In September 2007, after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, the Israeli government declared Gaza a “hostile entity”. The Security Cabinet adopted a string of sanctions against Gaza’s population, including reductions in the supply of fuel and electricity and various restrictions on the entrance and exit of commercial goods. Restrictions on travel to and from Gaza, which date to the late 80s and the days of the First Intifada, had been progressively tightened throughout the 1990s and intensified further with the implementation of the Gaza “Disengagement Plan” in 2005, were made nearly absolute.
Over the years, Israel has lifted some of the economic sanctions against the Gaza Strip, including restrictions on electricity and fuel supply. In 2010, following the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, most civilian goods were again allowed into Gaza, including everyday items that had been inexplicably banned for years, such as coriander, flowerpots and toys, though restrictions on construction materials remained. In late 2014, after Operation Protective Edge, Israel began allowing limited sale of goods from Gaza in the West Bank, and in early 2015, allowed some items to reach Israeli markets. However, while restrictions on movement of goods to and from Gaza have been altered, severe restrictions on travel of people remain nearly unchanged.
Eight years after Israel declared Gaza a “hostile entity”, travel between the Strip and the West Bank is still limited mainly to medical patients and their companions, a quota of approved merchants, and other “exceptional humanitarian cases”. Israel refuses to allow students from Gaza to study in the West Bank, a ban that has been in place since the year 2000. Students from Gaza accepted to programs abroad have difficulty obtaining permits to travel via Israel. Exit for the purpose of attending seminars, conferences and pursuing business opportunities in the West Bank is also limited. Relocating permanently to the West Bank is impossible. Families divided across the Palestinian territory can meet only in the case of a wedding, a life-threatening medical condition or death of a first-degree relative, and even then, the visit depends on the efficiency of the bureaucracy and how magnanimous the people implementing it feel.
Given that the Gaza Strip is so small, restrictions on the movement of commercial goods have an immediate, easily identifiable impact. The impact of restrictions on travel of people is harder to quantify. No one keeps a record of how many times siblings got to embrace each other. No institution estimates how many more times a woman from Gaza has left to see her aging parents in the West Bank before they pass away. And yet, the backbone of a functioning, stable society is made up of the immeasurable emotional, practical and financial support rendered by family.
In September 2013, Gisha commissioned a comprehensive survey to examine family ties across Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. Pollsters from the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research interviewed 1,270 people in the West Bank and Gaza and found that 26% of Gaza residents have relatives in the West Bank. Seven percent have first-degree relatives in the West Bank. In addition, about 15% of Gaza residents have relatives in Israel and east Jerusalem. In total, some 31% of Gaza residents, more than half a million people, have relatives in east Jerusalem, Israel or the West Bank. The majority of them cannot see these relatives because the criteria for who can receive a permit to travel are too narrow. Occasionally, a grandson may get a permit to visit a dying grandmother, or a woman might be able to go to her brother’s wedding but, for example, a man who wants to mourn with his brother in the case his child passes away would not be eligible to travel.
Tens of thousands have to make do with telephone or video calls made possible by services like Skype. This too becomes complicated given Gaza’s faltering electricity supply.
Until mid-2013, Gaza residents who had the means to do so could meet their relatives in third countries like Egypt or Jordan, but in July 2013, Egyptian security forces began closing Rafah, the Gaza-Egypt border crossing, with increasing frequency. The crossing now operates only several days each month. Even those who make it onto the waiting list to travel, which regularly numbers in the thousands, cannot be certain when they might travel and, no less disturbing, if and when they might be able to return.
Family events, be they sad or happy, amplify the absence of loved ones. What every free person takes for granted – a weekend with grandparents, a cousin coming by to help fix a bike, a family huddle to solve a complicated problem – is out of reach.
Family ties are inexorable, and, as the years of separation between Gaza and the West Bank have shown, the longing to see relatives endures. The separation policy, as a tactic meant to undermine the Hamas regime in Gaza or a mechanism purported to serve security, has failed. The terrible suffering brought about by the policy has no justification, neither on geopolitical nor on security grounds, and the arbitrary lifting of some restrictions at various junctures over the years is testament to this.
This project tells the everyday stories of families split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip who have generously agreed to allow us a glimpse into their lives. To the observer of these images, the lives depicted within seem normal enough, but just below the surface lies the constant ache of longing for a parent’s touch, a grandchild’s hug, or the encouraging presence of a sister.
The three families are divided, in each of these cases, because a woman joined her husband in the other part of the Palestinian territory and was thus separated from her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and other friends and family. Israel’s restrictions on travel thus compound an already difficult situation women face by making a woman’s journey to leave her home effectively a one-way street.