'The Coronavirus Finally Gave the World a Chance to Feel What We Gazans Have Always Felt'

Three young Gazans tell Haaretz about their turbulent journeys out of the enclave and how being from the Strip is a never-ending bureaucratic nightmare, no matter where you end up

Hiba M. Yazbek
Hiba M. Yazbek
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A Gazan man leaning against the border fence with Egypt in the southern Gazan Strip. It took Abdel Zagout, a 33-year-old photographer from Gaza, five years to complete his project on Egypt's border with Gaza, which won him the Red Cross 2018 photography competition.
A Gazan man leaning against the border fence with Egypt in the southern Gazan Strip. It took Abdel Zagout, a 33-year-old photographer from Gaza, five years to complete this award-winning project.Credit: Abdel Zagout

Leaving the Gaza Strip was the only thing Randa could think of for an entire year after finishing university. Months of unsuccessful job hunting depressed the 23-year-old English literature graduate, whose bachelor’s degree had been achieved at the expense of her family’s savings. She spent most of her days in her room, looking for a way out of the besieged Palestinian enclave.

Now, as countries tackle the COVID-19 pandemic by issuing the most draconian measures, Gazans like Randa are watching on as people around the world find themselves in a state of lockdown. Or as Gazans call it, reality.

“The coronavirus finally gave the world a chance to feel what we have always felt,” says Randa, self-isolating in her new home in the United Kingdom.

For Randa and many other young Gazans, leaving a state of “lockdown” has been a lifelong dream. However, instead of awaiting the government orders that would allow them to return to normality, these youngsters had to make their own way, battling a labyrinthine bureaucracy that often brings yet more uncertainty.

“I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. All I did was apply to universities abroad, scholarships, fellowships ... anything that could get me a visa and allow me to leave Gaza,” recounts Randa, whose last name – like the other young people interviewed here – has been withheld to protect her identity.

The decision to leave your homeland is rarely a simple one. But for Gazans, often driven by despair, financial struggle and lack of hope for a viable future, it has become an increasingly common one. Deciding to leave Gaza is actually the easy part: Navigating a complicated emigration system riddled with bureaucracy can take years, and there is the strong possibility of nothing to show for it at the end. For young Gazans in search of an education and better future elsewhere, the odds are even slimmer.

Residents of the Gaza Strip must go through a series of procedures in order to be allowed out of the coastal enclave (surrounded by Israel to its north and east, and Egypt to the south). Israel regulates the freedom of movement for the 1.9 million Palestinians in Gaza, determining the criteria needed to both enter or exit the Strip through Israel, and limiting it to very specific and special circumstances.

The severe restrictions on the Gaza Strip began in 1991 after the first intifada, when Israel started limiting the travel of Gazans to Israel and the West Bank. The policy grew more restrictive through the years, especially after Israel withdrew all settlers and troops from inside the Strip in 2005. The siege reached its peak in 2007, the year Hamas came to power in the enclave, when Israel severely tightened restrictions on the movement of people and goods. Those restrictions have mainly remained the same ever since.

A young man staring out of a war-damaged building in the Gaza Strip.
A young man staring out of a war-damaged building in the Gaza Strip.Credit: Abdel Zagout

The majority of Gazan youngsters wanting to study abroad leave the Strip through the West Bank and Jordan. This requires them to obtain the approval of up to four authorities: Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Palestinian Authority's Civil Affairs Committee, Hamas and Jordan. Leaving the Strip directly through Egypt’s Rafah crossing requires only Hamas and Egypt's approval but is considered a last resort for students, as getting Egyptian approval is expensive and requests are often denied the first time. Failing to gain one approval from any those different parties disqualifies the entire application, leaving applicants with no choice but to apply again and hope for a different result.

Randa’s pervading sense of hopelessness about her situation manifested itself in the form of insomnia: She spent most of her nights thinking of the uncertainty of her future, she says. “I knew the situation in Gaza wasn’t going to change anytime soon – we all know this. Gaza is doomed.”

