Mom Is in Gaza, Kids Are in the West Bank: A Palestinian Family Torn Apart by the Occupation

Two toddlers from the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank village of Duma are growing up without parents: Israeli authorities arrested the father and won't allow their mother to reunite with them.

Gideon Levy
Alex Levac
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Khaled and Jud Dawabsheh.
Khaled and Jud Dawabsheh.Credit: Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac

Khaled Dawabsheh snuggles on his uncle’s lap. If the uncle leaves him, even for a minute, little Khaled runs to the front door, opens it wide and rushes into the street, as though trying to escape from the house, which is not his home.

Khaled hardly speaks: Communication with him has been almost nonexistent since he became convinced that his mother has abandoned him. In fact, she calls every day, but Khaled refuses to speak to her. He hasn’t seen her for three months, since they were separated. It’s not clear when he will see her again. He hasn’t seen his father for three months, either, other than on one occasion, in a military court, when his father was in handcuffs. It’s not clear when the little boy will see his father again, either.

Explaining to Khaled why his parents are not with him is no easy task. It’s also hard to make a promise that they will be reunited anytime soon. Dad is in prison, Mom is in the Gaza Strip. Total uncertainty exists in Khaled’s limbo; the only sure thing is that the mental scars will cut deep.

Khaled is not alone. His little brother shares his fate. Khaled is 3 and a half, Jud is not yet 2. At present, Jud is sleeping in his bassinet. He actually sometimes speaks to his mother on the phone, as much as an almost-2-year-old can speak; he was still being breast-fed when he was separated from her.

Jud and Khaled are too young to understand what’s going on. But even an adult is hard-pressed to comprehend the occupation’s brutal sundering of families – a mother separated hardheartedly from her husband and their children.

In the situation of an almost-total disconnect between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the number of these human tragedies is increasing. In 2013, according to Gisha: the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, an Israeli nonprofit, 26 percent of the residents of besieged Gaza had relatives in the West Bank – and 7 percent of all Gazans had first-degree relatives there. These are people who are almost totally cut off from one another: parents separated from children, husbands from wives, for years. The only communication is by phone or Skype. For the past few years, Israel has forbidden them to meet, or even to visit each other. “There is no siege of Gaza”? “The occupation of Gaza has ended”? These families are split apart precisely because of the “nonexistent” siege and occupation.

Duma. The Dawabsheh family. The end of this month will mark the first anniversary of the murderous terrorist attack , in which the family’s house was apparently torched by Jews, resulting in the death of a toddler and his two parents. Khaled and Jud are distant relatives of those who were burned to death. The way to their uncle’s home passes by the burned house, which stands scorched and barren, like a monument, an olive tree in the front.

Amar Dawabsheh, a 38-year-old art teacher, has three children of his own. Now his two nephews are also under his care. His brother, Urawa, the father of the toddlers, is 25. He lived with his parents in Jordan until 1994, when the family returned to Duma. Some years later, he went back to Jordan to attend school, where he met the brother of Islam, his future wife. He and Islam corresponded via Facebook and decided to get married. Islam’s father is Egyptian; her mother, a Gaza Palestinian. She grew up in Gaza’s Zeitoun neighborhood and has a Palestinian ID card. They were married in 2011, in Jordan, and she is 24 years old now.

When Khaled was born, the couple tried to move to Duma, but Islam was turned back at the Allenby Bridge border crossing by the Israeli authorities because she is registered as a resident of the Strip. Israel does not allow Gaza residents to visit the West Bank or to be united with family members there. Last summer, the couple tried again, and were denied entry again.

Urawa longed to return to his village – where his parents and siblings live – together with his wife and children. Finally, he decided that he would cross into the West Bank first, with the two children, and then try to find a way to have his wife join him. On April 10, the father and his two children arrived at the Allenby Bridge again, accompanied by Urawa’s sister, Alaa, who had travelled to Jordan from Duma with their mother in order to help with the move and the crossing.

