Israel Quietly Opens Its Borders, and Palestinians Have a Beach Day

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NETANYA, Israel — The 16-year-old high school student couldn’t stop smiling.

For the first time in her life, Shaima Jamous felt the water of the Mediterranean lap over her feet and the sand wash out from under them. For the first time, she inhaled the salt air and was lulled by the sound of the waves.

The beach in Netanya, Israel, was just 30 miles from her home in Nablus, in the West Bank, but it may as well have been another world.

“I always knew I would eventually make it to the beach, but I never thought it would be so easy,” Ms. Jamous said.

She was among the tens of thousands of Palestinians who enjoyed a rare day at the beach over the past several days through an informal arrangement that required no Israeli permit but did require slipping through holes in Israel’s security barrier.

The opening was tacit and unannounced, and after a flurry of Israeli and Palestinian news reports on it, Israel shut it down on Tuesday.

The Israeli military and other security agencies declined to comment on why Palestinians were allowed to cross through openings in the barrier — a series of fences and walls that cut off much of the occupied West Bank from Israel — without permits. Israel usually requires Palestinians to obtain travel permits — an often arduous and complicated process that includes passing significant security checks — to cross into its territory.

Gadi Shamni, a former head of the military’s Central Command, said he thought that Israel was trying to “relieve pressure” on Palestinians in the West Bank, where unemployment has risen sharply since the emergence of the coronavirus.

Israel usually issues tens of thousands of permits to Palestinians over the Eid holidays but did not this year because of restrictions officials said were imposed to combat the virus.

Mr. Shamni and other former security officials warned that allowing Palestinians to cross into Israel without formalities posed a security risk, which they said would-be attackers could exploit. That concern may be one reason for the government’s silence about the opening, which would have been unpopular with a large sector of the Israeli public.

Many residents of Netanya, a conservative town where the right-wing Likud party captured the most votes in the last election, in April, expressed opposition to allowing Palestinians to cross into Israel without permits, though some welcomed it.

“These are people who would like to spend time at the beach,” said Maurice Sedowitz, a retired dentist. “Palestinian families should be able to enjoy themselves here with or without a permit.”

The usually heavily guarded borders were clearly open for business.

A pair of Israeli soldiers patrolling near a hole in the barrier in the northern village of Faroun on Monday did nothing to stop throngs of Palestinians carrying coolers and bags of food from passing through. Nor did two Israeli military vehicles driving by take action against the beachgoers.

Residents of Faroun, the site of multiple traffic jams over the past week, even said they had witnessed the army help people pass through the hole at night by turning on lights.

Word of the opening spread quickly on Palestinian social media. Palestinian tour agencies, which have suffered major losses since the pandemic hit the West Bank in March, sprung into action.

Saadi Abu Zant, the owner of Prestige Travel and Tourism, organized two trips this past week with stops in Haifa as well as the beach in Netanya.

“For months, I sat at home doing absolutely nothing,” Mr. Abu Zant said. “The openings in the fence totally changed that.”

Other tour operators have offered kayaking adventures on the Jordan River, tours of Acre’s Old City and excursions through Jaffa and Tiberias.

On Monday, after Palestinians walked through a wide gap in the fence in Faroun, they headed toward a dirt lot filled with buses. Bus drivers hawked the names of cities: “Haifa, Acre,” yelled one. “Jaffa, Tel Aviv,” said another.

The beachgoers paid the drivers, took their seats and were off.

Azzam al-Naanaa, 44, a husky university security guard from Nablus who was visiting Netanya, said the last time he went to an Israeli beach was two decades ago.

“It’s a very special experience to come to the beach, but it’s even more special because I did so with my kids,” he said. His four children were sitting in the sand and staring at the waves crashing on the shore.

Mr. al-Naanaa said that Israeli authorities had previously barred him from entering Israel on security grounds. He did not say why but Israel often takes such measures against members of militant organizations, people it suspects of involvement in violence and people related to those who committed violent crimes.

The West Bank is landlocked except for a small strip on the Dead Sea, which is hot, hard to swim in and under Israeli control.

Holes have existed in the fences for years. In the past, the Israeli Army has turned a blind eye to Palestinian laborers passing through the holes to reach constructions jobs in Israel. But several West Bank Palestinians said they couldn’t recall a time when Israel allowed thousands of families to cross through them to go to the beach.

Palestinians on the beach at Netanya acknowledged they were concerned they could become infected by the coronavirus traveling in crowded buses — many were not wearing masks. But they said they didn’t hesitate to head to the beach.

“This is truly a risk worth taking,” said Hiba, 40, a resident of Tulkarem. “I’ve never been able to come to the beach with my whole family.” She declined to provide her last name for fear of arrest.

Nasreen Abu Alia, an interior designer from Nablus, was sitting under an umbrella in Netanya watching her daughter play in the sand.

“I feel like I’m seeing a dear old friend who I missed so much,” said Ms. Abu Alia, who was visiting the beach for only the second time. “Being here today is really a dream come true.”

Mohammed Najib contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank.

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