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For Group of Gaza Children, a Vacation Thwarted

Haifa, Israel — In a reversal of the usual fight over border crossings — with Gaza’s rulers demanding they be opened and Israel refusing — Hamas has stopped a group of children crossing to Israel for a therapeutic vacation.

On the evening of January 28, a group of 47 Gaza children age four to 13 — some of them orphans as a result of the fighting — arrived at the Erez crossing to begin a two-week break in Northern Israel.

The trip was planned and bankrolled by the Kibbutz Movement, the umbrella organization to which most kibbutzim are aligned, which says it secured the approval of Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum via cell phone.

Barhoum was not immediately reachable for comment.

Contact with Hamas by an Israeli organization is unusual, as most — including human rights bodies sending aid — adopt the Israeli government’s approach of shunning all direct contact with Hamas. Nevertheless, the Israeli government encouraged the trip.

“It was arranged with Hamas as they are in power in Gaza today, but the Kibbutz Movement is not an official entity of Israel,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Hayat explaining why the government did not raise objections. “It was not an official negotiation with Hamas,” he said.

Kibbutz Movement officials said they worked with an independent organization in Gaza, which they declined to name, to locate children who could benefit from the project.

But when it came to the point of the children actually crossing, Hamas troops ordered the driver of their school bus to turn around at a Hamas checkpoint just seven minutes from Israel’s Erez crossing. Two of the group’s leaders and one child who had gone ahead of the others had already entered Israel – where they remain – when the order came.

Joel Marshak, the Kibbutz Movement official who organized the trip, told the Forward: “We spoke to [Barhoum] about the plan to bring [the children] to Israel and they agreed that it would happen.” His understanding is that Hamas forces subsequently took a more hard-line approach to the prospect of Gaza children taking part in a trip organized by Israelis.

Marshak said that as the children neared the border, but before they were turned back, “there were families who called and told their children to return”—the result, he said, of intimidation by Hamas troops.

Marshak said he still hopes that Hamas can be swayed and that the trip will take place.

The government is disappointed that the trip is not taking place, said Hayat. “We viewed the trip as humanitarian and also educational – we hoped that those children who came would come to not see Israel as the enemy,” he said.

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