In August Adam Hemo will be six years old. For the past two and a half years Israel has not allowed him to leave the Gaza Strip together with his mother, three brothers and sister and move back with them to the West Bank.
The grandmother, grandfather, aunts and uncles want to celebrate his birthday at their home in the village of Kafr Malik, east of Ramallah. They want him to register for first grade in the village’s school. They hope that in the bosom of his family and the rural quiet, their daughter and sister Kawthar – Adam’s mother – will return to herself and escape the depression she is suffering, in spite of the medications she is taking.
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“I’m sure that her returning home will do 50 percent of the improvement,” her younger sister, Kifaya, said to me this week. “Here, in Ramallah, she can find work.”
At the beginning of 2017, Kawthar Hemo, who lives separately from her husband (they were married in 2000 and moved to his hometown of Rafah a few years later), decided to return and live with her family in the hilly West Bank village. Israel allowed her and her four older children to leave Gaza, but on one condition: Adam, three and a half at the time, must be left in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli bureaucracy’s explanation is simple: In the Palestinian population registry, it is written that Kafr Malik is the address of the mother and her four older children. But Adam’s address is in Rafah. Three-and-a-half years old or not, he must remain at the address that’s in the computer, declared the official from the IDF’s District Coordination and Liaison office at the Erez checkpoint.
Of course Kawthar, the mother, refused to abandon Adam. It was decided that her oldest son, who was born in Ramallah, would return to the West Bank and live in his grandparents’ house. This week he completed his matriculation exams in Kafr Malik.
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Kawthar and the rest of her children returned to their empty apartment in Rafah – whose contents she had already given away. They returned to an exhausting and frustrating bureaucratic slog that has yet to end, in an effort to obtain an exit permit for Adam. Two and a half years have passed and “all Adam knows is that because of him we can’t leave Gaza, that’s what his brothers tell him too,” says his mother, speaking by phone from Rafah. “He’s constantly asking: Did the paper come that will let me go out? Did the paper come that will let me go be with Grandma and Grandpa?”
The day after their forced return to Rafah, on March 2, 2017, Kawthar, assisted by a relative in Kafr Malik, submitted a request to have Adam’s address changed so that it matches that of his mother and siblings. The request was submitted at the Palestinian Interior Ministry in Ramallah, as required. Meanwhile, the Gisha organization also contacted the coordination and liaison office on Hemo’s behalf, requesting that Adam be permitted to leave the Gaza Strip with his family. The office’s legal adviser responded that Hemo’s request “to permit her son, who is a resident of the Gaza Strip, to return to the West Bank does not comply with the policy regarding the movement of people between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and was not approved.”
Hemo and Gisha’s lawyers were stunned: Why, five years earlier in 2012, was the mother able to change her other children’s address in the population registry by contacting the Palestinian Interior Ministry, but not now? The regulation being invoked is one of dozens invented by the military legal experts and the bureaucrats of the Defense Ministry’s unit of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, and which police the lives of the Palestinians living under Israeli rule in Gaza and the West Bank.
The “settlement regulation” (nohal hishtak’ut) is one of the toughest: Only people with an immediate relative in the West Bank are allowed to submit this application, and it will only be handled in the following three humanitarian situations: A long-term chronically ill patient, or person over the age of 65 requiring nursing care, who can only be cared for by a first-degree relative who lives in the West Bank, or a minor under the age of 16 with one parent who was a Gaza resident and has died, while the other parent’s address is in the West Bank.
Adam Hemo is not elderly or chronically ill, so the first two criteria do not apply. What about the third? He is a minor, but, thankfully, not an orphan. His father, who is from Rafah, left the Gaza Strip in early 2017 and has not returned. He does not have that much connection with the family, but he is alive. So, ostensibly, the third criterion does not apply to Adam either. However, the regulations say that the coordinator (a position currently held by Major General Kamil Abu Rukon) “has the discretion to consider an application… even if it does not fit in the designated categories.” But it goes on to say that “marriage and joint parenthood will not constitute, as a sole reason, special humanitarian circumstances that justify settlement in the West Bank.”
