Gaza teaches us about isolation

A market stall in Gaza, in happier days. Photo by Gisha

Over the coming days and weeks, Jews, Christians and Muslims will be marking Passover, Easter and Ramadan respectively. Holidays that are traditionally celebrated over elaborate meals with several generations around the table, will be marked in social isolation as the globe tries to gain ground in fighting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Palestinians in Gaza have a lot to teach us about isolation and being separated from loved ones.

Twice a year, at Easter and Christmas, Gaza’s Christian residents wait for an announcement by Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the branch of the army that is in charge of permits for travel, to see if they’ll be given permits to access holy sites and visit family in the West Bank and Israel. Omnia Zoubi, an intake coordinator in Gisha’s legal department, writes about our work on the topic:

The holidays. Stress. Shopping, cleaning, cooking. What will be on the holiday menu? Who’s bringing what? If you’re my age, you’re gearing up to spend the evening with family again and bracing yourself for a replay of the same conversations from last year, and the year before that: Why are you still single? When will we have grandchildren? When are you going to buy an apartment? If all this sounds familiar to you, you must not live in Gaza.

Twice a year, at Christmas and at Easter, Israel weighs whether to give Christian Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip an opportunity to travel. Out of Gaza’s population of two million, only about one thousand men, women and children are Christian. When it comes to Gaza’s Muslim residents, Israel doesn’t so much as consider letting them mark the holidays outside Gaza.

So what happens with the tiny percent (0.05%) of Gaza’s residents ahead of every Easter, except this one? About a month before the holiday, the church in Gaza passes a list of Christians living in the Strip to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee in Gaza, which passes their permit applications to the Israeli Civil Liaison Administration (CLA) at Erez Crossing, which forwards them to COGAT. Ahead of the holiday, COGAT is supposed to publish official notice about who will be considered eligible for an Easter travel permit. The information is usually published at the very last minute, sometimes it’s even published after the holiday has ended. Every year, we contact COGAT about a month before the holiday, to demand that it issue its directive in time for families to plan the holiday. The typical response from COGAT is that “a decision has not yet been made.”

When it comes to Israel’s permit regime, every year brings new surprises. The only real constant is that the ability to travel can never be taken for granted. We can usually count on the fact that people between the ages of 16 and 35 will not be considered eligible for permits, barring a large proportion of families in Gaza from traveling together, given that many under the age of 35 in Gaza are parents. In some cases, children are granted permits, but their parents are not. In others, the parents may be over 35 but then only some of their children get permits, forcing the family to decide if it’s willing to spend the holiday apart. Some years, Israel has refused altogether to allocate permits for travel between Gaza, Israel and the West Bank over Easter.

Even when it does allocate a small number of permits, the permits are often issued a day or two before the holiday, or after the holiday has begun. If you are lucky enough to be considered eligible to apply for a permit, there is still the anxious wait to discover if you will receive a permit in practice; some of the people who meet Israel’s preliminary criteria for travel are denied permits due to vague, unspecified “security blocks.” In countless cases, Israel’s grounds for imposing “blocks” vanish once challenged by legal action, making evident how baseless the denial of people’s right to freedom of movement is to begin with.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, in “ordinary” times, Israel’s policy has made it impossible for Palestinian families, both Muslim and Christian, to mark holidays with loved ones living just a short drive away.

This year, we will all be spending the holidays away from our families and communities. Perhaps it is an opportunity to think about what is all too “normal” and “ordinary” for Palestinian families living under Israeli control, and what needs to change about that reality.

Please join us in defending the right to freedom of movement by making a contribution today.

Happy holidays and good health to all.

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