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Dec 28, 7:51 AM EST

Hamas bars Gaza children from Israel trip


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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Gaza's Hamas rulers prevented a group of children from entering Israel on Sunday for a postwar conciliatory trip meant to foster peace, Hamas and organizers said.

The 37 children, most of whom have lost a parent in fighting between Hamas and Israel, were to enter Israel on Sunday and spend a week visiting Jewish and Arab communities, a zoo, and 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 Israel and Gaza.

Hamas spokesman Eyad Bozum said the decision to bar the children's entry was made "to protect the culture of our children and our people" from normalizing relations with Israel. He said Hamas would make sure such a trip "will never happen again."

Israel and Hamas fought a brutal 50-day war this summer that killed 2,100 Palestinians and destroyed parts of the impoverished coastal enclave. On the Israeli side, the fighting killed 72 people and disrupted the lives of millions of people.

Yoel Marshak, one of the trip's organizers, said the visit was meant to a show a positive side of Israel and promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

"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. "The trip was meant to be a big hug for them."

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 organizers were working to reorganize the trip.

Malik Fraij, another organizer, said he was disappointed that Hamas chose to prevent the children's entry for "political reasons."

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Associated Press writers Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.

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