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How Israel Separates Palestinian Families

Since 2022, Palestinians traveling from Gaza have been made to sign a form that restricts their movement even more.

Words: Khuloud Sulaiman
Pictures: Toa Heftiba

Salma Safi, 48, a Palestinian from Nablus in the West Bank, left her parents, siblings, and friends in her hometown in 2002 and relocated to Gaza to live with her husband Ibrahim, a young Gazan man. She rarely visited her family back home after the move because of Israel’s strict crackdowns on Palestinians’ mobility. 

Safi had the right to travel from Gaza to the West Bank in only humanitarian situations like illness, death, or a first-degree relative’s wedding. But even those limited rights to movement have been recently infringed upon. The Israeli authorities have restricted visit permits to those with immediate medical and humanitarian needs, businesses, members of foreign organizations, and people obtaining work or study scholarships outside the Gaza Strip since 2008, when Hamas, a group designated as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, won legislative elections. 

She is now finding it difficult to travel to see her sick mother and siblings. This is because last year, when she was returning to Gaza from a visit to the West Bank, she signed a paper that Israeli authorities provided her at the border. The form, titled “Declaration of Settlement in Gaza,” was incomprehensible to Safi because it was in Hebrew, a language she did not understand. The document, described here, explains that Palestinian residents of the West Bank are transferring their “center of life” to Gaza permanently and will be allowed to re-enter the West Bank only under “rare humanitarian” circumstances. 

The border authorities refused to explain the form to Safi and told her she wouldn’t be allowed to enter the city and return to her husband and children until she signed the document. And so she signed. Since then, she has been prohibited from traveling to the West Bank, where she had spent her first 23 years of life. 

Unable to Move Back to the West Bank

Following Israel’s 2007 blockade of Gaza, nearly 80 West Bank Palestinians who visited their families in the West were forced to sign a paper allowing Israeli authorities to deny them the right to move back to the West Bank, according to Heba al-Danaf, a lawyer with Aisha Association for Woman and Child Protection.  

After several years of suspension following its first formation in 2009, the Israeli authorities started enforcing the policy again in 2021.

According to Al-Danaf, even though the West Bank is listed as their place of residence on their identity cards, by signing it, a Palestinian acknowledges that Gaza would be a place of permanent residence for them and their children. Israel is not required to grant every case from Gazans submitting a request to return to the West Bank.

The border authorities refused to explain the form to Safi and told her she wouldn’t be allowed to enter the city and return to her husband and children until she signed the document. And so she signed. Since then, she has been prohibited from traveling to the West Bank, where she had spent her first 23 years of life.

She clarified that the document is granted to any Palestinian with a national identity card who lives in the West Bank and tries to enter Gaza, including Palestinian women who are originally from the West Bank but now reside in Gaza after getting married to Gazan men. She continued, “The majority of those who signed the paper are women, as Israel tries to play on their emotions and use their dire needs to travel to the West Bank or to return to Gaza to force them to sign, and those who refuse to sign are prohibited from traveling throughout the northeast Erez Crossing.”

Safi visited her family in the West Bank only twice over the past 23 years: In 2011, when her mother’s health was deteriorating, and in 2021, when her oldest brother underwent open heart surgery. She was unable to attend his father’s funeral in 2008 or her brother’s wedding in 2016 because her travel permits were rejected without any explanation. 

After signing the paper in 2022, Safi submitted a request to the Israeli authorities to move back to the West Bank through Gisha, an Israeli non-profit dedicated to protecting the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially in Gaza. “My children were eager to see their mother’s family. And I wanted them to live a decent life away from repeated wars and find adequate jobs in the future,” she said. 

But her application was rejected. 

According to Al-Danaf, the policy used against West Bank women is considered a forcible expulsion, a war crime, and a violation of international law. She particularly cited the Geneva Convention, Article 47, which states that human and humanitarian rights continue to apply, even in occupied territories. 

Separation Policy

According to political expert Mustafa Ibrahim, the declaration of settlement in Gaza reflects Israel’s “separation policy” toward Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the 1948 occupied lands. Ibrahim said Israeli authorities have restricted Palestinian movement within Palestinian territories since the 1990s, following the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in 1987.

Prior to the first Intifada, Palestinians were free to travel between the West Bank, Gaza, and other occupied Palestinian territories. However, after that, Israeli authorities demanded they obtain personal exit permits. 

Ibrahim clarified that because Israel controls the civilian registration of Palestinians, Israel’s government has stopped updating the addresses of Palestinians from Gaza who have moved to the West Bank since the 1990s. As a result, couples who are originally from the West Bank but married someone from Gaza or who are originally from Gaza but now live and work in the West Bank are unable to reunite with their spouses and kids in the West Bank. Ibrahim sees this as an intentional demographic engineering and separation policy.

There are currently several thousand families in Gaza who cannot be reunited with their families in the West Bank.   

Ibrahim said that since Israel’s establishment, the government has aimed at enlarging its borders by increasing settlements in the West Bank, reducing the number of Palestinians there, and annexing those settlements to Israel. 

Families Forced Apart

Unlike Safi, Ola al-Baqa, 43, is lucky that she could finally move back to the West Bank in May 2023 despite the fact that she was forced to sign the declaration of settlement in Gaza in 2021 in order to be permitted to enter the strip.

Al-Baqa, who was born in Nablus, West Bank, and spent 23 years there, wed a Gazan in 2003 who resides in Gaza. She consequently relocated to Gaza, where she remained for 20 years. Over the past years, she was permitted to visit her family in a few humanitarian cases, including in 2021, when she needed to attend the funeral of her brother, who died from cancer. 

During her return to Gaza on that trip, the border guard at the Erez checkpoint told her, “Either you return to the West Bank, in accordance with the address on your ID card, or you sign a form saying that you are changing your address to Gaza.” Al-Baqa was stunned and unable to speak for minutes, not knowing what to do. She was suddenly forced to choose between her husband and kids in Gaza or her mother and siblings in Nablus. “I was forced to choose my family in Gaza because one of my sons has down syndrome and needs me near him.”

In November 2022, Al-Baqa submitted a request to move back with her children to the West Bank, and it was accepted after six months. 

However, the Gisha Organization warned that even in humanitarian situations, her husband, who is listed as a resident of Gaza, might not be permitted to see her and her children in the West Bank because Israel worries he might eventually decide to settle there. 

Al-Baqa was forced to return to Nablus in order to give her kids a decent living, particularly her son with special needs. The West Bank has more support for him than Gaza. “I was forced to live apart from my husband in order to provide a safe atmosphere for my children,” she said. “But separating my family was unfair. I’m in Nablus with my kids while my spouse is in Gaza,” she continued. “My children need their dad by their side.”

Khuloud Sulaiman

Khuloud Sulaiman is a Gaza-based freelance journalist contributing to several international websites, including the New Arab, AlJazeera English, TRT World, and the Electronic Intifada.

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