Lightning Struck Twice: A Life Torn Between Gaza and Israel

How Israeli citizens Ruhia al-Tayeb and her young son became trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare ten years ago while trying to return to Gaza.

I met her 10 years ago in a miserable apartment belonging to her girlfriend in Jaffa, where she was taking shelter. Mohammed, her son, was 3 years old then, a boy with a black-and-blue mark on his forehead from banging his head on the floor. At the time, Mohammed wanted to go home, to his father in the Gaza Strip ‏(Ruhia’s second husband‏), but he was stuck here with his Israeli-born mother, Ruhia al-Tayeb, for an entire year. Only after the publication of an article about this in Haaretz, a petition to the High Court of Justice and vigorous activity by Hamoked − the Center for the Defense of the Individual − were the mother and her son finally permitted to return to Gaza.

For 10 years I didn’t hear from her, until this week. Ruhia, the woman whose life has been torn between her home and husband in Gaza and her family in Israel − between the children from her first marriage in Israel and her son in Gaza − phoned me in a tearful voice. She is stuck here in Israel once again with Mohammed, now 13. The school year has begun and the boy is crying and threatening suicide.

This time I met them in a miserable apartment in south Tel Aviv, staying in one room in the neglected backyard of a house, with a daughter and grandson who live here. Once again, the bureaucracy and security considerations of the occupation are tearing an Israeli citizen and her child away from their home. Once more, she is being refused exit. Now, as then, there is nothing new under the sun: Ruhia and Mohammed are crying. Their husband and father is waiting in Gaza, where their home and school are.

Ruhia was born in Jaffa. In her youth, she married an Israeli man who was a drug dealer, the father of her four grown children ‏(a son and three daughters‏). She left him and met Hisham, a resident of Gaza who is 10 years her junior. He has an Egyptian mother and Palestinian father.

Ruhia tried to start a new chapter in her life. The couple purchased an apartment in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City, and the couple’s only son, Mohammed, was born into decent circumstances. The early years were good to them. Ruhia divided her life between her three daughters and son in Israel, and her
husband and son in Gaza. Half a week here, a 90-minute trip, then half a week there.

After Ruhia and Mohammed were stuck here in Israel for a year in 2003, she still somehow managed to maintain a routine of going back and forth to the Strip. Although there was a period when she was prevented from returning to Israel, once again the window eventually opened, and she began coming here once or twice a year, thanks to her Israeli citizenship. She would come to Israel to see her elderly mother, children and grandchildren, to a place she describes as “my country.”

Mohammed attends the Yarmouk school in Gaza. His father receives a salary from the Palestinian Authority without working, because of Hamas rule in the Strip. The father’s entire family is in Egypt. Ruhia, her husband and son managed to get through 2008’s Operation Cast Lead and last winter’s Operation Pillar of Defense together, in Gaza.

In May, Ruhia arrived at the Erez Crossing once again, in order to renew her entry and exit permit. ‏(When she leaves Gaza she receives her Israeli ID card, which she deposits at the checkpoint when she returns to the Strip.‏) Ruhia received an entry and exit permit that is valid for six months, until the end of October. At the end of May, when Mohammed finished his school year, she left Gaza with him for a family visit. Her older son, from her first marriage, who lives in Canada, also came to Israel for this rare family reunion.

After a few weeks in Israel, her husband phoned her and told her that his mother, who lives in Ismailia, Egypt, was ill and wanted them to come and take care of her. Ruhia and Mohammed went to Egypt via Taba, remained there for the month of Ramadan and the holiday following it and returned to Israel in mid-August. Mohammed’s school year was about to start, and he and his mother wanted to return home. But Israel is not allowing it.

Amar, a liaison man at the Erez Crossing, explained to Ruhia that for security reasons, her entry into Gaza will no longer be possible. She says he told her, “You cause problems.”

“What problems?” she asked.

“Maybe your husband. Maybe your husband’s brothers. Maybe his uncles.”

But Hisham’s entire family lives in Egypt, Ruhia explained. Amar suggested she write a letter.

“I, Ruhia al-Tayeb, hereby declare that I am married in Gaza and that I have a son of 13 who is with me now in Israel and has to begin school in another 10 days,” she wrote on August 19, in her excellent Hebrew. “My home is in Gaza, and I have no permanent place here. Each time [I visit], I’m with a different friend or daughter. I’m really asking you to help me get back to my home in Gaza. I no longer have anywhere to stay, the school year is beginning and I’m helpless. Thank you very much in advance for your understanding and consideration.”

She sent a fax and didn’t receive a reply. She phones almost daily and gets the runaround. Call at one, call tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next week. Amar at the checkpoint replied to her messages: “Don’t contact me. When I have an answer I’ll get back to you.”

Once, she says, he told her: “You’re an Israeli. Decide whether you’re staying here or going to Gaza or Egypt.” Ruhia replied: “Mr. Amar, I have children here and a child there, and I can’t separate him from his father.”

She is upset. “I pleaded and cried. The child has to start school. I would kiss Amar’s feet if he would let us go back. I have no income in Israel, I have no health insurance and I have no home.”

Last Tuesday, the authorities once again promised a reply and once again gave her the runaround. Ruhia is in despair, and so is Mohammed. In a neglected yard surrounded by a tin fence, under a roof made of jute, she sits with him, her daughter and her grandson at the far end of the only room. Together they spend their days in anticipation of returning home.

“I feel so sorry for the child. I try to give him everything. To teach him not to hate. Why are they doing this to me? What security are they talking about? I’m sure they know how much I love my country. They should know who is for the country and who is against it,” she says. “How can they abuse a person like that?”

In the past weeks, Ruhia and Mohammed have been moving from one apartment to another, seeking temporary shelter with her daughters and her friends, along with the boy’s bag of clothes, their sole possessions here.

Hamoked is once again trying to help them, and the director, Dalia Kerstein, says that if there is another negative reply, they will petition the High Court. But the High Court is not usually the bearer of good tidings in cases like this. And Ruhia is not alone: Kerstein says there have been hundreds of cases similar to hers, of Israeli citizens or East Jerusalem residents who were mistreated by Israel when they left Gaza and returned there, until most of them gave up. Their families were torn apart forever, and “the state won,” as Kerstein puts it.

A spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said in response that the free passage (between Israel and Gaza) of Ruhia al-Tayeb has been refused on security-related grounds.

Alex Levac