Gaza family exiled to Syria and Libya looks back

Abdelhai al-Khaldi, known as Abu Mahmoud, and his wife Umm Mahmoud are an elderly Palestinian couple who live in a rented apartment in the northern Gaza Strip neighborhood of al-Saftawi. The two had lived in Libya for about 28 years, before returning to Gaza in 1995 along with their eight now adult children.

Abu Mahmoud moved to Libya in 1968, the year after Israel occupied Egypt’s Sinai, Syria’s Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where al-Khaldi lived in a refugee camp called Beach Camp.

When the 1967 War broke out, al-Khaldi, who is now 67, had been a student, but the war and the Israeli occupation that came with it disrupted his studies and he, along with many other students, headed to Jordan to complete their studies.

He and later his family were among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the war, or who emigrated afterwards in search of work to help alleviate the hardships faced by their families under occupation.

Palestinian identity card confiscated at the border

Soon after the war, al-Khaldi told The Electronic Intifada at his home, “I decided to head for Jordan to complete my education. Upon arriving at the Allenby Bridge between the West Bank and east Jordan, the Israeli authorities seized my [Egyptian-issued] Palestinian ID card along with those of three bus loads of others.”

From 1967 and up until the early 1990s, it was relatively easy for Palestinians to travel from Gaza to other parts of Palestine, including the West Bank, a freedom that is unimaginable today as Gaza remains under tight siege.

But for the many thousands whose IDs were confiscated by the Israeli authorities, returning home once they had left became all but impossible. Since the 1993 Oslo accords, the Palestinian Authority began to work on returning members of some families living in nearby Arab countries with so-called family reunion permits, in coordination with the Israeli authorities. During that period, up to 2008, Israel restored IDs to approximately 800 Palestinians per year, according to Palestinian estimates.

In Jordan, al-Khaldi found work as a physical education teacher. Then, along with Umm Mahmoud, he moved to Libya for six years before joining relatives in Syria.

“In Libya and Syria, our living conditions were not that good socially, but in Syria it was a bit better. I had raised my children to remain committed to our Palestinian traditions and to Palestine, their original home,” al-Khaldi said as his 17-year-old son Ayman and Umm Mahmoud sat nearby. “We found it hard to integrate into Libyan society due to various differences in social customs, though Libya is an Arab country.”

There was also a feeling of isolation. “You see this small rented house?” Umm Mahmoud, 60, said. “For me this house is much more precious than a palace in Libya. At least I have some of my relatives, with whom I can socialize. But back in Libya, I was not able to cope — we were like strangers in an Arab country.”

Asked whether he and other Palestinians were well-treated in Libya, Abu Mahmoud said, “Unfortunately, the Libyan authorities did not treat us [as] citizens, being entitled to full citizenship.”

Al-Khaldi said that he had to pay higher school fees for his children, and that Palestinians were not given access to certain majors in university. “After having served their country for 28 years, they eventually ejected us from Libya,” al-Khaldi recalled. “This was upon the establishment of the Palestinian Authority two years after the signing of Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.”

Separation and longing

“In 1973, my father died and I couldn’t go back to Gaza to receive condolences for his death. The same happened in 1981, when my mother died on a hospital bed,” al-Khaldi recalled. Since his resident’s ID card was confiscated shortly after the war, “it was extremely difficult for me to get a visitor’s permit to go back to the Gaza Strip to share the hard times with my brothers and sisters.”

These experiences heightened the yearning to return home, especially for Umm Mahmoud. “We had lost hope of returning back to Gaza,” she said. “Almost two years before we moved back to Gaza following the Oslo accords of 1993, a Libyan man wanted to marry my daughter Manal, and we agreed to the marriage and now she lives with him in Libya.” The current war in Libya has caused Umm Mahmoud and Abu Mahmoud to worry about their daughter, who is nonetheless “doing well.”

“I do not regret accepting the marriage of my daughter to a Libyan,” Umm Mahmoud said. “What I do regret is the fact that our family had to emigrate into the diaspora and was scattered from one place to another. But we are blessed to have been in Gaza for the past 16 years, despite the many hard circumstances in the territory.”

“A single moment of ghurba [diaspora] is equal to all the bad conditions of Gaza put together,” Umm Mahmoud said. “So I have recently advised my 35-year-old son Ashraf against emigrating.”

Umm Mahmoud, who originally hails from the village of Karatiya north of the Gaza Strip in what is now Israel, is firm about this, even despite Gaza’s high unemployment, which was recently estimated to be over 40 percent. “I advise those who wish to leave the Palestinian homeland to stick to their homeland. As they say, ‘east or west, home is best,’” she said.

Living outside the homeland for so many years “has been a very bitter experience for me and my family,” Umm Mahmoud said as she held a little grandson in her arms.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.