There is a severe lack of data available on the number of Gazans who have been able to leave the Strip. Gisha, a nonprofit concerned with freedom of movement, explains that ever since the Rafah crossing with Egypt began operating five days a week from May 2018, the numbers of Gazans leaving has grown significantly.

However, it remains difficult to put an exact figure on it, especially on those who leave with a plan to never return, since their intentions are usually concealed. Youngsters seeking education abroad are the minority of departures, as Israel enforces the greatest restrictions on obtaining student visas.

Gisha estimates an average of 23,000 monthly entries and exits through both the Erez and Rafah crossings.

“Systematic and sweeping restrictions on movement of Palestinians imposed by Israel for decades have been a major factor contributing to astronomic unemployment and poverty in the Strip, especially among young people,” a Gisha spokesperson tells Haaretz.

“Israel must stop evading the responsibilities that come with holding extensive control over millions of Palestinians and enact substantial policy changes to allow young people in Gaza the opportunities they deserve to realize their dreams, potential and fundamental rights,” the spokesperson added.

Baggage being claimed by the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
Baggage being claimed by the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Credit: Abdel Zagout

Psychological trauma

“I was living in a large prison. I was depressed and at risk of developing severe mental health issues if I stayed. Today, two years after leaving, I still suffer: I suffer from trauma from all the wars I lived through; I suffer by being away from my family; I’m still emotionally unstable,” says Sara, when asked if she regrets leaving the Gaza Strip. The 25-year-old artist explains that her lack of hope back then prevented her from even creating art and being able to fulfill her potential.

Sara is not alone. Psychological trauma has been an increasing problem in Gaza with PTSD on the rise among the young, according to Gaza’s Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. Post-traumatic stress disorder is especially evident among the generation born during the first intifada (1987-1993), raised through the second (2000-2005), and experienced three wars in six years. This generation also suffers the most from unemployment and economic despair.

As an artist and aspiring journalist, Sara knew she had to leave Gaza in order to make her dreams come true. Two years ago, she was accepted for a summer program in the United States and granted a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree at a university in a Gulf state. Sara reflects back on this time with a sense of alienation. She explains how hopeful she was during the weeks leading up to her departure, how liberated she felt just imagining herself in the “land of the free,” and how quick this feeling was to evaporate while attempting to settle down in the Gulf.

“When I left Gaza, I knew I was never coming back,” Sara says. “Knowing that you will leave and never come back is hard enough. I had to leave behind my memories, my home, my family and, on top of that, I couldn’t take a lot of my personal belongings. I couldn’t even legally take my art with me. I had to hide my paintings between my clothes, stripped of their wooden frames.”

For Mohammed, 27, it was not being able to provide for his family that drove him out of Gaza. With unemployed parents and seven younger siblings, the weight fell on his shoulders. With a bachelor’s degree in English, Mohammed struggled for years to find work, even though he was willing to consider a wide range of jobs.

“All my friends were also not finding jobs, so in a way that comforted me,” he says, speaking from his new home in Maryland. But still, he adds, the longer he was unemployed, the greater his sense of hopelessness. Eventually, a year after graduating, he realized that his only option was to leave Gaza. “It was the biggest decision I have ever made. We Palestinians are very family-oriented, and living away from our families is usually our last resort,” he says.

Gaza may be one of the few places in the world where a college education actually impairs your ability to find work: The unemployment rate for young Gazans, who make up over 70 percent of the local population, jumped to 69 percent last year, making it the highest in the world. As for graduates, the number was even higher – 78 percent – according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. The gap between general unemployment in Gaza and the West Bank in 2019 is staggering: At 45 percent, Gaza’s figure is triple the West Bank’s figure of 15 percent.

Complicated in different ways

There are two entry and exit points to the Gaza Strip for pedestrians: the Erez crossing, connecting Gaza and Israel; and the Rafah crossing, on the border with Egypt. Each checkpoint operates differently, but both are equally complicated.

