Even before the coronavirus pandemic, residents of the Gaza Strip faced an arduous process in order to travel abroad. Now, many Gazans are unable to return home as the result of the virus and the Palestinian Authority’s decision to end coordination with Israel over plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
Since the coronavirus crisis hit the area, the Allenby Bridge between the West Bank and Jordan – which Gazans use to get to a flight out of Amman, requiring a permit from Israeli authorities – has been opened only a few times for Palestinians, to allow the return of those who were stuck overseas. But since the end of PA coordination with Israel, this has been allowed only for residents of the West Bank because of the need for a special permit for Gaza residents.
Meanwhile, crossing between Gaza and Egypt in Rafah was shut in March because of the pandemic, and Gaza residents have been able to enter the Strip through it only twice, in April and May. It is not known when the next time that residents will again be allowed to pass through it. In any case, the crossing at Rafah is much more difficult, as the journey to the airport in Cairo is long and sometimes dangerous.
Furthermore, Gazans who receive an exit permit from Israel through the Allenby Bridge need to return the same way they left. According to Gisha, a group dedicated to freedom of movement in and out of Gaza, residents who left via the Allenby Bridge but returned through Rafah were faced with a later refusal by Israel to allow them to exit through the Erez crossing to the West Bank or Israel.
Amana and Hamad Kahil have been stuck in a foreign country since March. Amana and Hamad, aged 66 and 70, have not been allowed to return home after leaving Gaza in February for a visit to the United States. Hamad, who has diabetes, said in a call from their hotel room in Amman that he can’t hold back the tears. “Everything hurts: my stomach, head; I’m very, very tired,” he says, crying.
They left over four months ago, under happy circumstances: a month-long visit to their son, who is studying at a university in the U.S. But at the end of the month, two events changed everything: First, the coronavirus crisis caused the cancellation of flights and the closing of the border crossings by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Then, Israel announced its intentions to annex parts of the West Bank. In protest, the Palestinian Authority announced it would end both civil and security coordination with Israel.
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In order to return home, Amana and Hamad had to submit a request for a permit from Israel. Usually, such a permit could have been requested from the Palestinian Authoirty body known as the “civil committee.” The committee’s role is to serve as an intermediary between Israel and Palestinian residents of Gaza, and it collects and sets prioritizations for the permit requests, an arrangement set down as part of the Oslo Accords. But now the committee has stopped passing on requests to Israel, and no alternative mechanism has been created. For now, no solution is in sight for the Kahils.
“In the end, we were with our son for four months, and our medications for diabetes and heart problems ran out there, and we don’t have medical insurance,” said Amana.
Attempting to return, the couple arrived in Jordan on a flight coordinated with the help of the PA, and from there to the Allenby Bridge – where they were told to turn around because there was no coordination. At the end of June, the two turned to the Gisha organization, which sent a letter for them to the Civil Administration asking it to issue them a permit and arrange their return. No answer has been received.
They do not leave their Amman hotel room, which costs $100 a night, often. “This is already the sixth day and we don’t have any more money,” said Amana. “My husband is totally confused. When he leaves the room he doesn’t know where to return to. We are desperate and only want for someone to help us get home.”
This situation has also made life difficult for Iyad Karnaz, a doctor of psychology. Like the Kahils, he did not intend on being absent from his home for so long. Karnaz, 47, left Gaza for Tunisia in September to defend his doctorate in front of his university advisers. His wife, sons and young daughter, “as beautiful as the moon,” he says, remained in Gaza.
After he received a permit to travel from the Erez crossing to the Allenby Bridge, he was forced, to his surprise, to sign a commitment to Israel that he would not return to Gaza through the Erez crossing for at least six months as a matter of policy. Karnaz said that he did not know he would be required to sign such a promise before he arrived, but decided to continue his journey to finally finish his long-sought doctorate. In April, after completing his requirements successfully, he planned to return home – but the coronavirus crisis was then at its initial peak, and all the flights to Jordan had been canceled. When he turned to the Palestinian embassy in Tunis, he was told that it could help him coordinate a flight to Turkey, and from there to Jordan.
But Karnaz quickly discovered that the airlines only allowed West Bank residents to fly. As a resident of Gaza, he needed a permit from Israel that proved that he was allowed to cross at the Allenby Bridge. Given the lack of coordination by the PA or instructions from Israel for Gaza residents in such a situation, Karnaz is still stuck in Tunis, waiting for someone to solve the predicament he has fallen into. “I have the right to return home, even if there is a crisis between Israel and the PA,” said Karnaz. “I don’t have a legal status in Tunis and at home my children and wife are waiting for me, who I support. Also from the most basic humanitarian perspective, they need to allow me to return.”
On June 18, a long list of organizations, including Physicians for Human Rights, the Association for Civil Rights, Hamoked, Gisha and Adalah, sent a letter to the defense minister and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories demanding to arrange the entry and exit of Gaza residents through the Erez crossing during the coronavirus crisis and end of PA coordination. In the letter, the organizations argued that Israel has the responsibility to guarantee the welfare and safety of GazaStrip residents under both Israeli and international law, and because Israel controls the issuing of permits and the border crossings.
