Jerusalem (AFP) - The number of Gazans denied exit permits by Israel due to a close family member's alleged connection to Hamas has soared this year, a rights group said Wednesday.
Those declined for having a close relative with alleged ties to Hamas have included people seeking medical care for cancer, according to Gisha, an Israeli NGO that monitors Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Gisha along with three other NGOs based their findings on data obtained through a freedom of information request from the Israeli defence ministry.
The three others are Adalah, Al Mezan and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.
"In the first quarter of 2018 alone, 833 exit permit applications by residents of Gaza were denied by Israel on the grounds that the applicants’ 'first-degree relative is a Hamas operative,'" Gisha said in a statement.
"For comparison, the Israeli authorities refused 21 applications on these grounds throughout 2017."
The Israeli defence ministry unit that oversees the permits, known as COGAT, told AFP that the 833 declined applications represented 529 people since some had applied more than once.
It declined to say how many were seeking permits for medical reasons.
"Denying patients access to medical treatment on the grounds that they have family relations to Hamas members is a breach of international law, and completely immoral," the NGOs said in a statement.
Israel controls all access to and from the Gaza Strip apart from the Palestinian enclave's crossing with Egypt. Islamist movement Hamas, in power in the strip, has fought three wars with Israel since 2008.
Under an Israeli blockade for more than 10 years, Gaza lacks infrastructure and key medical equipment. Many patients seek to travel elsewhere for treatment.
The NGO said the change appeared to be the result of a decision taken by Israel's security cabinet authorising action to pressure Hamas to return the remains of two Israeli soldiers it is believed to be holding.
Two Israeli civilians, both said to be mentally unstable, are also believed to have entered Gaza and to be held by Hamas.
Gisha said that "importantly, some of the cancer patients who have been denied exit permits are not aware of any family relation to a Hamas member".
COGAT said "the entry of Palestinians who are residents of the Gaza Strip into Israel is not a vested right, and is made possible according to existing policy and subject to security checks".
"In accordance with the decision of the government, residents of the Gaza Strip who are first-degree relatives of operatives of the Hamas terror organisation are not entitled to entry permits into Israel."
Gisha spokeswoman Shai Grunberg said 2017 marked the "worst year" for Israel's granting of entry and exit permits for Gaza since a 2014 war.