On Monday night, the Defense Ministry telephoned the Israeli liaison office for the Gaza Strip and delivered surprising news: Despite lengthy prior coordination, civilians would not be allowed to leave the strip through the Erez and Nitzana crossings. But the Ministry for Civilian Affairs in Ramallah, the Palestinian body that coordinated the passage through the crossings, did not receive this message. Thus the ministry, which is the liaison office's Palestinian counterpart, could not inform its Gaza office - which is manned by Fatah loyalists.
As a result, the ministry's head, Hussein al-Sheikh, had already announced the happy but false news on Tuesday: Students from Gaza would be allowed to go through the crossings to study abroad. There are currently several thousand Palestinian students who have been accepted to universities abroad, but cannot leave the strip through Israel to attend. A Palestinian official said that no more than 100 students have been allowed to leave since June. The Israeli authorities had agreed to allow 700 students to leave, but the remaining 600 are still waiting. Some of these 600 students arrived at Erez Tuesday, expecting to be allowed through. One of them, call him B., realized something had gone wrong only after getting there. Eventually, he was told to head back home. B. was accepted into a scholarship program for a master's degree in Britain. Hamoked - the Center for the Defense of the Individual, a Jerusalem-based Israeli organization whose main objective is to assist Palestinians whose rights have been violated by Israel's policies, helped B. obtain clearance to leave. But if he fails to arrive in the United Kingdom by today, September 20, he can forget about his scholarship. In despair, B. called Hamoked to tell them that he and another 200 people had been sent away from the crossing and not allowed to go through. The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman's Office told Haaretz on Tuesday that it was not aware of any security limitations that necessitated closing down the Erez crossing. "Go ask the liaison office," it said. The liaison office referred questions to the Ministry of Defense, but added that only those who were supposed to leave on student visas were barred from crossing. "Regular travelers" were allowed to go through as usual. But the term "regular travelers" refers only to sick people who need medical attention in Israel or Palestinians with special permits to either enter or transit Israel or the West Bank. Moreover, one holder of such a permit, M., begged to differ with the liaison office's claim. M., a Gaza factory owner and holder of a permit for business people, said he came to the crossing before the cabinet declared Gaza a hostile entity yesterday. "I came there on Tuesday morning," he said. "We were 150 people, mostly sick people and businessmen. They let only 15 people through. Maybe less. They kept us there for hours, and then told us we had to go back." M. was scheduled to cross over to Jordan from Israel. "I don't want to open a factory in the West Bank," he said, referring to what many Gaza businessmen now hope to do. Instead, M. wants to set up shop in the Hashemite Kingdom. "But now, they won't let me through to Jordan. It's not Hamas who didn't let me through today. It's not Hamas that's keeping me out of business," he complained. "It's a recipe for suicide."
The Defense Ministry referred Haaretz's query on the students to the chief of staff's office. From there, it went back to the IDF Spokesman's Office - which, once again, said the agency qualified to answer the question was the liaison office. The answer to the question of when the students will be allowed to leave Gaza to study remained unanswered.