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Middle East

Israel stops hairdressers travelling to West Bank

It would have been a chance to exchange ideas, compete against their peers, and brush up on the latest styling techniques, but for hairdressers living in conservative Gaza, it was a step too far.

As an annual Palestinian hair styling convention kicks off in the West Bank this weekend, six stylists will be conspicuous by their absence.

The Israeli army, which controls access to and from the besieged Gaza Strip, has denied the stylists permits to leave the narrow coastal enclave.

"I'm not hurting the security of Israel if I go," Fadwa Baba, a contestant denied an exit permit, said by telephone from Gaza. "I just want to show off my achievements. The impression that the people in Gaza don't pay attention to beauty and fashion is wrong. I want to prove the opposite."

Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, has appealed to the Israeli authorities on behalf of the stylists, four of whom are women along with one male hairdresser, to allow them to cross into the West Bank.

"We think women working outside of the home is a wonderful tool for empowerment and equality, and should be encouraged," said Sari Bashi, a director of Gisha. "I'm not sure what security risk [is posed by] hairspraying models."

Responding to the stylists' request, which was submitted on 11 April, Israel said that "the request does not meet the criteria as they are defined periodically in accordance with the political and security situation".

Israel relaxed its four-year blockade of Gaza, aimed at weakening its Islamist rulers Hamas, under international pressure last summer, allowing a limited number of entrepreneurs to travel to the West Bank and Israel, to encourage a recovery of Gaza's decimated economy.

But the quota system is heavily weighted in favour of businessmen, who can more easily prove the economic benefit of their travel, and since last summer roughly 1,000 men have been able to leave the enclave each month via Israel.

Women, restricted in the types of jobs open to them in Gaza's patriarchal society, are often unable to meet the requirements.

The week-long hair styling festival will showcase Palestinian creativity through workshops and competitions, which include preparing a model's hair for the catwalk in just 15 minutes.

Ms Baba had hoped to surprise judges with a Palestinian unity theme, coming just days after Fatah and Hamas, the rival Palestinian factions, signed a reconciliation pact, ending a four-year schism.

The Israeli army declined to comment about the ban.