- - Thursday, August 23, 2012

JERUSALEM — It wasn’t an Arab Spring — more like an Arab Spring Break: Thousands of Palestinians this week surged through Israeli territory from the hills of the West Bank to reach the beach on the Mediterranean coast.

Israeli authorities issued 130,000 entry permits to Palestinians to observe the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Even young men, whom Israelis normally regard with suspicion as potential militants, were permitted entry.

And almost all of the Palestinians headed straight for the beaches. For many, it was the first time they had ever seen the sea.

Before the intifada, or uprising, that began in 1987, Palestinians visited and worked in Israel relatively freely. Israel subsequently curtailed such visits to prevent terrorism, a policy that became more pronounced following the second intifada that began in 2000.

The relative quiet that has prevailed in the West Bank in recent years persuaded Israeli authorities to make a friendly gesture to the Palestinians by issuing mass permits.

Israeli leaders did not publicize the decision, perhaps to not stir opposition among right-wing circles.

The move astonished not only the Palestinians but also Israelis.

“Israelis who came to the beach couldn’t believe their eyes,” wrote Gideon Allon, a columnist for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. “There they were, Palestinians as real people. Not illegal laborers and not terrorists. Just people enjoying the waves as they hit their bodies and building castles in the sand, just like them.”

Tallied with entry permits issued during Ramadan, the number of permits reached 200,000.

The Israeli Defense Ministry, which coordinates government activity in the West Bank, initiated the move. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been pushing for a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.