As a result of the request, a discussion was held in the Knesset at the initiative of Joint List lawmaker Sondos Saleh, who focused on the issue of the entry of patients from Gaza for life-saving treatments in Israel and the West Bank. On the morning of the session, a link was posted on the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories’ website for directly submitting requests for a permit for life-saving medical treatments. Last week, as a result of another request, the Civil Administration wrote that there had been a decision to create a mechanism that would enable Gaza residents to travel from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. Details of this mechanism have not yet been announced.
The following day, COGAT’s officer for public inquiries, Ortal Maspin, said Israel does not recognize the acquired right of Gaza residents to enter Israel. Maspin also said that since the disengagement from Gaza, Israel does not have the obligation of being responsible for the health of Gaza residents. Requests for permits must be submitted to the civil committee, she added. But, “and even though there is no legal obligation to do so,” it was decided to allow, in a temporary and limited manner, the submission of requests for medical treatment directly to Israel, through the site, she wrote. Gaza residents stuck in the West Bank or overseas were left with no answer.
One of them is Kifah (a pseudonym), 32, who left Gaza in April, before the stopping of coordination, to undergo surgery to remove a tumor in a hospital in Ramallah. She is a resident of the West Bank who lives in Gaza with her husband and four children, the youngest of whom is nine months old. To undergo the operation, she received an exit permit from Israel. But when the recovery period ended, she discovered that the PA had stopped coordination with Israel.
Because many patients travel from Gaza for medical treatment in the West Bank, hospitals are experienced in the matter and routinely coordinate patients’ return. Now, lacking such coordination, Kifah’s return has not been arranged. In despair, Kifah and her mother went to the Qalandiya checkpoint and asked to enter. She was forced to turn back “I am so tired of being here,” she told Haaretz. “I miss the children and my husband, I just want to be home already.” Her children have not seen her for three months. On June 18, Kifah turned to the Civil Administration through Gisha, but her requests have been left unanswered so far.
But the coronavirus has not harmed the right to movement just for Palestinians in Gaza. Travel by residents of the West Bank to Gaza has stopped, too. Even normally, such passage is possible only in a very limited number of cases, such as the wedding or illness of an immediate relative. That’s how Inshirah Nabris, a 75-year-old resident of Jericho, managed to travel to Gaza at the beginning of March to participate in her granddaughter’s wedding. The entry permit into Gaza given to her by Israel was valid for five days. Four months later, she is still stuck there. Her plans were ruined with the imposition of the Purim holiday lockdown, which was extended later by the coronavirus closure. As a result, the Erez crossing was closed, except for life-saving cases.
“I have diabetes, I already missed one appointment with the doctor and my medications have run out,” Nabris said over the phone. In Jericho, she buys subsidized drugs, but in Gaza she has been forced to pay full price for them – something that is well beyond her financial abilities. “It is hard for me to remain here because of these conditions, I want to die in my home,” she says in desperation. “Life in Gaza is limited anyway, and it makes it hard for my family that suddenly they needed to host me for four months.”
On June 23, she turned to the Civil Administration through Gisha, but so far her matter has not been solved. Last week, the organization submitted a petition on her matter as a result of the lack of response. “What else can I say? All day I just sit and wait for them to let me go home,” she said.
Like residents of the West Bank, the limited list of reasons for which Israel allows Palestinians from Gaza to submit a request for an entry permit into Israel includes the wedding of an immediate relative. Munir Abu Sabitan’s daughter is supposed to get married at the end of July. The wedding has already been rescheduled once because of the coronavirus.
The problem is that Munir is a resident of Gaza, while his wife and children live in Tel Sheva, in Israel. When Abu Sabitan turned to the PA’s civil committee to receive an entry permit, he was turned down, in part because the termination of coordination made it impossible. When he asked Israel, he received the answer that his request “was not passed on to us by the Palestinian civil committee and the resident must request from the committee,” although at at this stage it was known and clear to all that the civil committee was not passing on requests.
As a result, Gisha filed a petition on the matter. No answer has yet been received. Abu Sabitan promised he would enter isolation when he returned from Gaza, where a stringent period of three weeks is customary for those who return. While his daughter’s wedding approaches, he sits and waits. In the Hebrew he learned during his years as a trader and from his visits to his family, he speaks of the effects of the stress and uncertainty. “I feel awful,” he told Haaretz. “I lost 10 kilos during this period from the anguish. The basic humane thing is to allow me to be with my daughter in these moments.”
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories unit said: “The unit acts around the clock in cooperation with the relevant bodies, in the shadow of the freezing of coordination on the part of the civil committee, in order to provide an optimal response to the various needs of residents of the Gaza Strip, as well as to those who are requesting to return to their homes from overseas and from the region of Judea and Samaria. In addition, the unit enables, even at this time, the entry of residents of the Gaza Strip for the purpose of life-saving medical treatments and in other humanitarian cases.”