JERUSALEM (AP) — For the past four years, Gaza hairdresser Safa al-Masri has obtained a travel permit from Israel to visit her relatives in the West Bank. But this year, when she applied for a permit to attend her sister's wedding, she received a different answer: Come in for questioning by Israeli security agents or be barred from traveling.
Al-Masri is among a growing number of people who have been ordered to submit to Israeli interrogations in order to receive a coveted travel permit to exit the blockaded Gaza Strip. While Israel defends the practice as a necessary security measure; critics say it exploits the weak and endangers those being questioned by placing them under the suspicion of the territory's Islamic militant Hamas rulers.
According to statistics compiled by Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group that pushes for freedom of movement for Gaza's 1.8 million residents, 1,211 Gazans were summoned to the Erez border crossing for Israeli security interrogations during the first half of the year. That is roughly 2.5 times the 469 people interrogated during the same period a year earlier.
Tania Hary, Gisha's executive director, said that few people have been willing to speak about their experiences in the interrogation room. But she said there is a great risk that they will be seen as collaborating with Israel.
"It is safe to say that this practice raises the level of anxiety among those who are seeking an exit permit and thus causes a chilling effect," she said.
The figures were based on data compiled by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which tracks the movement of Gazans across the Israeli border. Hamas and Israel are bitter enemies.
Israeli officials say that meeting the needs of Gaza's civilian population presents a great challenge because of Hamas' control of the territory. Although the number of people who are questioned appears to be a small percentage of travelers, they acknowledged that civilians can suffer because of the situation.
Israel's Shin Bet security agency blamed Hamas for the interrogations, saying the group has repeatedly tried to exploit travelers, including medical patients traveling in ambulances, to help build up its "terror infrastructure" in Israel and the West Bank.
"Israel has warned often of the harm Hamas poses to Israeli permit holders as a result of their exploitation for terror purposes, but Hamas' efforts did not stop," it said. "Israel has no choice but to prevent the entry into Israel of Palestinians who are liable to harm state security and to endanger the security of its citizens."
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas, an armed group sworn to Israel's destruction, seized control of the territory from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Israel and Hamas have since fought three wars.
Egypt tightened its blockade after a 2013 military coup that ousted its then-President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist who was a close ally of Hamas. Egypt has greatly restricted movement through its own border crossing, forcing residents to rely increasingly on Israel's Erez crossing as their only way out. Thousands of Gazans now travel through Israel each year on their way to the West Bank and beyond for medical care, family visits, jobs and studies.
People who have been summoned for questioning describe similar accounts — a process of long waits before brief interviews that focus on friends and neighbors. On the way back, they are routinely stopped by Hamas for another interrogation about what they told Israel.
Al-Masri told The Associated Press that her interview began with "insignificant" questions about the names of her husband and children, but quickly moved on to issues about Palestinian militant groups.
"Do you have brothers in Hamas or Islamic Jihad?" she quoted her interrogator as saying. "And he asked me about some men. I told him I'm a hairdresser and only know their wives."
Two days later, she and her five children received a permit to travel to her hometown of Bethlehem in the West Bank for the wedding.
A Gaza businessman called for questioning described a similar experience.
On his way to the crossing, he said Hamas security men took his cellphone and gave him "advice" on how to handle the interview. After reaching the Israelis, he said he sat in a white, windowless room for more than an hour before the interview finally began.
The merchant, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution, said the interrogator "asked me about my family, friends, siblings, brothers-in-law, my car and asked me to show our home on a Google Earth map on his computer screen," he said.
Several days later, he learned that his travel permit was revoked without any explanation. He said the decision has destroyed his clothing import business.
In addition to the increased interrogations, Gisha on Thursday reported a significant jump in the number of permits either revoked or rejected by Israeli authorities over the last year.
It said nearly half of the roughly 3,500 permits for Gaza merchants and 350 longer-term VIP permits for senior businessmen have been revoked. It also said more than one-fifth of U.N. workers seeking travel permits were rejected in June, compared to a 3 percent rejection rate in January.
The World Health Organization reported similar trends for medical patients seeking permits — with the approval rate dropping from 82 percent in the first half of 2015 to 70 percent this year. The number of medical patients summoned for security interviews more than quadrupled — to 516 from 121.
Physicians for Human Rights Israel says this practice "is unethically and immorally exploiting the medical needs of Palestinian patients."
While acknowledging Israel's security needs, Gisha said the policy has harmed many innocent people.
"It's disturbing that these blocks are being applied so sweepingly and to imagine that decisions with such grave ramifications for people's lives are being made arbitrarily and with such ease," Hary said.
Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.