With the frequently strained relations between Hamas and Egypt, the Rafah crossing is usually the second option for most Gazans seeking to leave the Strip, as reflected in the comparison between the documented number of entries and exits from both borders. Erez is their gateway to Israel, the West Bank and eventually, Amman in Jordan, which is the nearest airport they are permitted to fly from.

FENCED OFF: Gazans lining up along the border fence with Egypt in southern Gaza.
FENCED OFF: Gazans lining up along the border fence with Egypt in southern Gaza.Credit: Abdel Zagout

Randa recounts the tense race she faced after being accepted for a scholarship in the United Kingdom last September, and she began the process of trying to leave Gaza. First, she applied for a permit to enter Jordan, followed by securing the “non-objection” transit visa issued by Jordan for Gazans planning to exit via Jordan. These two documents are mutually inclusive, and not being granted one immediately halts the entire process.

“The process was very stressful. These permits are all time-sensitive – and if one expires in the middle of the process, you must start all over again,” Randa explains.

In her case, the lengthy procedures caused her to miss the first two months of university. “When I got the call that my visa arrived,I was finally able to breathe for the first time in a long time,” she recounts. “I packed up my stuff and by the next day I was on my way to Jordan to board a plane. I didn’t even have time to say goodbye. And I left knowing that I would never return.” Randa spent months attempting to obtain the approval and required paperwork from COGAT, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Jordan in order to even apply for the U.K. visa, which came last in the process.

For Mohammed, the process was an ongoing nightmare that lasted several years and cost him three scholarships. After several failed attempts to leave through Jordan, he began trying to leave the Gaza Strip via Egypt. “To leave through Egypt, you must have money – it almost only works through bribes to both sides,” he says, explaining his initial rejections. Finally, after realizing the trick, he was granted permission to leave Gaza. He found refuge in Chile, which has the largest Palestinian diaspora outside of the region, where he stayed for two years before leaving for the United States.

‘Outcasts and rebels’

If and when the suffocating bureaucracy has been navigated and all permissions have been obtained after months of nerve-racking wait, the actual physical journey can finally begin. “First, I got to the Hamas side of the Erez crossing. Their interrogation lasted the longest and carried a judgmental tone – as if they were shaming me that I decided to leave. They look at [youngsters leaving] as outcasts and rebels, and they don’t like that,” Randa says.

After being cleared by Hamas, the emigrants pass onto the second part of the checkpoint, controlled by the PA. And then, finally, to the Israeli side, where they go through a security check along with all of their belongings. “I remember they made us sign a paper in Hebrew – but I don’t know any Hebrew. To this day, I still have no clue what I signed,” Sara relays.

According to Gisha, Israel has imposed luggage restrictions at the Erez crossing since 2017. Palestinians are only permitted to leave holding one duffle bag. Israel also bans all electronic devices other than cellphones. Food is also prohibited – even snacks and bottled water to sustain them during the long journey. The process can take up to a full day, and is usually done in groups transported by special shuttles. “I left behind most of my stuff and had to start again in Britain, which was financially draining,” Randa says.

After successfully crossing into Jordan through the Allenby crossing, where they are again checked, they head for the airport and the interrogations resume there, until they finally reach their final destination.

Today, Randa is living in the United Kingdom, on a student visa for the next year. It has only been a few months since she left the Strip, yet even over the phone her sense of optimism is palpable as she describes her new life. “The hardest part of this whole process was living in Gaza,” Randa says. “Not only finding the opportunity to leave, but, mostly, surviving in Gaza until that opportunity came.”

Randa plans to stay in Great Britain after her studies finish. She speaks hopefully of the future, but is still coming to terms with the taste of freedom that her new life brings, evident in her hesitance to fully express her excitement, as she grapples with the guilt of leaving her family behind in Gaza.

“I know that if I ever come back to Gaza, I will be questioned by Hamas,” she says. “They are very skeptical of people like us, those who leave seeking better opportunities. They view it as an act of defiance” against them. Randa says one of her biggest fears is returning to Gaza and facing an uncertain future once more.

