The Hamas government has begun imposing new restrictions on residents of the Gaza Strip, forcing them to apply for exit permits to enter Israel or the West Bank.
The Ministry of Interior issued a statement on February 27 insisting that all Gaza residents wishing to leave the Strip through the Erez Crossing with Israel submit an application to the Interior Ministry in advance.
Hamas's decision came a day after Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the closing of the commercial Kerem Shalom crossing following the firing of a Grad rocket from Gaza at the city of Ashkelon. The passage of residents through Erez was limited by Israel to humanitarian cases only and to Gazans whose have registered addresses in the West Bank.
The crossing was expected to reopen Monday.
According to Israel's Foreign Ministry, 5,219 citizens crossed into Israel through the Erez crossing during the month of January, and 120 permits are given to Gaza businessmen on a daily basis.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a Gaza-based watchdog, expressed "grave concerns" regarding the new Hamas procedures.
"This decision increases the suffering of the already limited groups of people who are permitted to travel via the crossing by the Israeli forces," read a statement published by the group.
Since Israel usually issues entry permits for Gaza residents on the day of travel, Hamas's new restriction would gravely impede their ability to leave the Strip, PCHR said.
Human rights organizations in Gaza told The Times of Israel that they were not informed by the government in Gaza┬áabout the reasons for the decision.
Khalil Abu-Shammala, director of the local human rights organization A-Dameer, said that in the past individuals were prevented by Hamas from leaving the Gaza Strip on suspicion of maintaining ties with the Israeli intelligence.
"Most decisions of this kind have a security pretext," Abu-Shammala said, noting that Hamas has also prevented members of Fatah from leaving Gaza as a punitive measure. Just last week, he said, Hamas prevented Fatah Central Committee member Amal Hamad from leaving the Gaza Strip and traveling to the West Bank.
This was not the first time Hamas has tried to implement this measure, said Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO dealing with Palestinian freedom of movement. A year and a half ago Hamas tried to impose a travel restriction, but popular protests forced the government to┬áback down.
Ali Abu-Shahla, a Gaza-based businessman who travels to Israel every two to three weeks, said that according to his understanding, the new decision does not apply to merchants who frequent the Erez Crossing on a regular basis.
"This only applies to people who leave on a one-time basis, like the sick who need treatment," he told The Times of Israel. Abu-Shahla said that under Israeli regulations,┬ámerchants┬áleaving Gaza must inform the PA ministry for civil affairs two days before the intended date of travel and gain Israeli approval to exit the Strip.