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Gaza security forces ease restrictions at Erez crossing amid manhunt

March 27, 2017 10:18 A.M. (Updated: March 28, 2017 10:44 A.M.)
GAZA (Ma’an) -- After the Hamas-run Ministry of Interior closed off all of the Gaza Strip's land and sea borders Sunday and imposed a fierce security crackdown across the besieged coastal enclave, the ministry has announced that certain cases would be permitted to exit through the Palestinian side of the Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing, the only land crossing for people between Gaza and Israel.

The measures came amid ongoing investigations by security forces in Gaza into the killing of Hamas leader and former prisoner of Israel Mazen Fuqahaa in Gaza City on Friday, which Hamas has branded as an assassination by Israel.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Iyad al-Buzm said in a statement that starting Monday until further notice, passage for medical patients, family members of Palestinian prisoners traveling to visit their relatives in Israeli prison, women of all ages, boys under the age of 15, men above the age of 45, and three Palestinian Authority ministers would be allowed to leave the Gaza Strip through Erez, while entering Gaza from Israel would be allowed for all.

The announcement came as an easement of measures that were imposed Sunday morning, when Gaza authorities were only permitting humanitarian cases passage outside of the territory. While travel is heavily restricted by Israeli authorities as part of a crippling blockade on the coastal enclave in place since 2007, the Hamas-implemented closure came as a rare measure.

Meanwhile, sources said that security forces had also ordered fishermen sailing off the coast of Gaza to return to the shore, and that the Rafah border crossing that connects to Egypt -- which Egyptian authorities only open on an occasional basis -- would also remain closed if Egypt decided to open it.

The only crossing that remained fully open was Kerem Shalom (Karm Abu Salem) between Israel and Gaza, where only commercial goods are permitted to pass.

Meanwhile, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli agency responsible for implementing Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territory, advised in a statement Sunday afternoon that Palestinians seeking to return to Gaza through the occupied West Bank either stay in Jordan or apply for a temporary Israeli permit to stay in the West Bank.

Locals in Gaza described a "state of alert" on Sunday, with checkpoints being erected in the streets and entrances to towns and cities, and security officers thoroughly inspecting passing vehicles.

Security officers were deployed heavily along Gaza's eastern border, "in order to prevent Fuqahaa’s assassins from escaping through the border fence into Israel," sources told Ma'an.

Fuqahaa was shot with four bullets to the head in front of a residence in southwestern Gaza City on Friday night, with Hamas officials saying the assassination was carried out with a silenced gun by assailants who were “collaborating” with Israel. Hamas has yet to provide proof to support the accusation.

The well known Hamas leader was from the northern occupied West Bank district of Tubas, and served nine years out of a life sentence in Israeli custody before he was released in 2012 as part of Gilad Shalit prisoners exchange deal. He was then exiled to the besieged Gaza Strip.

Hamas’ unprecedented security measures, and the ensuing accusations by Palestinian factions that the alleged assassination marked “a new offensive” by Israel against Palestinian resistance, came as rights groups have also expressed concern that Israel could be leading up to a wide-scale military offensive in the small Palestinian territory.

The majority of the nearly two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are sealed inside the coastal enclave due to the continuation of a near-decade long military blockade imposed by Israel and upheld by Egypt on the southern border.

The destruction from three Israeli offensives over the past eight years, including damage to the enclave’s water, sanitation, energy, and medical facilities, coupled with slow reconstruction due to the blockade led the UN to warn that Gaza could be “uninhabitable” by 2020.
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