Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat—In the latest conflict in Gaza, the death toll has reached almost 1,900 as Israeli airstrikes resumed following the end of a 72-hour truce on Friday morning. Every day, Hekmat Bsaiso waits by her phone in her home in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Her son, Mostafa, is one of those trapped inside the Gaza Strip. Every morning she awaits the call that lets her know his name is not among the ever-growing list of casualties.
Despite Israel’s claims that the latest military offensive—dubbed ‘Operation Protective Edge’—aims to strike Hamas in a bid to end cross-border attacks, the death toll is largely made up of civilians; the 1.8 million Gazans who are crammed into the 25-mile-long stretch of land and have nowhere to hide when the bombs start falling.
Hekmat was born and bred in Gaza, but she seized a rare opportunity to trade the all-too-familiar sound of airstrikes for a relatively more secure existence in the West Bank, after her divorce from Mostafa’s father.
Every summer holiday since, Mostafa has spent the hot days by the Gazan shoreline with his father, before returning to begin the new school year in Ramallah.
Eight years ago, Hekmat once again waved her son goodbye as he journeyed to see his father in Gaza. However, this time, Mostafa was not to return.
Now 26, Israel’s policies of family separation are ensuring his summer vacation is likely to last a lifetime.
“He went for a visit, he was never meant to stay forever in Gaza,” Hekmat told Asharq Al-Awsat as she sat in a coffee shop in downtown Ramallah. “Many times he tried to come back, but the Israeli policies and procedures do not allow it.”
According to Hekmat, separation from her son hits home hardest in times of war. The events of the last two Israeli sieges on Gaza in 2008–2009 and 2012 were played out for the world to see; Hekmat was also only able to watch the developments over the news.
“There were complicated feelings. My son is there and there is a war. And I love Gaza,” she said. “I was sitting close to the TV all the time, because many times the mobile connections went. They were horrible days,” she said.
An estimated 1,000–1,500 Palestinians were killed during the 2008–2009 Operation Cast Lead. According to human rights group B’Tselem, 167 Palestinians were killed during the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense.
After moving to Ramallah, Hekmat remarried and had her second son Yazam. Both husband and son are West Bank ID holders. As Hekmat came to the West Bank on a permit which lasted less than a week, she is now considered to be living illegally in the area. Since 2000 the Israeli authorities, who control the Palestinian population registry, have refused to allow those registered as Gaza residents to change their registered address, even if they have lived in the West Bank for many years. The West Bank has around a hundred checkpoints, which means when passing any of these she faces a chance of deportation to Gaza if a soldier was to check her ID card.
Unable to alter her address, if Hekmat was to visit her older son in Gaza it is likely she would be prevented from returning home to her younger son in the West Bank. Stuck in Gaza, West Bank ID holder Yazam would not be able to relocate to reside with his mother.
As Hekmat is considered illegally residing in the West Bank, she cannot apply for a permit to visit Gaza. “I was born in Gaza and I lived there until I became 35,” said Hekmat. “All my upbringing . . . and memories are in Gaza. It is hard to be here and have no chance to visit.”
Gaza and the West Bank are Palestinian territories, and both are supposed to constitute a single territorial entity, according to international accords signed by Israel—freedom of movement was to be permitted, notably through a safe passage.
Today, Israel prohibits all passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, except in exceptional humanitarian cases involving the sickness, death or marriage of first-degree relatives—and even this is subject to a permit application process, which is almost routinely rejected. This policy of separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is creating an almost impenetrable barrier between the two areas.
“If I stay in Gaza I cannot bring my youngest son, and if I stay in the West Bank it is not allowed for my oldest son to have a permit and come here,” Hekmat explains. A line has been drawn between the two brothers, who, separated by politics and policies, have not seen each other in person since Mostafa left, when Yazam was four months old. “We are living through technology, like Skype, Viber, Facebook,” said Hekmat. “My son knows his brother through Skype.”
“I feel like one of us is in prison, and mostly him. I have the same feeling of a mother with her children in an Israeli jail. Even sometimes they can visit them; I cannot,” she said.
Nearly a third of Gaza Strip residents have relatives in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or Israel. Out of the 70 percent who maintain these ties, only 13 percent meet their relatives face-to-face inside the country’s borders—according to movement rights group Gisha. About 81 percent of those who keep in touch with their relatives living a few miles away are only able to do so by telephone, Internet or mail. More than 400,000 have relatives in the West Bank, whom they cannot see, certainly not on a regular basis.
Like many, Hekmat has missed key family moments, such as the death of her mother. “When I left, I thought that I could come back and visit any time,” she said. “The political situation wasn’t as complicated; the elections and the division hadn’t happened. But later things changed. There was no way to visit her or to be close to her in the last moments of her life. It took me years to be able to consider this and recognize this that she had passed.”
Ola Salama, a Gazan friend of Hekmat, also found herself facing the same impenetrable barrier. After living and working in Ramallah for nine years, she made a trip to visit her family. On crossing the border she was told by the Israeli authorities she could not return to the West Bank. Ola remained in Gaza for nine years, and has married and had children there. When her job presented her with the opportunity to leave Gaza and return to the West Bank with her family, she took it. While her children have escaped a life marred by war, she had to leave her other relatives behind.
“I couldn’t handle the thought of losing one of my children. After the second war we believed our children were not safe; alongside the blockade, the electricity shortages, the lack of opportunities, they were not safe,” she said. “All of us in Gaza need psychotherapy.”
Israeli policies leading to the separation of families are not confined to the Palestinian Territories. Syrian residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights region are also affected. The 2003 Nationality and Entry into Israel law almost completely prohibits lawful residents of Israel being reunited with spouses from what Israel defines as “enemy states”—which includes Syria. The law essentially prohibits marriage between Israeli citizens and Palestinians, who make up around 20 percent of Israel’s population.
Israel’s “center of life” policy targets the Palestinians of Jerusalem, who are also affected by the Israeli policies. They require Palestinian permanent residents to consistently prove that they hold continuous residence in East Jerusalem by providing extensive documentary evidence. As West Bank ID holders are prohibited from entering and residing in occupied East Jerusalem without permission from the Israeli government, and family unification applications for West Bank ID holders were unofficially suspended in 2000, Palestinians from Jerusalem may face the prospect of having to live in a separate home to their West Bank ID holder spouse if they want to protect their right to work and live in their city of birth.
Asked what her son’s future looks like from Gaza, Hekmat said: “In any community you need the colors, you need the difference, you need successful people, leaders, examples in the community. In Gaza, you wake up in the morning, you go in the taxi and the taxi driver talks about his hopelessness. You reach work and your employer talks about their sadness. You go back to your home, and the problems follow you inside your own home.”
“Young people in Gaza just try not to die,” she said. “Not to die, not to do drugs, not to become crazy.” When asked about the hopes and dreams of Palestinian youth, she said: “To have a dream, oh, you need to be a hero.”