Terminal Limbo: This Gaza Man Is Stuck in a Room in Abu Dhabi, Unable to Enter the UAE or Go Home

For five months, a Gaza man has been locked up in a small room in Abu Dhabi, even though he’s not guilty of any wrongdoing. Israel and Egypt refuse to allow him to return to Gaza, and the UAE won’t allow him in

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Alghamri. Like the protagonist of the Spielberg film “The Terminal,” he’s stranded in an airport, his entry to the UAE denied and unable to return to his country, either.
Alghamri. Like the protagonist of the Spielberg film “The Terminal,” he’s stranded in an airport, his entry to the UAE denied and unable to return to his country, either. Credit: Courtesy of Alaa Alghamri
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Alaa Alghamri drew a large airplane on the wall of his room with a pencil. That’s been the object of his desire for close to half a year: a plane to get him out of the room in Abu Dhabi where he’s confined even though he’s not guilty of any wrongdoing. He just wants to get back home, to the Gaza Strip. It’s a spartan room, with bare walls and floor, closet, bed, television, refrigerator and armchair. The windows are shuttered, the door is locked most hours of the day. Three times a day a meal is brought to the room, almost always the same menu. Only between 8 and 10 P.M. is he allowed to go outside into a small, fenced yard. It’s a cross between a hotel and a detention or custodial facility – he himself doesn’t know what the building where he’s being held is generally used for.

Nor does he know how long he’s fated to remain incarcerated there. For five months, he’s been stuck in the United Arab Emirates, unable to enter and unable to leave. At first he was in the Abu Dhabi airport, sleeping on cartons he spread on the floor, then he was confined to an airport hotel until he was brought here, to Zayed City in Abu Dhabi. Only once has he been allowed to leave his hotel-jail, for dental treatment, and then he considered escaping, until he remembered that he had nowhere to escape to.

Steven Spielberg used the same situation for a film about a man who’s trapped at New York’s JFK Airport, his entry to the United States denied and unable to return to his country, either. The film, “The Terminal,” was based on a true story about an Iranian refugee who was stranded for eight years in Terminal 1 of Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. Ala Alghamri hasn’t been stuck for eight years yet, but no one can see an obvious end to the weird and cruel limbo this taxi driver’s son from Khan Yunis is caught in. Alghamri ’s story could serve as a metaphor or allegory for the situation of his compatriots: incarcerated in an Arab state that has established diplomatic relations with Israel, even as it casts the Palestinians aside, with no country willing to help him return home. But Alghamri is neither metaphor nor allegory: He’s a 26-year-old single man who was born and has lived all of his life in the city of Khan Yunis and never left the Gaza Strip. Alghamri helped his father run a taxi business, and dreamed of a different future, less harsh than Khan Yunis. His dream turned into the nightmare he’s now living.

The room where Alghamri is detained. Credit: Alaa Alghamri

He was a physical education student in the Gaza Strip but couldn’t find a job. Last year, he decided to try to seek a way to leave Gaza, in hope of finding a better future elsewhere. Through a local travel agency he received an entry visa to the UAE. He has an uncle, Karem Odeh, his mother’s brother, an aviation engineer, who’s been living in Dubai for the past 30 years. He promised to find Alghamri a job as a firefighter in Dubai after he underwent training. The future looked rosy for Alaa when he left the Gaza Strip last December 6; nothing prepared him for what was to come. After crossing into Egypt via Rafah he traveled to Cairo, and reached the city’s international airport after almost 24 hours on the road. He landed in Dubai the next day. His uncle, whom he had never met, picked him up at the airport and took him to his spacious home, where he was given a private residential unit.

Life looked promising. Two things about Dubai captivated him immediately: the fact that there was a steady power supply, with no breaks – something he had never before encountered – and the feeling of security, tranquility and quiet, without the incessant noise of drones overhead and without the fear and terror of being bombed or shelled, day and night, which is the routine of life in Khan Yunis. This was something completely new to him. “The inner quiet, with nothing happening, with nothing to be afraid of, and having electricity all the time – those are things I never knew,” he related this week by phone from his place of incarceration. The order and the cleanliness in Dubai also impressed him deeply, so different from his home surroundings.

He spent two months as a tourist in Dubai, until his firefighting training could be arranged. Then the coronavirus epidemic erupted, and at the end of February he was informed that the firefighting course had been canceled. He decided to return home, to Khan Yunis, his dream shattered. He knew that the gates were about to be closed because of the epidemic. On March 19 he boarded a flight for Cairo, intending to return to the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing. In the Cairo airport he was taken to a side room and informed by a passport control officer that he would not be able to enter Egypt. His suitcases were brought to him. The officer requested that he buy a ticket back to the UAE, but he refused. He asked for an explanation for his expulsion. “We don’t owe you an explanation,” he was told and was put on a flight back to Dubai. There he was informed that the borders of the UAE were closed to foreigners because of the epidemic and that he would not be permitted to enter the country.