These strict criteria explain why, since the regulation was introduced in 2009, it has only been used to address five requests to settle in the West Bank – all by minors and only after the cases reached the High Court.
In May 2017, Hemo, her son Adam and Gisha appealed to the High Court. They argued that the citing of the settlement regulation was unfair because it clearly did not fit this specific case, and that Adam should be allowed to move with his mother to the West Bank.
Justice Noam Sohlberg accepted the state prosecutor’s position that the petition should be rejected because: “The petitioners did not exhaust the administrative possibilities available to them and did not submit a suitable application in accordance with the regulation…,” he wrote in his September 2017 ruling. Sohlberg also wrote that the court remained open to the petitioners “if the proceeding according to the settlement regulation does not go well.”
Hemo’s brother immediately went to the Office of Civilian Affairs – the Palestinian body designated by the Oslo Accords to be the mediator between the Palestinian resident and the Israeli authorities. The brother wanted to file an application on behalf of his 4-year-old nephew for the boy to come live in the West Bank. The Palestinian officials told him it was not possible because there was a pending legal proceeding in the matter. He understood that this was the answer they had received from the Israelis in the COGAT office.
For a year, he kept receiving the same rejection, for the same reasons. Was this a direct order from the Israeli officers to the Palestinian officials? There is no written documentation of this and the Jerusalem district attorney denies that this was the case. Did the Palestinian officials act improperly? We don’t know. What we do know is that Hemo and her children continued to live in uncertainty, and the mother’s feeling of helplessness only increased, along with her depression, and her yearning to see her eldest son and her elderly parents.
It also intensified the economic as well as the psychological hardship for the family who lives so far apart – 80-90 insurmountable kilometers. “Kawthar calls us at night,” says Kifaya. “She cries and says she is ready to die but she’s afraid the children would be lost. She begs us to do everything to get them out. We try to calm her down on the phone, and not to let her know how worried we are about her.”
In November 2018, Gisha filed a new High Court petition asking the state to explain why it would not allow Adam, now five years and three months old, to travel with his mother to the West Bank. But then the judicial authority changed in regard to the Palestinians and Muna Haddad of Gisha filed a third petition in January 2019 in the District Court for Administrative Affairs: The child is not independent and has no ID card of his own, she said, stating the obvious. He must be with his mother, it is only logical that he return with her to the West Bank and that his address be in the West Bank just as hers is “without any conditions and without any need to meet any criterion dictated by the respondents, certainly not by filing a request on the basis of the settlement regulation, a procedure that has proven to be fruitless.”
But in April 2019, attorney Tal Nissim-Tal of the Jerusalem district attorney’s office responded that no applications concerning the child had been sent from the Palestinian side to the Israeli one, and that the “[settlement] regulation is the appropriate setting for consideration of the petitioner’s request … and explicitly refers to minors and also cites a specific exception for them.” Therefore, the petition should be denied, she wrote.
A hearing on the petition before Judge David Gidoni was scheduled for June 30. And lo and behold, with the hearing weeks away, on May 28 COGAT did receive the uncle’s application to allow Adam to leave Gaza for the West Bank, in accordance with the settlement regulation. Hence, Nissim-Tal wrote this week, the petition has become redundant. Judge Gidoni tended to accept the state’s position and order that the appeal be vacated. Attorney Haddad from Gisha objected, explaining that the state’s response did not say how much time it would take for the application to be handled, and that they fear further delay.
On Thursday, Nissim-Tal replied, at the order of Judge Gidoni, that a decision would be handed down within two weeks. Judge Gidoni cancelled the hearing, but did not accept the state’s request to vacate the appeal, and ordered it to respond by July 14 as to whether Adam can leave the Gaza Strip with his mother and siblings.