To mark Human Rights Day, we share the story of one of our clients, unique and personal but also profoundly indicative of the daily reality shared by millions of Palestinians living under Israel’s control.
Samar is a Palestinian woman who was born and raised in the Gaza Strip, where her family live to this day. In 2001, she married a resident of the West Bank and moved to live with him there. She submitted an application to record her change of address in the Israeli-controlled Palestinian population registry, but given that Israel had stopped updating address changes in the year 2000, on paper, she remained registered as a “Gaza resident.” For this reason, her presence in the West Bank went unrecognized and if caught, she would be considered residing there “illegally.” This fact barred her from submitting travel permit applications to Israeli authorities and effectively imprisoned her in the West Bank.
It was only ten years later that Samar’s change of residence was finally approved by Israel, as part of a political gesture to the Palestinian Authority. She could, for the first time, dream of applying for a permit to visit her family in Gaza. The catch, now that the closure had been tightened further still, was that it could only be for what Israel considered “humanitarian reasons” – the wedding or funeral of a first-degree relative, or a severe life-threatening illness of a close family member.
In 2012, Samar contacted Gisha, requesting our assistance with a permit application to visit Gaza, following her father’s hospitalization. Gisha submitted an application on her behalf, which was refused by Israel because her father’s illness “did not constitute distinct humanitarian grounds” to approve the application seeing as “the hospitalization is not long-term.”
In 2013, Samar took her three children on a long, arduous journey through Jordan and Egypt, and finally managed to enter Gaza via Rafah Crossing. This was the first time in 12 years that she was reunited with her family, and the first time her children had ever met them. Their departure through Rafah on an equally grueling journey back to their home in the West Bank took place on one of the very last days of Rafah Crossing’s regular opening, which ended with the change in leadership in Egypt.
Since then, Samar submitted numerous applications for permits to see her family once more and waited with growing impatience for so much as a response from Israeli authorities, but to no avail. It was only in early 2017, when her mother had fallen ill and was hospitalized, that she found herself eligible in the eyes of Israel to apply for a permit to enter Gaza. With the help of Gisha, Samar’s application to visit her ailing mother in the Strip was approved, granting her a one-week long visit.
Gisha Intake Coordinator Omnia Zoubi remembers clearly the phone call she received from Samar once she had at long last arrived in Gaza, and the frail, but impassioned voice of her mother copiously thanking Omnia for helping to bring her beloved daughter to see her. Samar describes her week-long visit with her ailing mother as “nothing short of a miracle.”
Six months later, Samar contacted Gisha once more, asking for another opportunity to see her mother, whose medical condition had since critically deteriorated. When her permit application was approved and she reached Gaza, her mother was already in a comatose state and she passed away within days of Samar’s rushed arrival.
“It’s inconceivable that a mother and daughter living an hour’s drive from one another can only dream of seeing each other in such dire circumstances,” says Omnia. “It’s easier to get to the other side of the earth than the other part of the Palestinian territory.” In a recent phone conversation with Omnia, Samar told her: “I couldn’t believe it when I finally received the permit to enter Gaza earlier this year. It was my new year’s gift, the greatest I could have hoped for. The best thing that happened to me in 2017 was that I got to see my mother. The worst thing that happened is that I lost her.”
For Palestinians, residents of Gaza and the West Bank, the right to freedom of movement, and with it their access to family life, medical care, education, and livelihoods are far from a reality that can be taken for granted. On International Human Rights Day and every other day we are reminded that the harmful policies that are part and parcel of the occupation and relentlessly present in the lives of Palestinians must end.