At the bridge, the Israeli authorities delayed them for three hours, before informing them that Urawa was under arrest. Of course, no one told them why. The children were taken to Duma by their aunt. Almost two months would pass before the toddlers’ father would see his children again – on June 3, when he was brought for remand to the Salem military court. He is incarcerated in Megiddo Prison.

The Israel Defense Forces’ Spokesman’s Office told Haaretz this week: “On June 9, 2016, Urawa Dawabsheh was indicted in Samaria military court for years-long involvement in Hamas organizational and military activity. This included, among other offenses, transferring funds from Jordan to the Judea and Samaria Region to finance terrorist activity. With the agreement of the defense, the military court ordered Dawabsheh to be held in custody until the conclusion of the legal proceedings against him.”

Khaled and Jud are listed on their father’s Jordanian passport. As long as he is in jail, they cannot go to Jordan to rejoin their mother, who is waiting for them there. Moreover, it’s likely that, if Urawa is convicted – and maybe even if he is not – Israeli security forces will not allow him to leave the West Bank anytime soon. It’s a vicious trap.

The rest of the family in Duma has tried various means, including appeals to the International Red Cross and other human rights organizations, to get Islam a permit to enter the West Bank and be reunited with her children.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, Islam took advantage of the last days of the month of Ramadan, when the Rafah border crossing was open (for just five days), and returned from Jordan via Egypt to her home in Gaza’s Zeitoun neighborhood. The family hope that Israel will allow her to get to the West Bank from there, via the Erez checkpoint.

“She is going out of her mind,” Amar Dawabsheh, the children’s uncle says.

A spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories informed Haaretz that the Shin Bet security service is responsible for preventing Islam’s entry into the West Bank. The Shin Bet does not usually explain its considerations, but its policy is to prevent any passage of residents from the Gaza Strip into the West Bank, including for brief visits.

The case of the Dawabsheh family is not unique. There’s a similar case in the village of Azoun Atama, near Qalqilyah. Sahar Basath, 37, a native of the village, is married and the father of three. In 2000, he went to Jordan, flew to Cairo and from the Egyptian capital traveled to visit relatives in the Gaza Strip. There he met Nabila al-Hawani, from the Al-Magazi refugee camp, and married her. Nabila is a nurse in Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital. The couple’s three children are 1, 4 and 6.

Sahar worked in a biscuit factory in the Strip, but the ordeals of the blockade and the hardscrabble life there, coupled with his desire to spend time with his ailing and elderly father in his waning years, prompted efforts to get Sahar and his family home, to Azoun Atama. It doesn’t sound so far-fetched – a return home or a relocation – but not under the conditions of the Israeli occupation.

The family applied for an entry permit to the West Bank, which they received on March 9. But at the Erez checkpoint, they discovered that the permit was valid only for the father and the three children; Nabila was not allowed to leave Gaza. The family was stunned, Sahar told B’Tselem human rights organization field researcher Abed Al-Karim a-Saadi. Nevertheless, they decided that Sahar and the children would go through and leave Nabila behind, in the hope that in time she would be allowed to join her family. Nabila wept bitterly at the checkpoint, Sahar related. She phones her husband and children several times a day.

Geographically, they are a two-hour drive apart, but in practice they are separated by the hills of darkness.

A spokesperson for the Coordinator of Activities told Haaretz this week that responsibility for this decision, too – not to allow a nurse from Gaza to enter the West Bank – rests with the Shin Bet. That organization, as already pointed out, isn’t in the habit of revealing the reasons behind its decisions.

About a month ago, Nabila launched a hunger strike in Gaza, to protest her separation from her family, and she was subsequently hospitalized. This week, when we wanted to meet with Sahar, he told us that he is feeling depressed and would rather not see us. Totally despondent, he decided this week to leave his village, and his ailing father, and move to Gaza with the children in order to reunite them with their mother. He has already submitted a request to the occupation authorities.