GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel has barred entry to thousands of Palestinian laborers from the Gaza Strip following an eruption of violent protests that have escalated tensions along the volatile frontier.
The string of protests — disrupting weeks of calm at the separation fence — comes during a sensitive holiday season in Israel that began with the Jewish new year last week and continues through the Sukkot festival next week.
During Sukkot, large numbers of Jews are expected to visit Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The compound, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is often a focal point for violence.
Over the last week, dozens of Palestinians — burning tires and hurling explosive devices at Israeli soldiers — have streamed toward the fence separating Israel from Gaza, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent the ruling Hamas militant group from arming itself.
Hamas says youths have organized the protests in response to Israeli provocations. The militant group cites an increase in visits by nationalist Jewish activists to the contested Jerusalem holy site. “As long as these provocations continue, the protests will continue,” said Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qasem.
Under longstanding arrangements, Jews are allowed to visit but not pray at the holy site. The large numbers of visits, along with scenes of some visitors quietly praying, have raised Palestinian fears that Israel is trying to divide or even take over the site.
The week's events recall a bloody protest campaign organized by Hamas in 2018 and 2019 during which over 350 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire. Those protests halted after mediators, including Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations, brokered an unofficial deal in which Israel eased some economic restrictions on Gaza and allowed Qatar to deliver tens of millions of dollars in monthly payments for needy Gaza families and Hamas salaries.
But this month, following a visit by the Qatari envoy to Gaza, the territory's finance ministry announced it would have to slash the salaries of thousands of civil servants by almost half. The Qatari government press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
When asked about the reduction in Qatari funds, Ghazi Hamad, a member of the group’s political council in Gaza, acknowledged there were “problems” between Hamas and Qatar, without elaborating. He insisted the issues were “simple and solvable." He would not comment on whether Hamas was using the border protests as a pressure tactic to wring concessions out of Israel and Qatar.
In response to the protests, Israel closed Erez crossing, the sole pedestrian passageway out of the enclave into Israel, to the roughly 18,000 Palestinians from Gaza who work in Israel. The jobs in Israel are in great demand, paying up to 10 times as much as similar jobs in Gaza. Unemployment in the territory has hovered at close to 50%.
Israel has begun to grant work permits in recent years to help maintain calm in Gaza. But Israeli officials say the permits are contingent on a quiet security situation. Earlier this month, Israel briefly closed Gaza's main cargo crossing after saying it had discovered explosives in an outgoing shipment of clothing.
For Palestinians like Sami al-Amsi, head of the main labor union in Gaza, the latest closure means the loss of an economic lifeline. "This is collective punishment," he said.