December 09

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Trump and Gaza

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I’ve just returned from a two month research trip to Gaza. I am having a hard time reading Donald Trump’s comments about prohibiting Muslims from entering the United States without thinking of what is happening in Gaza right now.

Israel allows very few of Gaza’s 1.8-million residents – nearly all Muslims – to enter Israel. From 2006 until the 2014 war, Israel allowed passage through the Erez crossing only for humanitarian reasons, mainly for urgent medical cases. Limited merchant travel was also permitted on occasion. After the war, Israel loosened the criteria for entry, but only slightly. In the first half of this year, there were about 14,000 exits from Gaza each month – about double the monthly average from 2014.

But this number is a fraction of the monthly average of exits from about 15 years ago, when more than half a million Gazans crossed the border each month to work in Israel, visit family in the West Bank, or to travel abroad. At the time 26,000 Gazan labourers crossed the border every day to work in Israel. Now no Gazawwi is allowed to work in Israel at all.

The bulk of the crossings from Gaza into Israel these days remain for medical patients, and their companions, who seek treatment for conditions that cannot be managed in Gazan hospitals. Many of these travel permits are issued on the condition that the holder returns to Gaza on the same day. I met a few Gazans who received temporary permits to attend events like academic conferences in Israel, but such applications involve layers of bureaucracy and security screening. They are usually rejected. For almost everyone in Gaza, crossing the border into Israel – even just to fly out of the country through Ben Gurion Airport – is nearly impossible.

Israel destroyed Gaza’s airport in the early days of the Second Intifada and has prohibited its reconstruction. Israel also prohibits Gaza from building a seaport. All of this, combined with Egypt’s near-total closure of the crossing at Rafah and its recent flooding of the border tunnels, means that Gazans have no way out, legal or otherwise.

Israel cites security concerns for these restrictions. No one should fault the Israeli government – or the American government, or governments anywhere – for working to keep out those who aim to do their country harm. A government has the responsibility to the safety of its citizens, after all. But Israel’s restrictions against the people of Gaza are sweeping and arbitrary. They’ve resulted in a claustrophobic despair that I’ve witnessed first-hand, especially among young people who just want to work, travel or study abroad. Gazans said to me over and over again: “We just want a normal life.”

Israel is no Trump. For all the country’s restrictions on the Muslims of Gaza, Israel does not adhere to Trump’s blunt and all-too-familiar ‘one is too many’ manifesto. I have to believe that sensible Israelis, like sensible people everywhere, see Donald Trump as the orange-tinted racist he keeps proving himself to be.

But as I as heard Trump’s ravings this week, I cannot help but recall crossing out of Gaza and into Israel the week before, and how I was doing something my Gazan friends, and nearly two-million other Gazans, cannot do.

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