Earlier this week, orphans from Gaza were set to embark on a two week journey into Israel in a once in a lifetime trip that would hopefully humanize Israel for them. Israeli children were also supposed to attend, and the goal was that the trip would give both sides a positive experience. It was a great grassroots movement attempt to bring two groups together in order to establish relations between our societies’ children. However, Hamas refused to allow the orphans leave Gaza, ending the trip before it began. Ynet reported that “Eyad Bozum, a spokesman for Hamas, said the children were prevented from traveling Sunday to ‘protect the culture of our children and our people from normalizing relations with Israel.”
Of course, this is an awful reaction by Hamas. I cannot think of a way to possibly justify their response to what could have been a great opportunity. The Kibbutz Movement, who organized the trip, purposely strove to keep politics out, but the results were still political.
Even so, this story is not so one sided. In an op-ed written in The Times of Israel, Laura Ben-David ends her article about the event saying: “but if — and I know, it’s a big ‘if’ — any of them should decide that perhaps this path of destruction is not such a great path after all, we are all here waiting just on the other side of the fence…”
While this is a heartwarming reaction, it is also not reality. It is not reality, because Israel initially refuses every year a request to allow children from Gaza to attend a music camp in the West Bank (some years they are allowed after a long legal procedure, other years, they are not). It is not reality, because over half the population in Gaza is under the age of 18, the same population we have entered into war with three times over the past six years. It is not reality, because, as a matter of policy, Israel does not allow children or others to travel, unless they are medical patients or merchants (there are quotas on this as well). Hence, in permitting these children to enter, Israel made an exception to a rule which systematically prevents Gaza residents from entering Israel, even if they have security clearance. This rule, in essence, prevents almost all possibilities for “normalization” between Gaza residents and Israeli citizens.
Students in Gaza cannot study in Israel, nor in the West Bank, even when there is no security issue. Israeli citizens may not enter Gaza, and since residents cannot leave Gaza, apart from exceptional humanitarian cases, the potential for relations between the two groups is almost zero. Approximately half of the protocols involving movement to and from the occupied territories have yet to be published, meaning the average Palestinian has no way of understanding if he is even eligible to travel to or from Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza.
Based on these policies, if those kids had been able to enter to Israel, it would have been a once in a life time experience, because the chances of them being again able to travel to Israel for non-humanitarian purposes are extremely small. Maybe it would have changed their outlook on Israel, or maybe it would have later showed them the hypocrisy of the system, which purposely distances them from the Israeli public.
So, while I vehemently disagree with Hamas’s decision to not allow the children to travel, I also must disagree with Laura Ben-David—We are not all here waiting just on the other side of the fence ready to greet Gaza residents. Our policy instead ensures that the normalization of relations between us, the Israelis, and them, the Palestinians living in Gaza, can never take place. No, Hamas does not want to normalize relations, but neither does Israel. That is reality.