Parted by Life, Parted by Death: Palestinian Loses Child Without Ever Meeting Him

Bakr Hafi is in Gaza and his wife and children are in the West Bank. Last week his infant son died, but Hafi has also been barred from attending the funeral.

Alex Levac

What measure of cruelty and hardheartedness is needed to deny a father’s request to see his critically ill infant son once in his life, and then bar him from attending the child’s funeral? That’s what the High Court of Justice – Supreme Court President Asher Grunis and Justices Zvi Zylbertal and Elyakim Rubinstein – decided with respect to a petition filed by Hamoked: The Center for the Defense of the Individual, a human rights organization, against Israel’s security authorities (“High Court rules Gazan can’t attend son’s West Bank funeral,” by Amira Hass, Dec. 17).

The baby, Emir Hafi, died on December 14 from a hereditary disease in the home of his mother and grandfather, in the West Bank village of Artah, south of Tul Karm. A mere two-hour drive separates the home of the baby’s father, Bakr Hafi, in the Gaza Strip, and the home of his mother, Waad.

Emir, who was 18 months old when he died, came into the world not only with his illness but also with parents who were forcibly separated by Israel. His father, expelled to Gaza, never got to son even once during the infant’s truncated life.

Waad’s parents were born in the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza and moved to the West Bank in 1971. Her father, Ismail Balahawi, has spent most of his life doing various jobs in Netanya, where he’s called “Shmulik” – a Hebrew nickname for Shmuel. He says he speaks Hebrew better than Arabic. He continues to work in Netanya, with an Israeli work permit.

Balahawi’s daughter and his two granddaughters moved in with him after his son-in-law was expelled to Gaza.

Bakr and Waad were married in 2007. He built her a house in the village of Shweika, adjacent to Tul Karm. He too is originally a Gazan who lived most of his life in the West Bank. He’s 42 now, she’s 23; their beautiful daughters are Suar, 7, and Hala, 5 and a half.

Five years ago, security forces arrived at their home in the dead of night and arrested Bakr. He was incarcerated for three months in Shikma, a prison in Ashkelon, and was released without having been put on trial. But instead of allowing him to return to his home in Shweika, where his wife and daughters were waiting, he was deported to the Strip.

Bakr’s ID card states that he’s a resident of Gaza – and Palestinians have no way of changing such a designation. In virtually all cases, Gazans are not allowed to move to a new home in the West Bank even if they marry a resident from there. Family-unification requests submitted by the Hafis were rejected by Israel.

About two years after Bakr’s expulsion, Waad and their daughters moved to Gaza for a time; denied direct access by Israel, they entered the Strip via Jordan and Egypt. But the Israel Defense Forces’ bombing raids on Gaza at the time were too much for Waad, and she fled back to her parents’ home in Artah after 11 months.

Today her father recalls that Bakr “would sit on her and her daughters during the attacks, like a chicken sits on her eggs to guard them. He is such a good person, so nice.” Waad says she didn’t feel comfortable in Gaza, which is not her home. “It is not a place for her, it is a place of hell,” her father says.

She became pregnant during that stay in Gaza, and Emir entered the world under an unlucky star on May 17, 2013, in Tul Karm. Diagnosed with a fatal genetic disease, he underwent treatment in several hospitals, including Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem. It was clear, however, that his days were numbered.

Emir died a week ago Sunday, late at night in his bed. Here’s his photograph, in his mother’s cellular phone. His father never saw him.

“We asked the whole world to let his father come to the funeral, so he could see him just once, and then go back,” grandfather Shmulik-Ismail says. “I said to God: ‘You created the world. I can do nothing to help the boy. My hands are empty. But at least let his father attend the funeral.’ We did all we could.”

We spoke to Bakr by phone. “I am shattered,” he says in excellent Hebrew. “A child is born, he gets sick, I didn’t see him. I asked to see him after he died, and you know the end of the story. I am truly suffering. Truly suffering. They made me out to be a black panther, but I am a human being, flesh and blood. I have children in my house, I have a wife. They didn’t give me a chance to see my son ...

“Last year, in July, I met with the Shin Bet [security service] at Erez terminal. I said to them, ‘You didn’t come up with anything on me, you released me. Why did you send me back to Gaza and not to my house?’ I am between a rock and a hard place.

“The tears flow from my eyes. You don’t know what my situation is like here. My house is there, my beehive is there, I was a beekeeper in Shweika, my daughters and my wife are there, my whole life is there. I don’t know what to tell you. I am not, heaven forbid, hoping you will go through what I am going through – but try to feel what I feel, without a wife, without children. I do not belong to this world here [in Gaza].

“Believe me, my brother. I have an ocean of friends in Israel. I was a professional in auto bodywork. I do not belong to Gaza. Why didn’t they release me to my home? I am shattered. Completely shattered. I am talking to you with tears running down my face. Let me go back to life. Let me go back to breathing the air of my house. You know, if I were a terrorist they wouldn’t have released me. Not even the judges of the Supreme Court gave me the chance. One chance. Even to see my daughters, the way you are seeing them now.”

Following is the response of the Supreme Court to petition No. 8588/14, filed by Bakr Hafi and Hamoked on December 16, 2014, two days after Emir’s death: “Having perused security material which cannot be made public, we reached the conclusion that, despite the petitioner’s difficult circumstances, there was no flaw in the decision not to allow him to enter the West Bank from Gaza, even for a short visit subject to certain conditions.

“It should be noted that the security material is considerable and covers quite a few years, including the past year. At the same time, we want to note that if the petitioner’s wife, who is in the Judea and Samaria Region, submits a request to visit him in the Gaza Strip together with the couple’s children, the request will be examined under the rules and in a positive light.”

A final note: If it were up to the IDF and the Israel Police, this article would not have seen the light of day. They detained me for some seven hours when I was in the course of preparing it, earlier this week.