Hamad Abu Gezer hasn’t seen his father for four years and his sister Amana hasn’t seen him for more than two years. He’s 19, she’s 20, a brother and sister in a family torn apart by Israel, probably for all time. Their father, Fares, lives an hour’s drive from his daughter’s home in Segev Shalom, in the south, and two hours from his son’s home in Lod, in the central part of the country. But Israel has decreed that once you are over the age of 18, you are no longer entitled to meet with your parents if they live in the besieged Gaza Strip, close as it may be. Nuclear families are divided like they were between East and West Germany during the Cold War, and like they still are between North and South Korea.
This brutal reality, to which hundreds of Israelis are condemned, exists well below the public radar. But for Amana and Hamad, the fact that they can no longer see their father, is turning their lives upside-down. Amana was married in Israel without Fares being present at the wedding – he has never even met her husband. Hamad is building his life here without a father. Dad remains only on the phone. The two speak to him often via video chat.
The “Train Neighborhood” in Lod is a byword for neglect and crime. Not a night goes by here without shots being fired, the residents say they don’t fall asleep without hearing gunshots first. Open streams of sewage and train tracks characterize the neighborhood in which Yitzhak Rabin, the historical “liberator of Lod,” one of the officers of the expulsion and the commander of the massacre in 1948, is memorialized: The main street of the neighborhood, most of whose residents are Arabs, was named for him. The street intersects with streets bearing the names of Anwar Sadat, Naguib Mahfouz, Saladin and King Muhammad V.
Private homes hidden behind walls and fences, Tel Aviv taxis on their way to drug station drop-offs, an armed guard who chases us away with threats. Hamad lives in one of the houses along the railway line, on the banks of the sewage canal, with his grandmother and his aunt and her children – they too are torn from a father who lives in the Gaza Strip – in very crowded conditions. His sister, Amana, is visiting from Segev Shalom, a Bedouin town southeast of Be’er Sheva.
Their father Fares, 42, is from Rafah, in southern Gaza; their mother, Haijar, 42, from Lod. A month ago she traveled with her six other, younger children to see their father in Gaza. They’ll be back in a few weeks, to spend some time in Lod, in order to be with Hamad and with Haijar’s family, among them her mother, Hemda, 65, who was born in Gaza but hasn’t visited there for about 50 years.
Fares is in charge of security in Rafah’s schools. Until 2000 he lived in Israel, working in Be’er Sheva, and it is here that he met his wife. In 2000, the gates were closed to him: He was no longer able to live with his family in Israel. Since then the mother and her children have made the journey from Lod to Gaza and back every few months, with each trip demanding authorizations, numerous errands, expectations and sometimes even petitions to the High Court of Justice. Every such trip ends in heartbreak, when they have to part again, the wife from her husband, the father from his children. That’s been the drill for the past 21 years.
As long as Hamad and Amana were under 18, they naturally joined the arduous family trips: Their childhood and adolescence were divided between Lod and Rafah. But having passed the arbitrary age limit of 18, they are no longer allowed to meet with their father, neither in Israel nor in Gaza. Israeli authorities have decided that Palestinians over that age don’t need to spend time with their parents. Not for joyful occasions and not for mournful ones, not on holidays and not on regular weekdays, not in sickness and not at weddings – certainly not whenever they feel like it. Enough with these useless family ties in which parents meet with their sons, daughters meet with their parents. Eighteen is the age of disconnect, amputation, everlasting parting, according to Israel.
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The last time Hamad saw his father in person was in 2016. After that, even before he turned 18, he tried once more to enter the Strip, but the replies were late in coming, the mills of bureaucracy ground slowly and he simply gave up trying to arrange a visit. In any case he was torn between his life in Rafah and his life in Lod. Hamad dropped out of school in the fourth grade. He had to help support the family and started to work at odd jobs in Lod. In the past two years, he’s had steady work. During the day he works with his uncle installing aluminum siding, and in the evenings he works for a temporary-employment company, cleaning a Tel Aviv train station.
