When I was 16 I left Israel to attend my junior year of high school at the United World College (UWC) in Hong Kong. I was worried about a great number of things – being homesick, making new friends, acclimating to Chinese food (I mean real Chinese food) – but I wasn’t concerned about physically getting there. It was simple enough; my mom drove me to the Hong Kong Embassy in Tel Aviv one morning to request a visa, and then again a few weeks later to collect it. I booked a ticket and the day of my trip the entire family went out to a Chinese restaurant (only fitting) and then headed to the airport to send me off. The only problem was traffic; I remember my mom hysterically yelling at me to call the other students who were on my flight to “stop the plane”. I made it with time to spare. I said goodbye, got on the plane, and flew to Hong Kong. That was that.
The ease with which I went about getting my visa, booking a flight, getting to the airport (and the ease with which I went back to visit family on holidays or had my family visit me) was something I took for granted and have continued to take for granted in the years that followed.
That is, until I started working at Gisha. It was only then that I realized that movement and travel are not so easily attainable to the 1.9 million people who live about an hour drive away from me in Gaza. Since I’ve joined Gisha, I have made it a point to acknowledge how privileged I am to be able to travel whenever I want, and appreciate the fact that I am exercising a basic right – the right to freedom of movement – a right that is denied to millions of people.
But it didn’t really hit home until a few months ago, when Gisha took on the case of R., a 16-year-old young woman from Gaza, who was accepted to one of the UWC schools in Europe. I’ll save you the excruciating details about the lengthy and frustrating process of getting R. the necessary permits to exit Gaza and go abroad. In the end, she managed to travel – two months after the school year had begun and only after Gisha intervened on her behalf, and then intervened some more. Suffice to say, she faced much more than traffic and a hysterical mom.
The reason she was denied exit was because Israel deemed R. a “security threat”. Yes, a 16-year-old girl who only wanted to travel to attend a prestigious high school abroad – a school that aims to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future – was considered too threatening by Israeli authorities. Now, I remember myself at that age. Sure, I was self-important, sulky and moody (in my defense, I was 16!), but I was not – could not be – a security threat (unless self-aggrandizing fantasies about changing the world is somehow a threat).
As an Israeli, I refuse to believe that my security, or anyone else’s, is threatened by allowing a 16 year-old girl to pass through Israeli territory on her way abroad. I do however feel that my security is threatened by the perception that Palestinians are inherently dangerous, and the ease with which the futures of young, bright idealists are curtailed in the daily bureaucracy over access that is the occupation of Gaza. In the end, R. apparently didn’t pose a risk either.
When I attended the college I met a Palestinian for the first time in my life, an experience that changed the course of my life, and led me here – working for a human rights organization committed to protecting and promoting the human rights of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. I was lucky enough to be able to pursue and realize this opportunity. Many others in Gaza are not so fortunate, not because of lack of ambition or potential, but because they are unable to travel, not abroad or to the West Bank, and because opportunities for young people in Gaza are scarce.
This story has a happy ending. R., months after enlisting our help, was successful in getting to her school. Hopefully, she will find the experience there as challenging, eye-opening and life-changing as I did. Hopefully she’ll make new friends from all over the world, possibly even from Israel, and see what the world has to offer outside the Gaza Strip.
Please consider donating to Gisha so that we can continue working to help the many other young people in Gaza that dream of travelling so that they can realize opportunities and enrich their lives in ways that stand to benefit not only them, but all residents of the area – Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Director of International Relations