Gazans waiting with their luggage at the southern border with Egypt. They require the approval of four different authorities to leave the country: failure to get one voids their entire application.
Gazans waiting with their luggage at the southern border with Egypt. They require the approval of four different authorities to leave the country: failure to get one voids their entire application.Credit: Abdel Zagout

Almost two years after leaving the Strip, Sara is about to graduate. When that happens, her student visa will expire in the Gulf state where she has been studying (and which she asked Haaretz not to disclose). Her university has recently informed her she can’t renew her visa and must either return to Gaza or find another country. Sara’s future is once again uncertain. “In Gaza I had no stability. I left Gaza to find stability, and I never did,” she says.

Returning to Gaza is not an option. “Returning for me is nearly impossible – and that hurts. I long for my family, my friends; the place I grew up in. I long to just smell Gaza again. But I know that if I return, I will be endangering myself,” Sara says. “I was politically active during the period I was away, and I was public about it on social media. It’s well known that this puts me at risk of being held and interrogated, and that can lead to time in prison. I don’t want to endanger myself that way.

“But the main reason that makes returning impossible for me,” she continues, “is I know that if I do, I will probably never be able to leave again. I don’t want to be stuck there forever.”

No place like home

“The coronavirus has brought back so many dark memories,” explains Sara, who is currently self-isolating in her studio dorm. Freedom is all she desired for many years, yet now a global health crisis has triggered emotional flashbacks of being under military siege.

“Being scared to leave the house, not being able to travel, constantly worrying and feeling unsafe; this is how I always felt in Gaza. And now this is how I’m feeling again during the coronavirus crisis, even after I went through so much to leave,” Sara says.

All three interviewees agree that being apart from their families, especially during the coronavirus crisis, is the hardest part of their new lives. Experts have been warning of the potential severity of the situation if the disease hits Gaza (as of Monday, only 12 cases have been diagnosed). “I worry for my family and friends back home if the virus spreads,” Mohammed says. “It will be a disaster like Gaza has never seen, a new kind of war.”

Believing that leaving the Strip was the best possible option for their children, their families back in Gaza have no choice but to come to terms with potentially never seeing their kids again. “A better future for me means a better future for my family. They understand that, and that’s why they supported my decision,” Mohammed says.

He is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. Unable to return to Gaza for the same security concerns as Sara cites, Mohammed found no other way than to overstay his U.S. visa and then request asylum. A long and complicated process awaits him, with no guarantee or promise for stability. “When I applied for the U.S. visa, I was sure I wasn’t going to get it,” he relays. “As a young Gazan man, I am usually viewed as a threat. But when I got it last summer, my whole plans changed and I got a second opportunity to settle down.”

A young man in the Gaza Strip. The unemployment rate for graduates in the Strip is 78 percent.
A young man in the Gaza Strip. The unemployment rate for graduates in the Strip is 78 percent.Credit: Abdel Zagout

When asked if all of her efforts to leave Gaza were ultimately worth it, Sara says that no matter where she ends up, she will “never find a place like home. And yes, living abroad is very hard. Being away from my family is a daily struggle. And knowing I can’t see them again is devastating. But at the end of the day, all of this is easier than living in a constant war zone, in never-ending fear, seeing death and misery, and suffering mentally and emotionally for the rest of my life.”

She admits that she still finds it impossible to look ahead. “I hate thinking about the future, it’s almost nonexistent,” Sara says. “Even after I left Gaza, I still don’t know what my future looks like. After my visa expires, I’m back to ground zero."

“We are stuck inside of Gaza. And when we leave, we remain stuck in procedures and bureaucracies. By being born in Gaza, we all receive an automatic life sentence,” Sara concludes.

Correction: An earlier version of this report stated that students leaving Gaza for studies abroad need the approval of at least four authorities: Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee, Hamas and Jordan or Egypt - depending on where they depart from. However, leaving Gaza via Egypt requires only Hamas and Egypt's approval.

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