Israel bans workers from Gaza as border tensions escalate

Nidal all-Mughrabi

Reuters  /   September 20, 2023  

GAZA – Israel shut crossing points with Gaza on Wednesday, preventing thousands of workers from getting to their jobs in Israel and the West Bank, after days of border demonstrations in which Israeli troops have opened fire on stone-throwing protesters.

Around 18,000 Gazans have permits from Israeli authorities to work outside the blockaded enclave, providing a vital injection of cash amounting to some $2 million a day to the impoverished territory’s economy.

Protests backed by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, have been held for days against issues ranging from the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails to Jewish visits to the Al Aqsa mosque compound, a site holy to both Muslims and Jews, who know it as the Temple Mount.

Demonstrators along the Gaza separation fence have hurled stones as well as improvised explosive devices, while Israeli troops have responded with tear gas and live fire.

The Israeli military on Wednesday said it used crowd dispersal methods against “over a hundred rioters gathered in a violent riot adjacent to the security fence” along the Gaza Strip.

“During the incident, a number of explosive devices were activated by the rioters,” the military said.

On Tuesday, a Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli forces during the protests and 11 others were wounded. Four more were wounded by Israeli gunfire on Wednesday, according to Gaza health officials. A statement from a group calling itself “Youth of Revolution” vowed to continue the protest.

A spokesperson for COGAT, the Israeli Defence Ministry agency that coordinates with the Palestinians, confirmed that the Erez crossing into Gaza was closed and said it would be re-opened “in accordance with situational assessments”. COGAT did not respond to requests for further details.

Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza and Israel, issued a statement calling for calm and urging Israel to avoid “collective punishment”.

The border closure, following a brief ban on exports from Gaza earlier this month after inspectors found explosives in a consignment of goods, will add pressure to an economy already under strain due to blockades imposed by Israel and Egypt.

“We are too afraid the crossing won’t open anytime soon and I go back to living in poverty and need,” said one Gaza father of five, who has been sleeping at the Palestinian side of Erez crossing since Sunday evening.

According to IMF figures, per capita income in Gaza is only a quarter of the level in the West Bank and unemployment is running at nearly 50%, according to the World Bank.

Ayman Abu Krayyem, spokesman of the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Labour, said that as a result of the closure 8,000 workers who returned to Gaza because of Israeli Jewish holidays have been stranded in the territory since the ban.

Over the past few weeks, the military said its soldiers had been using riot dispersal means against Palestinians throwing explosives at the border fence along the Gaza Strip.

Egypt and Qatar, two key mediators during previous rounds of fighting, were talking to the two sides in a bid to prevent a slide into a new wave of armed confrontation, said one Palestinian official familiar with those efforts.

Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi; editing by William Maclean, Mark Heinrich and Bill Berkrot