The Forgotten Exiles of the Church of the Nativity

Twenty-six Palestinians deported to Gaza 12 years ago – and their families – still await their promised return to the West Bank.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Awatef Canaan combs the hair of her daughter, Israa, as grandma Fathiya sits nearby, in Bethlehem.
Awatef Canaan combs the hair of her daughter, Israa, as grandma Fathiya sits nearby, in Bethlehem. Credit: Michal Fattal
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

In 2002, 26 Palestinians were exiled to Gaza after an Israeli five-and-a-half-week siege on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Twelve years later, the exiles and their families are still awaiting their promised return to the West Bank, their hopes pinned on the faltering Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Two key figures in the efforts to rebuild the Gaza Strip are the head of Palestinian intelligence, Majid Faraj, and Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh. Both of them are trusted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and they are the ones in direct, constant contact with representatives of foreign states (Egypt, the United States, etc.) and their intelligence services, as well as representatives of the Israeli occupation apparatus (the IDF, the Defense Ministry, the Civil Administration and Shin Bet security service).

Last week, Faraj and al-Sheikh visited the Gaza Strip (at the time of the reconciliation government meeting) and found time to meet with people who had no direct connection with the reconstruction project: those deported from Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002. On the other hand, since the reconstruction efforts depend on the cancellation of movement restrictions placed on Palestinians by Israel, there is a connection between the deportees and the new rebuilding projects.

As senior Fatah officials and Abbas representatives – and not just representatives of the PA – Faraj and al-Sheikh are among those who bear the heavy collective responsibility for the fact that 26 individuals who were under the siege in the church were sent to Gaza in May 2002 (while 13 others were exiled abroad, one of whom subsequently died from disease). They did not discuss returning home during last week’s meeting. All the two Palestinian officials could promise was that they would ask the Israelis to allow the exiles’ relatives to make the 70-kilometer trip into the Gaza Strip through the Erez checkpoint for regular visits.

Undocumented promise

The agreement to exile them and drop the Palestinian demand for an international investigation into the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002 was reached in exchange for ending the siege on Yasser Arafat. The exiles themselves were told by Mohammed Dahlan, then head of the PA’s Preventive Security Service in Gaza, and his colleague Mohammed Rashid, Arafat’s money man, that they would be allowed to return to their homes in two years’ time.

Israel did in fact end its double siege, and European countries agreed to take in 13 of the besieged Palestinians, those who were on Israel’s wanted list. But as the years have gone by, it turns out that no one from Fatah or the PA has any written, signed proof that Israel agreed to return the rest of the group to the West Bank, not even for trial in a military court, whether in two years or at any other date.

The mother of one of the exiles told Haaretz: “They told us to ask Mohammed Rashid where the agreement is. When we asked him, he told us to ask Arafat. That was after Arafat was dead.”

Without such a document, lawyers from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza representing the exiles have no legal basis for filing a case in Israeli courts. On the other hand, Israel has not officially admitted that they were deported. But when the exiles filed for permits to cross through Israel into the West Bank, where they are listed as residents, the Civil Administration either ignored or refused their request.

Each time new rounds of talks were held between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the exiles hoped that a possible return home would be on the table. Their representative in Gaza, Fahmi Canaan, told Haaretz that a year ago, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was spearheading talks, they were promised that their status would be discussed after all 104 Palestinian prisoners were released. Israel went back on its promise before the fourth group of inmates was scheduled to be released. The talks stalled, and it seems they were forgotten yet again.

Spokespersons for the Prime Minister's Office, the Defense Ministry and the Shin Bet security service did not respond to repeated requests by Haaretz for a comment on the deported people and their right of return to the West Bank.

Church under siege

While Israel Defense Forces troops entered Bethlehem in April 2002 (during Operation Defensive Shield), roughly 200 Palestinians sought shelter in the famous church. Most were unarmed. Some of them were policemen. At the time, IDF soldiers were instructed to shoot at Palestinians in uniform, even if it wasn't during combat. Some of the besieged were suspected of petty criminal offenses, such as car theft, and were afraid to be arrested. Others were indeed militants during the second intifada, but only 13 of them were on the IDF's and Shin Bet’s wanted list.

During the 39-day siege, Palestinian organizations were not allowed to send food into the church, and Israeli snipers killed seven Palestinians who got too close to the windows or tried to enter the church courtyards. Forty Palestinians were wounded by IDF fire. Most of the besieged were released and allowed to return home. Some were tried and jailed for a few years, and 39 were exiled.

The Gaza exiles’ wives and children joined them later – including Fahmi Canaan's family, and became exiles themselves, as Israel does not allow them regular passage through the Erez checkpoint. During the 12 subsequent years, parents of the deportees who live in the West Bank have been allowed, once or twice, to cross for a few days at a time and visit their sons in Gaza.

Families divided

For 12 years, the 26 families, now besieged in Gaza, have been barred from participating in their West Bank family events, whether happy or sad. They’ve been unable to visit and attend to sick parents. Fifteen of those exiled families have lost close relatives – parents, sisters and brothers – but have not been allowed to travel the 70 kilometers and see them before they passed or attend their funerals.

Most of them are affiliated with Fatah and its security forces. It was not easy for them to reside in Gaza during the civil war of 2007. Unemployment, which is high in Gaza, has put them in dire financial straits. Surviving the three wars in Gaza was likely especially hard for them, as they were far away from their supportive extended families.

The Canaan family. Fathiya, center right, is holding a photo of her son, Fahmi, who was exiled to Gaza. Photo: Michal Fattal.

At the beginning of August, during one of the cease-fires of the recent war in Gaza, Awatef Canaan and her six children traveled back to Bethlehem from Gaza. Fahmi and the family went to great lengths to collect and borrow the thousands of dollars required for the long, arduous journey from Rafah to Al-Arish in Egypt, from where they would go on to Amman and then the Allenby Bridge. The taxi fare from the Erez checkpoint would have cost only about 300 shekels (80$), if Israel allowed.

"Most of the families can't permit themselves such an expense," said Fahmi in a telephone conversation from Gaza. "We cannot afford another such trip through Egypt", he said.

For several weeks after their arrival to Bethlehem, Awatef and her children were still traumatized by the sights of killing and destruction in the Strip. Every slamming door made them jump. Fireworks startled them, Grandma Fathiya said.

As compensation, last month's Feast of the Sacrifice (Id al-Adha) was the first holiday that they really enjoyed, said the daughter, Israa: They finally celebrated it with the extended family, which knows how to pamper and spoil the young children.

But they do miss their father back in Gaza. "We haven't seen grandpa and grandma for 10 years," Israa said, sitting at the home where her father was born 42 years ago, in the Old City of Bethlehem. "Will we wait 10 years to see our father again?"

The family now hopes that Israel will issue them a transit permit that would allow them to cross the Erez Checkpoint back to Gaza.

The return home of their father and his friends remains a dream on hold for the time being.

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