Three weeks ago, for the first time in six years, Dunia Ismail saw her mother. Ismail lives in Gaza City, where she was born in 1971. Her mother and brother live in El Arish, Egypt, where Israeli authorities deported her father in 1981. Dunia, along with her mother and siblings, joined him four years later, but in 1994 she returned to Gaza. Until this month, she had been unable to leave since 1999.
On September 12, as soon as the Israel Defense Forces left the Gaza Strip and the first rumors spread about the breached Rafah border wall, Ismail's brother left his house in El Arish and hurried to Gaza to bring his sister over. That way she could see their mother, whose condition as a diabetes sufferer has deteriorated in the last few months and whose dream it was to touch her daughter once more. Five pain-choked hours after arriving at El Arish, Ismail began the return journey, to her husband and her three daughters.
When Ismail returned to Gaza in 1994, she came as a tourist, because according to Israeli law, Palestinians who have been away from their place of birth for more than three years, no matter what the reason, lose their residency rights. But Ismail is not guaranteed the right to live in El Arish either. According to Egyptian law, non-citizens like Ismail and her family lose their right to reside there if their residency permits expire while they are out of Egypt.
In 1994, after staying in Gaza for the three months allotted to tourists, Ismail returned to Egypt, but was convinced that Gaza remained her home. That was where she found work as a journalist and continued to write poetry. She left and came back five times to satisfy Israeli requirements. Ismail met and married her husband in Gaza, but her family wasn't at the wedding; the Israel-issued visitors' permit arrived two days afterward.
After Ismail's first daughter was born in 1999, she began to consider visiting Egypt. Torn between the desire to see her aging parents in El Arish and hold onto her identity papers and the fear of not being allowed to return to her daughter in Gaza, Ismail capitulated to fear. The price: Ismail has no official papers documenting her existence.
She does appear on the long list of Palestinians asking the Interior Ministry to recognize their right of residency. She was told her turn would come at the end of 2000, but then the second intifada broke out and talks were frozen. Her name doesn't appear on the ministry's registry even though she qualifies for residency under three separate categories.
Israel has recently promised the Palestinians that it will approve 5,000 requests for Gaza residency, for humanitarian reasons. It's not clear that Ismail will make this list either, which the Palestinians compile for Israeli approval. Will her journalistic criticism of corrupt practices be an obstacle to her selection? Or perhaps her opposition to the Oslo Accords and normalization with Israel will serve as an Israeli excuse to reject her request.
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