Adam Hemo was just three-and-a-half years old when a petition was filed in his name to the Israeli High Court. The petition asked the court to grant Adam permission to move to the West Bank from Gaza with his mother and four older siblings.
His mother and siblings were registered as "West Bank residents" in the Israeli-controlled Palestinian population registry, meaning that according to Israel’s criteria for travel, they could request to move back to the West Bank. But Adam was registered as a "Gaza resident."
Fifty-three years into the occupation, 27 years since Oslo, and 15 years since the disengagement from Gaza, and Israel still has the exclusive power to decide who is considered a resident of Gaza and who is a resident of the West Bank. Residents of Gaza need Israel’s permission to live in the West Bank, without which they are considered "illegal aliens" there – even three-year-olds.
Israel’s ongoing control over the Palestinian population registry and its control over movement grant it power to determine the fate of millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza – everything from the mundane to the profound.
The ability to move impacts who you can love, where you can live, which groceries reach your market shelves and which businesses manage to operate in your community, as most of the world is now realizing more acutely under the pandemic lockdown. Whether annexation stays de facto or becomes de jure, whether the Trump plan is adopted or not, Israel’s control over movement will persist.
Over the past two decades, especially, Israel has wielded this control in the service of its goal to isolate Gaza and separate it from the West Bank. In recent years, the policy was given a name, "the separation policy," and without ever being formally explained or its objectives published, it is defended in court with fervor by state representatives in case after case just like Adam’s.
Sweeping security arguments about minimizing contact and travel to prevent “transfer of terrorist infrastructure” fall flat when the petitioner is a three-year-old or when even cookies can’t be marketed from Gaza City to Ramallah.
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Adam’s story is like so many told about the conflict, its details so absurd that they belie how emblematic it is. Adam’s mother, Kawthar, originally from the West Bank, moved to Gaza in 2000 following her marriage to a resident of the Strip. In 2012, she managed to register her children, like herself, as West Bank residents.
Israel refused to let Kawthar register Adam, the youngest, who was born in 2013, as a West Bank resident, which left Kawthar with a Sophie’s choice. She could either provide her four older children a chance at a better life in the West Bank, free of rampant poverty and repeated military operations, by abandoning her youngest child in the Strip, or keep the family united but remain in Gaza.
That’s how, in 2017, Adam became one of the youngest petitioners to Israel’s High Court. After a legal battle that lasted over two years, inquiries by members of the Israeli parliament and media, Israel finally agreed to grant Adam permission to transit to the West Bank with his mother and four siblings, just a few weeks shy of his sixth birthday.
The occupation has lasted so long that its bureaucracy has taken on a life and logic of its own. Those continuing to search for a security rationale to justify it do so in vain. You won’t find any security rationale in blocking a three-year-old from moving from Gaza to the West Bank, but what you will find is a system bent on keeping as few Palestinians as possible from living in the West Bank.
The state’s territorial claims and goals in the West Bank are clearer than ever. The settlements aren’t in the West Bank for security, they’re there because a portion of society with a disproportionate amount of power believes it should be able to lord over the land without consequences or obligations to the Palestinians living nearby without equal rights.
The settlers and their allies are no longer even hiding behind the sacred cow of "security" and are making every effort to cement a reality in which Palestinians are divided and conquered indefinitely so that the status quo remains in their favor.
It’s time to wake up and realize that Gaza’s isolation, and the endless suffering that comes with it, is driven primarily by these same goals for territorial control in the West Bank, and it must end.
Tania Hary is the executive director of Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. Twitter: @taniahary