His sister, Amana, has been married for two years to Salam Ardani, from Segev Shalom. He’s a forklift driver in the nearby bromine compounds factory; they live in a cabin in that town. Amana misses Lod and Rafah, and above all misses her father, who couldn’t get to her wedding. Even when he suffered from a heart ailment, she wasn’t allowed to visit him. She’s twice submitted requests and has twice been turned down.
Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual has been handling the case of Abu Gezer and his family since 2009. Dozens of applications and petitions relating to the family have emerged from the NGO’s office in Jerusalem. “Urgent request to allow entry for divided family in October 2009,” addressed to “the Israeli Affairs Office, District Coordination and Liaison Gaza, IDF.” The request: to allow a mother and her five children (at that time), Amana, 9, Hamad, 8, Muad, 6, Zuhar, 4, Mohammed, 2, to return to Gaza. “On June 1, 2009, Mrs. Abu Gezer took her children on a visit to Israel and now she wishes to return to the Gaza Strip to her home and her husband. Mrs. Abu Gezer applied directly to your office in August, and to date has not received a response to her request. It should be noted that Abu Gezer’s children attend school in the Gaza Strip, where the school year has already begun. As a result of the delay in receiving a permit, the children have not returned to school. I request that you issue a permit immediately.” Signed, Anat Gonen, complaints coordinator, Hamoked. There are 20 such letters.
There were also petitions to the High Court – asking it to issue an order nisi in 2017 to allow the return of the Abu Gezer family to their home in Gaza, or to allow an urgent hearing since school in Gaza had already begun and there’s no permit to return. And, of course, there have been countless phone calls. Hamoked is currently dealing with 150 such torn-apart families. According to the NGO’s spokesperson, Ran Yaron, there are hundreds more such cases that are not being handled by Hamoked.
In response to a query from Haaretz, the spokesperson’s unit of the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories this week stated: “According to existing policy, travel by Israeli children to a parent who resides in the Gaza Strip is only possible with the accompaniment of an Israeli parent, on condition that said children are under the age of 18. We would like to point out that each request [for a permit] is examined individually on its own merits, as part of a thorough investigation involving all relevant professionals and in keeping with security-related considerations.”
Hamoked’s executive director, Jessica Montell, told Haaretz this week that “Hamoked has been representing the Abu Gezer family since 2009, in order to allow them to lead as normal a family life as possible, despite the discriminatory law that prevents family unification with partners from the Gaza Strip and the tight closure of Gaza. Every six months Hamoked applied to the army in order to renew the permit that enables Haijar and her children to live with the family’s father in Gaza. Every time they visited Israel, Hamoked was compelled to apply for a new permit that would make it possible for them to return afterward to their home in Gaza.
“Many of the applications were not dealt with, and twice Hamoked was compelled to petition the High Court of Justice so that Haijar and her children would be able to return to their home in the Gaza Strip. These divided families live with a sword dangling over them, because the moment a child reaches the age of 18, father and child must part, perhaps for all time. It’s a cruel policy that tears families apart. How can Israel decree that an 18-year-old will never see her father again?”
Haijar’s sister, Sara, 41, has also been wrenched from her husband. She hasn’t seen him for a year. With her five children, she too lives in the family home in Lod. Her husband, Mansour Abu, 62, was born in Rafah, but is a citizen of Romania and has lived in that country for 30 years and owns a bakery in the city of Vulcan, is unable to get a permit to visit Israel, despite his Romanian citizenship. It was hard for her to travel to Romania with all the children. Not long ago, the father returned to Gaza, so the geographic distance has been much shortened, but the family’s unification has become even more impossible. The aunt shows photos of her husband from Romania and from Gaza. Why don’t they let him in, she asks.
We asked Hamad about his most vivid memory from Gaza. “My grandfather and grandmother. My grandfather Hamad is 92 and Grandma Amana is 75. I am named for him and my sister is named for her. I haven’t seen them for a long time and I haven’t spoken with them for a long time. I’ll never see them again in my life.”