The 37 children, most of whom have lost a parent in fighting between Hamas and Israel, were due to enter Israel yesterday and spend a week visiting Jewish and Arab communities and a zoo. They were also going to travel to the West Bank for a meeting with the Palestinian president.
But a bus carrying the children and their adult chaperones was turned back when it reached the main crossing between Gaza and Israel. Hamas’ spokesman Eyad Bozum said the decision was made “to protect the culture of our children and our people” from normalising relations with Israel. He said Hamas would make sure such a trip “will never happen again.”
Israel and Hamas fought a 50-day war this summer that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and caused heavy damage in the impoverished coastal enclave.
On the Israeli side, the fighting killed 72 people and disrupted the lives of millions of people. Yoel Marshak, an Israeli organiser, said the visit was meant to show a positive side of Israel and promote peace.
“These children will one day be the leaders of Gaza and they would have remembered this trip and known that we can live in peace, side by side,” he said.
Mr Marshak said he received written approval for the trip three weeks ago from Hamas and that the cancellation came as a surprise. He said he and other organisers were working to rearrange the trip.
Said Abu Luli, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy whose father was killed in an electrical accident in 2009, said he was disappointed he could not make the trip.
“I was very happy that I will go and was saddened when we were prevented,” he said in a telephone interview. “I was hoping to visit the places in the West Bank and our lands in Palestine,” he added.
The children had also been scheduled to attend a performance by a Jewish-Arab band and visit a mixed-race school, the Tel Aviv beach and a nearby safari. The schedule included a meeting with president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Goodwill visits to Israel from Gaza are rare given ongoing hostility with Islamist Hamas, though Palestinian patients from the impoverished enclave are regularly admitted for pressing medical treatment.
Malek Freij, director of the charity Candle for Peace which was also named on the children’s Israeli military-issued entry permit, said he and fellow organisers had sent 40 truckloads of aid into Gaza during the war and had previously hosted a small number of Palestinian orphans.
He said that this time, advance Israeli media reports of the children’s planned visit apparently led Hamas to cancel it.
“They [Gaza authorities] thought that Israel wants to exploit these children, and that’s a mistake,” Mr Freij said, standing next to the empty bus awaiting the group on the Israeli side of the Gaza border.