The state says that Mohammed Habbash, 41, decided to return to Gaza and settle there, and therefore he is forbidden to leave there now. Habbash says this is not the case: He is a resident of Bethlehem, as the address on his ID shows. He works in Israel in construction, and this is how he supports his wife and children, who live in Gaza. The state – i.e., the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) – insists: He took up residence in Gaza. While he repeatedly insists that he is being forced to remain in Gaza against his will.
The state presents some strange form signed by Habbash, with the heading “Declaration.” But the declaration is in the name of the Civil Administration (which is subordinate to COGAT) and it is not dated. It says: “Your application for a transit permit from the Judea and Samaria area to the Gaza Strip has been approved based on your declaration that you intend to permanently move the center of your life to the Gaza Strip.”
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Habbash vaguely recalls that in 2017 he was asked to sign some paper at the Civil Administration office in Gush Etzion. He didn’t really understand what it said, and he certainly didn’t realize the consequences it could have. His mother was sick. He wanted to visit her. The officers at the Civil Administration gave him to understand that by signing the form he could obtain a permit more quickly. Personal circumstances prevented him from traveling immediately and, fortunately, his mother’s condition stabilized.
In September of that year he received a permit to enter Gaza. On the permit, the clerks from the Civil Administration wrote in Arabic: “immediate needs – work meeting.” In Hebrew, which he doesn’t read, they wrote: “special needs – return to Gaza area.” The difference between what is written in the two languages is curious and not administratively proper. When he wanted to return to the West Bank, his requests were refused, with various excuses given. The claim of his “permanent settlement” in Gaza was not mentioned.
Not until two years later was Habbash able to return to his home in the West Bank via Jordan. Israel controls the Allenby Bridge crossing and the Israeli border inspectors there approved his entry.
A year went by, and in November 2020, Habbash’s father died in Gaza. Habbash’s application for an entry permit to Gaza was not approved right away, supposedly because of the coronavirus. After the Gisha organization applied for him, he received a permit on condition that he remain in Gaza for at least two weeks and request a permit to return to the West Bank a week before his intended departure.
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On January 3, Habbash submitted a request for a permit to return. The Civil Administration took three weeks to respond, then insisted that the request be filed in Bethlehem, and then responded that due to the coronavirus Habbash cannot return to his home. Gisha then appealed to the Administrative Affairs Court in Jerusalem. In its response to the petition, the Jerusalem district attorney raised for the first time the argument about Habbash having “settled in Gaza.” And a permit for a visit due to humanitarian reasons thus turned into imprisonment in Gaza.
When, in 2001, after three years of living in the West Bank, he changed his address from Gaza to the West Bank, it wasn’t in order to return to settle permanently in Gaza. In a phone call Monday, Habbash said: “Yes, it’s hard to live far away from my kids and my wife, but it’s harder not to be able to support them and pay for their studies. My oldest daughter is in university now.” In Gaza there is 43-percent unemployment. In the West Bank, the cost of living is higher. The painful separation from his family is what makes it possible for him to support them.
Gisha says Habbash’s case is emblematic of a wider phenomenon: Palestinians who live in the West Bank request to visit Gaza for the few permitted humanitarian reasons (to visit a first-degree relative who is dying or following the death of a first-degree relative). It was Israel that, after numerous applications and a long wait, approved the change of address on their ID from Gaza to the West Bank. When they go to pick up the permit, the people at the Civil Administration office have them sign this declaration form about “settling in Gaza.” As in Habbash’s case, it is a trap laid for them amid difficult personal circumstances. Not only is it an underhanded tactic, it also goes against international law.