Israel's Top Court: To Visit Gaza Family, Jerusalem Cancer Patient Must Prove Her Elderly Mother Can't Travel

State says criteria for Israelis' entry to Gaza doesn't apply to Sa'adah Hassouneh, a permanent resident who hasn't seen her family in over a decade

Sa'ada Hassona in Jerusalem, April 2018.
Emil Salman

The High Court of Justice ruled last Wednesday that for a 65-year-old cancer patient from Jerusalem to travel to Gaza to say a final goodbye to her frail mother, she must prove that her mother is unable to travel from the Strip to see her in Jerusalem.

Israel has refused to let Sa'adah Hassouneh enter the Gaza Strip, where she was born, to see her family whom she has not seen for over a decade. The state said the criteria for Israelis’ entry to Gaza since the 2005 pullout did not apply to Hassouneh.

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The ruling came in response to a petition by Hassouneh and the human rights organization Gisha asking the court to compel the state to explain its position. On Wednesday, the court instructed Hassouneh and Gisha’s lawyers to give the state documents attesting to the condition of Hassouneh's mother as soon as possible, so that the Defense Ministry’s Coordination and Liaison Administration could reconsider its position.

Hassouneh married a Jerusalem resident in 1972 and was granted permanent residency status in the city. Until the early 2000s she and her three sons would visit her family in Gaza, but since Israel introduced harsher criteria for entering and leaving the Strip, they have not been allowed to do so.

Last year Hassouneh found she had breast cancer and has since been undergoing chemotherapy at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. She has also had to undergo a mastectomy on one breast. In addition to her mother, she has six sisters and two brothers in Gaza.

One of her sisters received a permit to visit Hassouneh at her home at the Shoafat refugee camp, but the mother is too frail to travel and Hassouneh wants to see her and the rest of the family, who haven’t received exit permits.

She says her family asked the authorities to let her enter the Strip several times but were refused. On March 28, Gisha submitted to the coordination administration a request in Hassouneh's name. On April 2 the NGO received an unsigned email saying the request had not been granted due to “a failure to fit the criteria for Israelis’ exit to the Gaza Strip.”

The state reiterated in court that Hassouneh did not fall in the criteria allowing Israelis to enter Gaza; one must be an Israeli partner of a Gaza resident, or seek to visit a first-degree relative who is terminally ill or getting married.

Attorney Tehila Roth said on behalf of the state that the number of people entering and leaving Gaza had been reduced to a minimum for security reasons, out of fear that Israelis would be abducted as bargaining chips or recruited to terror groups. Roth did not reply to Gisha lawyer Sigi Ben-Ari’s argument that every administrative authority has a duty to exercise discretion when deciding on issues.

Ben-Ari told the court the state’s position consisted of two absurdities. First, if a first-degree relative had been seriously ill, Hassouneh would have been allowed to enter the Strip, despite the fears Roth cited.

Second, according to the state, Gaza residents leaving the territory pose a security risk, yet the state is willing to take a risk and let 10 Gazans – the members of Hassouneh's family – leave for Jerusalem. Yet it won’t take the risk of letting one woman, Hassouneh, enter Gaza.

Early on the justices – Noam Sohlberg, David Mintz and Yael Willner – accepted the state’s position not to bend the rules, saying Hassouneh's brothers and sisters could receive a permit to visit her in Jerusalem.

Ben-Ari noted that Hassouneh's two brothers’ requests to visit her had already been refused, and that her mother was unable to travel.

Sohlberg said two things had to be looked into – whether the petitioner would not be able to see her family again if her request was refused, and whether her mother’s condition constituted an “exception.”

Roth said the state would want “medical backup about the mother’s condition.”

The justices wrote in their ruling that “if indeed it transpires that due to her condition the petitioner’s mother cannot visit her daughter in Israel, the respondents will consider whether it is justified to make an exception to the rules.”

Ben-Ari also asked to have the state explain why the regulations should not be updated to allow Israelis who are seriously ill to visit family members in Gaza.

The previous Thursday, on her way from Shoafat for her weekly chemotherapy session, Hassouneh told Haaretz: “As a Muslim who believes in Allah I am not afraid of death, but I want to see my family while I’m still alive. Isn’t that our right? Will I be able to visit the Strip only if one of them dies, and they can leave for Jerusalem only when I die?”

For its part, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told Haaretz: “Sa'adah Hassouneh's request does not fill the criteria for receiving a permit, and that is why she was refused.”