The US Consulate, on Jerusalem’s Agron Street.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The IDF lifted an approximately six-month moratorium on Gazans traveling to the US Consulate in Jerusalem this week.
Four buses shuttled 97 Gazans from the Erez crossing to the American Consulate on Wednesday to be interviewed for visas, Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Ministry Spokesman Muhammed Maqadma said on Thursday.
The IDF banned all Gazans from traveling to the US Consulate roughly six months ago, alleging that some Gazans overstayed their permits to be interviewed at the diplomatic office.
According to Maqadma, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the branch of the IDF responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, the PA Civil Affairs Ministry and the US Consulate recently reached an understanding to lift the moratorium.
“Buses will transport citizens to the American Consulate two Wednesdays a month,” he said in a phone call. “We will also be sending an employee on each bus to ensure that everyone returns to Gaza.”
In an email, COGAT confirmed that the three parties reached an understanding.
The PA Civil Affairs Ministry spokesman added that some 600 Palestinians are waiting for permission from COGAT to travel to the US Consulate.
Tania Hary, the director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights group that deals with Palestinian freedom-of-movement issues, criticized COGAT for having instituted the moratorium in the first place.
“COGAT’s decision to deny people access to consular services for the last six months put people's lives and futures on hold,” Hary said in an email. “Not only was it unnecessary and unreasonable, it was also a form of collective punishment. COGAT has exclusive control over who can exit Gaza through Erez Crossing and for what purpose.”
In response to an inquiry, a US State Department official said: “We seek to facilitate travel to the United States for all legitimate and bona fide travelers, including residents of Gaza,” referring all other questions to the Israeli government.
Ahmad Ode, an owner of a telecommunications company in Gaza who traveled on one of the buses to the Consulate on Wednesday, said he had waited a year for permission from the IDF to do so.
“My wife, kids and I applied for permission to travel to the Consulate five times in the past year and the [Israeli] army gave us permits for the first time yesterday,” Ode, a resident of Khan Younis, said in a phone call on Thursday. “It is unacceptable that we had to wait all this time for a permit to go to a visa interview when we have legitimate reasons to travel to the US.”
Ode said his brother, nieces and nephews live in southern California.
“I went to the US one time in 2013, but my wife and kids have never met their family members in the US. I want to introduce them to each other,” he said.
On Wednesday, the US Consulate denied Ode and his family visas to travel to America.
A resident of Gaza City, who works for an international organization but plans to move to the US to start a new job, said that he is still waiting for a permit to be interviewed at the Consulate.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the resident said he was glad buses are now bringing Gazans to the Consulate, but added that they should have been made available earlier.
“I’m not an expert in security, but it is ridiculous that it took Israel six months to lift this moratorium,” he said. “I understand that some people overstayed their permits, but that is no reason to collectively punish everyone for six months. There are many people, who have real reasons to go the US.”
COGAT did not respond to an email, asking why it took six months to find a solution to lift its moratorium on Gazans traveling to the US Consulate.