-year-old Rana Matour from Ramallah was checking out a pair of khaki pants at The Gap. She'd never been to The Gap before. She lives a 20-minute drive away from Jerusalem, but this is the first time in 15 years she's gotten a permit to go there. And what does it feel like to be in Jerusalem?

RANA MATOUR: Nice.

ESTRIN: Is it...

MATOUR: After 15 years to come for first time, it's good, nice.

ESTRIN: Yeah? I mean, are you excited?

MATOUR: You kid. Of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESTRIN: Across from The Gap, the Israeli cashiers at Abercrombie and Fitch say they've seen a lot of Palestinians come through their doors this month. Reactions are mixed. Do you like that Palestinians come here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: No.

ESTRIN: Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: They don't like me. I don't like them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: It's good that they are coming.

ESTRIN: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: They have to live also.

ESTRIN: In addition to issuing special permits for Palestinian visitors to Israel, authorities also let in large numbers of Palestinians who wanted to attend prayers at the main mosque in Jerusalem. Altogether, Israel recorded 1.2 million Palestinians visitors this past month. That's about 40 percent of the West Bank population. The army says there was some Palestinian theft, but there was not a single Palestinian attack. So, why aren't most Palestinians allowed into Israel the rest of the year, asks Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

SAEB EREKAT: If 1.2 million Palestinians were allowed to enter Israel, it means that the big question about the so-called security is not valid.

ESTRIN: The Israeli army says it nearly tripled its manpower to beef up security because of all the Palestinian visitors. It says it can't afford to do that the rest of the year. Tel Aviv beaches and Jerusalem malls are no longer packed with Palestinians. Their permits have now expired. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.