Alghamri spent the next 10 days sleeping on cartons he spread out on the floor of the airport. He was not alone. About 120 other passengers – from Yemen, Albania, Tajikistan and elsewhere – were stranded with him. The airline supplied him with food coupons. After 10 days on the floor, the airline moved him to the Dubai Hotel in the airport. He was forbidden to leave the hotel – security men paid surprise visits to his room to make sure he hadn’t escaped. On May 20, he was informed that the airport and the hotel were resuming partial activity, which meant that he would need to be moved to a different facility in the city. Since then he’s been confined to the room from which he spoke to us this week in an anguished tone. Most of the passengers who had been stuck with him originally had returned to their countries, and only a small group of Syrians and Yemenis remained with him.

The Dubai airport, April 2020 Credit: Reuters

The windows of his room don’t open, the door is locked for most of the day, the building is fenced in. Last week, when he was taken to a dentist, he thought for the first time about escaping, but he knew that if he went to his uncle’s place he would be caught – and he has nowhere else to go. On Facebook he discovered that the Jerusalem-based human rights organization Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual had helped a Palestinian woman who was stuck in the West Bank return to her home in the United States. “I am a Palestinian who has been stuck in Dubai since March and I don’t know who to turn to,” he wrote to Hamoked on June 17. Dunia Abbas, the director of the NGO’s reception and information departments, started to work on his case. The most obvious way for him to return home would be to allow him to pass through Ben-Gurion Airport and from there via the Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip. That’s a rare possibility for a Gaza resident, though it’s done in exceptional cases.

On June 29, Irit Eshet, from the NGO’s client advocacy unit, wrote to Israel’s Coordination and Liaison Administration for the Gaza Strip, requesting that Gamari be permitted to go through Ben-Gurion Airport in the absence of any other alternative, as Egypt had closed its borders in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic. On July 13, no reply having been received from the CLA despite multiple follow-up inquiries, Hamoked stated that it would take his case to court.

On July 26, Hamoked submitted an administrative petition to the Jerusalem District Court in its capacity as a court for administrative affairs, against the interior minister and the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, requesting that Ala Gamari be permitted to return from Dubai to his home via Israel’s international airport. The preliminary response of the respondents was negative; the representatives of the interior minister and of COGAT requested that “the petition be rejected outright.” They stated that Egypt had been reopened to foreigners, as had the Rafah crossing. “In addition, the petitioner does not indicate the source of the respondents’ obligation to allow a petitioner who left the Gaza Strip without going through Israel, to enter Israel via Ben-Gurion Airport for the purpose of entering Gaza… The petition is groundless.” The respondents’ lawyer, Yoel Fogelman, from the Jerusalem District prosecution, also requested that the petition, if not summarily rejected, be heard in Be’er Sheva District Court, for administrative reasons, and the request was granted. The Be’er Sheva court gave Hamoked 21 days to respond to the state’s arguments; its reply was submitted on Tuesday of this week. Attorney Maisa Abu Saleh-Abu Akar, from the NGO’s legal department, told the court that the claim that Egypt is open to Alaa Alghamri is incorrect. “If this case of the petitioner is not considered an exceptional humanitarian case, then that proviso would appear to be empty of content,” she wrote to the court.

Alaa Alghamri and the plane he drew on the wall of his room. Credit: Alaa Alghamri

Alghamri sleeps during the day and spends the nights watching television and surfing the web. He also spends a lot of time speaking to his family in Khan Yunis via TikTok. When the money his family transferred to him at the beginning of his ordeal ran out, he borrowed money for cigarettes from a Syrian citizen with whom he became friends and who has since managed to leave for Sudan. The staff who bring him his meals buy the cigarettes for him. He is being treated well, he says. He appealed to the UAE authorities and was told that when he succeeds in finding a country that will agree to open its gates for him, he will be able to leave. As long as there is no such country, he can’t go anywhere. He also contacted the Palestinian embassy in the UAE, which told him that because of the cessation of civilian coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, they would not be able to help him submit a request to Israel. They promised him that as soon as the Rafah crossing reopened, they would help him return via Egypt. He points out, however, that the crossing has already been opened three times, and he is still stuck in Abu Dhabi. In the meantime, that same Palestinian embassy was closed in the wake of the UAE’s normalization agreement with Israel.

What does Alghamri think about the agreement? “Every state makes its own decisions.” He also spoke to the Egyptian embassy, which told him that because he had been expelled from that country, he would not be able to return.

“Mentally, I can’t take it anymore. I feel like I am being destroyed,” he said this week by phone from his room in Abu Dhabi, his voice cracking.

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