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Israel deportations decried

One was a college student hauled off a public bus in the West Bank, blindfolded and deported to the Gaza Strip, two months shy of her graduation.

Another was a beekeeper, left at the Gaza border after being seized in his West Bank home. He hasn’t seen his wife and daughters, ages 8 months and 2 years, since December. The bees are dead and his business has collapsed.

They are two of dozens of Palestinians ensnared by Israel’s controversial practice of removing former Gaza residents from the lives and families they’ve led in the West Bank and sending them back to the restive Hamas-controlled seaside territory against their will.

As Israel faces renewed pressure to lift its economic blockade of Gaza after a deadly raid on a flotilla attempting to break the siege this week, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza say they are also suffering under another Israeli policy aimed at isolating the Gaza Strip.

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Israel’s military says it has “repatriated” about 80 Palestinians in the last two years. Many were deported because, according to Israel, they did not properly register to stay in the West Bank, where schools are better, salaries are higher and the threat of violence is lower than in Gaza.

Officials say the practice aims to ensure that terrorists don’t infiltrate Israel.

“Under the [law], people who do not have permits to stay in a place should go back where they came from,” said Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibowitz. “It’s the same in every country.”

She said Palestinians can avoid deportation by obtaining proper permits, something “tens of thousands” of Gaza-born Palestinians in the West Bank have done.

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But Palestinians and human rights groups, who insist that the number of deportations is higher, say the deportations violate international law and fly in the face of the Oslo peace accords, which had promised Palestinians freedom to move between Gaza and the West Bank.

Palestinian authorities say that as many as 25,000 former Gazans are living in the West Bank without written permission from Israel, either because they didn’t think such approval was required or because Israel refused to give them permits. In addition, critics say Israel’s rules regarding permits have been vague and have changed frequently over the years, making compliance difficult.

Most Israel-issued permits and address changes were granted before 2000, when the second intifada, or uprising, erupted. Since then, Israel has stopped registering most changes of address from Gaza to the West Bank, according to Sari Bashi, head of Gisha, an Israeli human rights advocacy group that is helping dozens of Palestinians fight deportation.

In 2007, Israel began issuing “staying permits,” which allow former Gazans to temporarily live in the West Bank, but they, too, are hard to get and must be renewed every three months, Bashi said.

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Israel’s deportation policy has forced thousands of West Bank residents, who have previous Gaza addresses on their IDs, to live in fear, avoiding checkpoints and public places where they might encounter Israeli soldiers, Bashi said.

Such fears were heightened in April when Israel amended a military order that some say will make it easier to legally declare Palestinians who left Gaza for the West Bank as “infiltrators.”

Israelis say the change will make the practice fairer by creating a military committee to review deportations before they occur. Most deportations had been sudden, immediate and random, usually occurring when Palestinians were stopped at a checkpoint or questioned by soldiers.

Human rights groups have documented dozens of cases in which parents have been separated from children, workers lost their jobs or students were forced out of school. Most of the time, there was no chance to appeal, pack a bag or even say goodbye to family members, they said.

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Berlanty Azzam, 22, was on a bus in October returning to her Bethlehem apartment after a job interview in the nearby West Bank city of Ramallah. With a business degree from Bethlehem University nearly under her belt, she was eager to start her career.

Independent and ambitious, Azzam had excelled at her Gaza high school, but always felt a bit isolated as a Christian among a Muslim majority. So she was determined to have a Western-style college experience, away from her parents in Gaza.

“I wanted to take care of myself and gain some self-esteem,” she said. “In our culture, most families prefer to keep the girls close.”

With help from the Greek Orthodox Church, she says, she got Israeli permission to leave Gaza in 2005.

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When the public bus she was on stopped at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank, Azzam at first gave it little thought. She’d made the trip many times before. But when soldiers collected passenger IDs, Azzam grew nervous.

Soldiers ordered her off the bus. She tried to argue, but broke into tears after a female soldier conducted a full body search. “It was done in a very ugly way,” she said. “I was treated like a criminal.”

After seven hours of waiting at the checkpoint, Azzam was blindfolded, put into a military jeep and driven 30 miles across Israel to the Gaza border.

She found herself making the long, winding walk through Erez checkpoint, a Gaza border facility that looks part-airport, part-prison, with a maze of scanners, metal gates, and caged corridors.

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“I’d gone to Bethlehem for a diploma and now I was coming back to Gaza without it,” she said.

Azzam went to Israel’s Supreme Court to appeal, but lost. Israeli military officials said her 2005 permit was obtained on false pretenses.

“She got a humanitarian permit and was not using it for humanitarian purposes,” Leibowitz said.

Now the young woman, dressed in a black track suit and flip flops during a recent interview, spends her days playing computer games or chatting with friends online. She can’t find a job in Gaza, in part, she says, because she is Christian.

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“I’m trying to go anywhere. Anywhere else,” she said. She has offers from schools and companies in the United States, she said, but can’t get Israeli permission to travel to Tel Aviv to pick up a visa.

She completed her degree via a correspondence course. Bethlehem University even sent a representative to Gaza to give Azzam an individual graduation ceremony because she’ll miss the official one with her friends this month.

Hanging on the family’s wall are three graduation photos, two of her older brothers and one of Azzam, taken during the special ceremony. Turning back to her laptop, she shrugged.

“Well, at least I got the picture in the cap and gown.”

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Bucker Haffi, 37, also is making do with a photo, this one of his two young girls, whom he hasn’t seen since December.

About 2 a.m. on Dec. 24, Israeli police came into his West Bank home and detained him for questioning in relation to the arrest of a former neighbor from Gaza, a man he says he hadn’t seen in more than a decade.

After holding him for 35 days, Israelis released him with no charges. He said the judge assured him he’d be sent back to his home in the West Bank city of Tulkarm. But handcuffed in the back of a military truck, Haffi peeked through a hole in the covered windows and saw he was on an Israeli highway to Gaza.

Haffi was left at the Erez checkpoint with no money, no phone and only the clothes on his back.

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Born in a Gaza refugee camp, he’d moved to the West Bank in 1999 to start a business in Tulkarm. He built a house, bought a car and married. Haffi’s permit to stay in the West Bank expired in October 2006, Leibowitz said.

Though it might be possible for his family to join him in Gaza, he has rejected the idea.

“Under no circumstances will I bring my wife and kids to Gaza,” he said, noting the collapsed economy and constant threat of war between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. “I’m not going to put my family in trouble.”

He talks every day to his wife and older daughter, whose 2nd birthday he missed this month. Asked how he has coped, Haffi motioned to the large color photos of his girls, which his wife recently sent.

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“This is all I have,” he said, his voice suddenly cracking. Struggling to maintain his composure, Haffi left the room, returning a couple of minutes later.

“I work with bees and honey,” he said quietly. “It’s a peaceful job. I have nothing to do with politics. I just want to go back to my life.”

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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