By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Abu Abdallah, the owner of a women's fashion store in Gaza, traveled to Jordan seven times last year so he could fly on to Turkey and Egypt looking for new stock. This year, he has not been allowed out of the fenced-in strip once.
For a decade, Israel has maintained tight restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, largely in an effort to put the squeeze on Hamas, the Islamist movement that seized control of the territory in 2007.
Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt has applied even stricter measures since 2013, barely ever opening its border with Gaza at Rafah and flooding a network of tunnels along the frontier to stop smuggling.
A remaining lifeline for Gaza's 1.95 million residents was a transit permit from Jordan, allowing the bearer to travel through Israel and the West Bank to Jordan. But Jordan has now cut back those permits, residents and rights groups say, leaving Gazans in despair and livelihoods at risk.
"I have been going around like crazy, trying to find a reason or someone who can help. If this continues I may lose my work," said Abu Abdallah, 43, who had to delay the opening of a second store because he could not travel to buy stock.
"With Egypt's crossing almost always closed, I am trapped like a rabbit in a cage," he told Reuters at his shop, decorated with mannequins dressed in clothes from Turkey.
Jordan says it has not changed policy, but rights groups say many fewer permits have been approved since last August. A Palestinian official with knowledge of transit to Jordan said the number of travelers from Gaza had dropped to around 10 a day, from dozens each day in 2015.
RIGHTS GROUPS WORRIED
In a letter, Human Rights Watch this week called on the Jordanian authorities to ease the restrictions, saying it was making the situation for Gazans ever more difficult.
"Palestinians from Gaza have found it increasingly difficult to get permission to transit through Jordan to travel abroad, without any explanation for the change," HRW's Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson wrote to the Jordanian authorities.
"Jordan certainly should control its borders but it should continue to recognize the special duties it has toward those whose freedom of movement from Gaza it has facilitated until now."
An official in Jordan, which has been struggling to handle an influx of refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq, told Reuters the policy had not changed but did not elaborate.
For those in Gaza, often described by residents as an open-air prison, the sense of confinement grows more acute.
Since 2006, when Israel's tighter restrictions began, following Hamas's victory in elections and a short conflict between Israel and Hamas, the population of Gaza has increased by 500,000 - more than 30 percent.
Palestinian human rights groups estimate that only around 5 percent of the total are granted permits by Israel - usually for emergency medical treatment or for business.
Egypt opens Rafah only a few days every three months. It last opened it on May 11 for 48 hours, allowing 700 people to cross, mostly medical cases and students. That was a fraction of the 30,000 who applied.
The clampdown on the Jordan option has widened alarm. Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdallah, based in the West Bank, said he was doing all he could to improve the situation.
"We have intensive contacts with our Jordanian brothers to obtain more (transit) letters for our people in Gaza," he told reporters in Ramallah this week.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Luke Baker and Alison Williams)