Jehad Abu Saleem was studying Hebrew in the Gaza Strip when he heard he had been accepted to a Ph.D. program in the United States. He was ecstatic. This was his dream — to study Palestinian intellectual history at one of the world’s top universities. But first he had to get out of Gaza — and that was not going to be easy.
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Abu Saleem is the eldest of four children, and the only one in the United States. His youngest sibling, he said, “doesn’t know a world with 24 hours of electricity.”
Hours of electricity, like the number of Gazans allowed to leave, have been steadily declining since 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Strip and Israel imposed a blockade, and both Israel and the Palestinian Authority tightened their grip.
The fresh reconciliation between Hamas and the PA is ushering in tentative hope among many Gazans that more electricity will flow in, and more people out. The deal, signed last month in Egypt, brought Gazans to the streets, eager for more flexibility at the Rafah crossing. The deal, which took effect on November 1, is likely to crack Egypt open. For Gazans, this means more freedom of movement for medical travel, study abroad, or just vacation. Still, for those who seek to leave for good, especially young people looking to move to the United States, not much will change.
Abdelhadi Basheer was 24 in 2010 when he first tried to secure a permit to go from Gaza to Jerusalem. He had been accepted to a Ph.D. program at Washington State University in 2010, and registered for a visa interview at the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem, the only consulate dedicated to serving Palestinians. But to get to the consulate, he would need permission from the Israeli army — which he was denied repeatedly for months. “I think they had some concerns that I would leave and not go back to Gaza,” he said in a phone interview.
So he started a Facebook campaign, telling everyone he could about his dream to study in the United States. His English was good, and he had connections with activist groups. He had help from Gisha, the only Israeli NGO promoting freedom of movement in Gaza, and Amnesty International. His Ph.D. cohort from Washington State University wrote to the state’s senators, who sent him formal letters of support. One of the letters, from Sen. Patty Murray’s office, reads, “Mr. Basheer’s student visa application is supported widely by the Washington State University community including faculty members and regents of the University.”
Getting permission from the Israeli army to travel the two hours from the Erez crossing to Jerusalem turned Basheer into a mess of nerves. At one point he was applying for permission every 40 days. At 24, he was considered too young to travel by himself. Only those who fit narrow categories of exceptions are permitted to leave Gaza for the West Bank, regardless of age. It took Basheer’s future American host Michael Hayes, a professor at Washington State University, showing up at the Gaza border and guaranteeing his return to Gaza to finally get him the necessary permit.
Basheer has been living in Washington state for seven years and became an American citizen in March 2015. Still, he can’t go back. “American citizenship,” he said, “like any privileges you have, ends in Palestine.” When his father died this past June, he couldn’t go to the funeral because it was in Gaza — he was afraid he’d never get back out.
Hamas’ decade-long upper hand
There are no firm numbers on how many Gazans have successfully made it to the United States or how many have tried. One of the only ways to measure who has come in and out of the Strip is by looking at the unclassified data around the Erez crossing, the only crossing still allowing people into Israel from Gaza.
In 2000, according to Gisha, there were close to half a million exits of people from Gaza per month, the unit of counting at Erez. Even in 2003, at the end of the second intifada, when Palestinian terrorists were blowing up buses and cafes, Gazan day laborers still crossed via Erez at a rate of 150,000 per month. But two years later, Israel evacuated all of its civilians from Gaza, uprooting more than 8,000 settlers from 21 settlements. That was the beginning of the shutdown.
Grant Rumley, an expert on Palestinian politics at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an email that the “fatal flaw” in Israel’s disengagement plan was that it “looked like a retreat.”
This, he said, is what gave Hamas the upper hand. The group, whose identity revolves around militant resistance of Israel, won Gaza’s democratic parliamentary elections in 2006 and forcibly took over its government in 2007.
Israel responded by revoking all day-labor permits and shuttering the crossings. With the military tightly controlling the border, the number of people crossing via Erez per month fell precipitously, with only a few thousand permits allotted for what the Israeli military called “exceptional humanitarian cases.”
According to Tania Hary, executive director of Gisha, the closure in 2007 was abrupt and wholesale. “When Hamas took over and the closure started, even the most talented students couldn’t get out,” she said by phone. The Israeli army was refusing to issue permits for students from Gaza, including Fulbright scholarship recipients. When the story broke in The New York Times and people realized how draconian the closure was, eventually the ban on travel was reversed, she said.
The Egypt method
For some who cannot get permission to leave via Erez, Egypt has sometimes been an alternative way out. In the past, when the crossing was open regularly, upwards of 20,000 people were traveling through to Egypt per month.
Today, most of those thousands sit on waiting lists. In 2017, the border was open for a mere 17 days; five of those were for pilgrims traveling to Mecca. And rampant corruption, according to Basheer, often makes such an exit possible only with cash in hand. “You’re talking about desperate people,” he said. When 30,000 other people are on the same waiting list you are, bribery becomes almost reasonable.
Egypt restricts its border with Gaza in part because it doesn’t want Gazans to stay indeterminately in the country. On the books, it refuses entry to Palestinians who do not already possess a visa to go abroad. This leaves Gaza’s Palestinians in a catch-22: They want to go Egypt to get a visa, but need a visa to get there.
Hani Almadhoun, a Gazan who was granted a scholarship by the Mormon Church in 2000, knows just how difficult it can be to leave Gaza via Egypt. He left for the United States in 2000, when it was still possible to fly out of Ben-Gurion Airport.
But when he tried to go back in June 2009 to become engaged to a Gazan woman, even getting in was a challenge. When Almadoun landed in Cairo the Egyptian authorities “deported” him, putting him back on the same flight he had arrived on. The Gaza crossing was not open that day.
He waited a month and tried again. He arrived in Cairo the day before the border was slated to open and was ushered into a special room for Palestinians. “They put us there and we chill until there is a bus,” he said. An armed Egyptian police officer took his passport, returning it only as he boarded a Palestinian bus at the border for the final leg of his journey into the Strip.
Getting back out via Egypt required some fancy footwork too. To get onto the list of those permitted to exit, Gazans have to submit their name, ID number and reason for leaving with the Palestinian Interior Ministry. Valid reasons are limited to medical need, university studies, foreign residency or passport, and a shady transactional category referred to in Gaza as “Egyptian coordination,” which even Gisha has a hard time pinning down.
Because he was a green-card holder, Almadoun got on the list, but “there were three or four thousand people ahead of me,” he said. It took four months of two- or three-day openings each month to get back to the United States.
Now, with Rafah set to open on November 15 to pre-2007 traffic, Almadoun is optimistic. In a recent phone conversation, he said, “I think things are promising. I’m surprised by how civil Fatah and Hamas have been to each other,” though he admits that the recent Israeli strike on an Islamic Jihad attack tunnel mars the positive atmosphere. He predicts he’ll be able to see his family by Thanksgiving.
His optimism is fueled by his memory of what travel was like during the short-lived era of elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. When Morsi was in power, Almadoun said, the Egyptian government gave him a 48-hour visa to get to the Gaza border. No special room, no armed guard, no government-commissioned bus. “You feel a bit more dignity,” he said.
Others are not as hopeful. When Abu Saleem, the Ph.D. student, left Gaza in 2010, he also flew out of Egypt. But he’s not basing his dreams on going back. Now in the fifth year of his program in history and Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, Abu Saleem dreams of “a progressive America.” He went door to door for Bernie Sanders in New York’s Arabic-speaking neighborhoods during the 2016 primaries, and when he finishes his Ph.D. he hopes to apply for good academic jobs. He wants to help his siblings, who are still in Gaza, do what he did: travel, see the world, and pursue their dreams.