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The Empty Chair of a Gazan Woman Who Was Meant to Sit Beside Me

Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
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Palestinians at the Erez crossing on the Gaza border.
Palestinians at the Erez crossing on the Gaza border. Credit: Ilan Assayag
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

I walked toward the four chairs that had been placed on the stage. At the far end sat the panel moderator. The topic of the event, which took place in a European country, was “The dissolution of borders: communication with the Other.” Beside the moderator sat one of the organizers of this two-day international conference, sponsored by the Responsible Leaders Network. She wasn’t supposed to be there, but circumstances brought her to sit beside us. An empty chair remained between her and me. The absence of the woman who was supposed to sit in the remaining chair reverberated through the auditorium. Silence fell; everyone waited to hear why she wasn’t there.

The moderator explained that the chair next to mine was empty because the Israeli authorities (in this case, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) did not allow her to leave the Gaza Strip. She couldn’t attend the conference but the organizers wanted her voice be heard anyway, so one of them read the comments that she had sent in advance.

Not many people are familiar with the exhausting process Gaza residents need to follow in order to leave their ghetto. You can go to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing, for which you need a permit from Egyptian authorities. After an application is submitted, the permit takes four months to arrive, but the chances of getting it are slim since the crossing is small and unable to handle many people at a time.

The second option is to obtain a permit from the Israeli authorities, go straight to Jordan and to your destination from there. This doesn’t involve stopping in Israel – a secured shuttle takes you on a few hours’ ride from the Erez crossing on the Gaza border to the Allenby crossing into Jordan. For this option, people undergo a thorough check by the Shin Bet security service and COGAT computers; if they are found to pose no risk and are not related to Hamas officials, and if the trip meets criteria laid down by COGAT (medical treatment, a professional conference, student travel or professional development), they may get a permit.

But even if they get the permit, they still have to pray that nothing unexpected happens to lead to the sudden closure of the Erez crossing. Then they have to pray that the conference/meeting/family event does not take place over a Jewish holiday, since the crossing are closed then. And finally they have to pray that the shuttle operates in the direction they want to go.

For instance, last Wednesday, after the end of the Sukkot holiday, the shuttle only traveled from Jordan to Gaza, but not the other way. That meant anyone wishing to leave the Strip, perhaps with the intent of flying to Europe to attend an international conference on the dissolution of borders, which took place that day, had to wait until Thursday, when the shuttle went from Gaza to Jordan – thus missing one day out of two.

The woman who was meant to sit beside me had gone through all the required steps, but COGAT decided that the conference did not meet their criteria (even though it does), which is why her chair remained empty. Her words were read out by a European woman.

When she read the following words, not one eye in the auditorium remained dry: “I get emotional every time I encounter displays of humanity on the other side, the one that rules us, particularly every time I discover that despite the situation I’m in, with the natural anger and frustration it can cause, I also have some humanity left inside me.”

Are these the public relations Israel wants to broadcast to the world? That the humanity of a helpless woman from Gaza overcomes the humanity displayed by the fearsome authorities that govern her?

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