‘Like A Prisoner Being Let Free’

The White House has invited Israeli leaders to visit next week to discuss the administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan. Meanwhile, on their own, Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have brokered something that’s already having a modest impact.

Strawberries and snacks from Gaza may now be sold abroad. Gazan fishermen can venture farther into the Mediterranean for a better catch. Thousands of unemployed Palestinians are suddenly allowed to leave the territory to work in Israel after more than a decade.

These changes are part of an unwritten deal between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas leaders that has been in the works for months. It is so sensitive that the sides won’t call it a truce or a cease-fire, but rather “The Understandings.”

Israel is easing some of its tough restrictions on trade and travel out of Gaza. That’s on the condition that Hamas — an Islamist militant organization that Israel and the U.S. consider a terrorist group — halts rocket fire into Israel and violent confrontations at the Israeli border.

It’s unclear how the arrangement could be affected by the possibly imminent release of the Trump administration’s peace plan.

But The Understandings are offering a small window of hope for residents of the impoverished, blockaded territory, which has been the scene of some of the worst fighting in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years.

Mahmoud Ghaben, a Gazan resident, secured a coveted permit last August to work plastering buildings in Israel. “It’s like finding treasure,” says Ghaben, who now wakes up before dawn to join the crowds crossing through the fortified border checkpoint. “Like a prisoner being let free.”

He threw a party with a live band when his work permit came through. His cousin took a joy ride through Gaza, stereo blaring, when he got his.

Border protests on hold

For about two years, Palestinians held weekly protests at the border, some demonstrating nonviolently and others launching grenades or fire-blazing kites and balloons into Israel and trying to breach the border fence. Israeli forces called them rioters and fired live ammunition at them, killing several hundred Palestinians and wounding thousands.

Now Palestinian border demonstrations are on hold, as are Israeli troops firing in response.

“Let’s remember what was the situation in Gaza before The Understandings. It was about to explode,” says Hamas spokesman Abdel-Latif Qanou. “Gaza was on the edge of collapsing. Now we have a lot of improvement that everybody can see.”

After Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the territory, preventing most travel and exports out of Gaza. On top of that, three Hamas-Israel wars and recent sanctions from the Palestinian Authority have exacerbated Gaza’s economic crisis. The territory has endured daily power cuts, a lack of clean water, poor medical services and a collapsed economy. The statistics are bleak: 53% of Gaza’s nearly 2 million people live in poverty and around 50% of its workers are unemployed, according to a recent United Nations report.

Partial easing of blockade

But in May 2018, Egypt opened its border for travel out of Gaza. Qatar is currently pumping into Gaza millions of dollars in aid and fuel. Israel is also boosting electricity in the territory to reduce daily power cuts. A U.S. Christian group, Friend Ships, is pitching tents on the Gaza side of the Israeli border wall for a field hospital.

Israel gave Gazan strawberry farmers permission to export abroad to the United Kingdom and Gulf Arab countries last month, but not yet to Israel. The Sarayo Alwadiya snack factory was granted Israeli permission to export overseas also in December. Its beloved Shatawi, chocolate covered cream puffs made in the winter and known in Israel as Crembo, is now sold in Saudi Arabia. With growing access to markets, owner Wael Wadiya is expanding the brand’s offerings to include hazelnut, Oreo-style, coconut and dried fruit toppings.

“Necessity is the mother of invention. When the gate to export was opened, I thought, what can we do new?” he says.

The most dramatic change can be seen before dawn on Sundays at the fortified Israeli border, as Palestinian workers stream out of a hulking steel terminal into southern Israel.

Over the last few years, Israel has gradually issued more work permits to Gazans, now reaching a record high of about 5,500 Palestinian workers, Palestinian officials say.

The usually quiet parking lot on the Israeli side of the border is now outfitted with a bathroom outhouse and teeming with minibus drivers calling out “Tel Aviv!” “Ramle!” and “Lod!” — cities in Israel to which they will shuttle Palestinian workers. Most of the laborers sleep in the West Bank on weeknights and return to Gaza on weekends. Laborers say they can make about 10 times as much money in Israel as they can in Gaza.

“A chokehold that’s tightened or loosened”

The Israeli Defense Ministry agency that administers the employment licenses told NPR that only business people and traders — not day laborers — now receive Israeli work permits. It would not comment further on the policy change.

But Gazans say they’ve gotten around that rule. Men gathered recently at the border parking lot said they were, in fact, day laborers at Israeli construction sites. They had to fork out a few hundred dollars — plus show apparently faked invoices and paperwork — to officials in Gaza, to register as merchants with business to attend to in Israel or the Israeli-occupied West Bank, according to the Gaza City Chamber of Commerce.

This arrangement is an open secret, likely known to all officials involved. It’s unclear whether it’s designed to avoid a backlash from the Israeli public about a deluge of Palestinian laborers in Israel, says Tania Hary, the executive director of Gisha, an Israeli legal group promoting freedom of movement for Gazans.

“For more than 13 years, residents of Gaza have been under a chokehold that’s tightened or loosened depending on political circumstances,” Hary says. “When Israeli officials sense that things are getting too unstable, they release pressure by allowing slightly more movement and access, but there’s never been a decision to fundamentally transform the situation in a way that would actually allow people to thrive.”

“Lots of sacrifices”

Last year, Gaza residents protested over their poor living conditions and blamed Hamas, which drew a heavy crackdown from Gaza’s rulers.

A deal to ease restrictions on Gaza could give Hamas a lifeline. “It will be good for Hamas that the daily life conditions will improve,” says Mkhaimar Abusada, who teaches political science at Gaza’s al-Azhar University. “That will ease the internal pressure against Hamas.”

But Israeli or Hamas leaders could renege on their side of the informal agreement in an instant if heavy violence resumes. Even now, many Gazans say they don’t feel the benefits of the new gestures.

Hisham Abu Ghaben used to work at a restaurant in Israel before the border was sealed, but now has no job and no money to pay for the paperwork to apply for an Israeli work permit. (He is unrelated to Mahmoud Ghaben.)

He called The Understandings a Bollywood film.

His 18-year-old son, Mohammed, is one of more than 100 Young Palestinians who had a leg amputated after being shot by Israeli troops at Gaza border protests.

“There were lots of sacrifices. What did we get in return? Why did the protests stop? I want to understand why. What solution did it bring?” Abu Ghaben says.

The Understandings are criticized in Israel, too. Centrist politician Gantz, running against Prime Minister Netanyahu in March elections, says Netanyahu is appeasing terrorists. Some in Israel say the concessions to Hamas could convince Palestinians that violence pays off. Others say Hamas should first return two Israeli captives and the bodies of two killed Israeli soldiers.

“This is a clear-eyed policy to allow us to calm things down and bring quiet. This is not a wide arrangement. When we get there, we will have demands, like a prisoner swap,” Israeli Cabinet minister Yoav Gallant said on local TV.

The indirect agreement is very different from Israel’s longtime policy to isolate Hamas and break its hold on Gaza.

Instead, Hamas and average Gazans are getting some relief.

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