RAMALLAH (IRIN) - Until “that day” in 2007, Nisreen Asaid was a wife and a mother. She was also a hairdresser. But life as she knew it came to a sudden end when Asaid was sent, against her will, from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli authorities have not allowed Asaid to return to her home in the West Bank’s de facto capital, Ramallah. Her husband got tired of waiting and divorced her. Asaid has no close relatives in Gaza, and, with unemployment hovering around 30 percent, she has been unable to find work. She is dependent on her family in the West Bank, which wires money to her so she can stay afloat.
Despite her difficulties and uncertain future, Asaid’s biggest worry is that her two children do not remember her face.
Asaid, 30, was born in the Gaza Strip, a poor, isolated territory under blockade, lacking water, electricity and housing for its 1.6 million inhabitants. In the mid-1990s, when she was 14, she and her family moved to the West Bank. Although Israeli restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement began several years earlier, it was still relatively easy to travel between the territories.
So Asaid did not worry what address was listed on the Israeli-controlled population registry. After all, her life was in the West Bank. She got married and gave birth to her first child, a girl, in the West Bank. She divorced, remarried, and bore a son in East Jerusalem. She worked in Ramallah and owned an apartment in the West Bank city of Qalqilya.
No chance to say goodbye
At night, Asaid often slept with her children, snuggling with them and measuring their small bodies with her hands to see how much they had grown. Today, their relationship takes place on the phone.
Asaid has not seen her son and daughter since 2007, when she went to visit her sister in Qalqilya. Although she was travelling from one Palestinian city to another, Qalqilya is in Area C (which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank and is under full Israeli military and civilian control). When Asaid tried to pass through an Israeli checkpoint — a checkpoint she had been through countless times — she was arrested because her identification document listed her as a Gaza resident.
After Asaid was detained and interrogated, Israeli forces took her straight from the checkpoint to Gaza. She did not have a chance to say goodbye to her children before she was transferred. Her daughter was 10 at the time; her son was two.
With the help of Gisha, an Israeli organization that campaigns for freedom of movement, Asaid has waged a legal battle in the hope of returning to her two children. She managed to get her address updated to the West Bank and got a new ID that reflects the change. But the Israeli authorities will not allow Asaid to leave the Gaza Strip despite the fact that they have no security claim against her.
Guy Inbar, a spokesman of the Israeli army’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, said the army had not received an application from Asaid to travel from Gaza to the West Bank. He said such requests must first be filed with the Palestinian authorities, which Asaid insisted she has done via the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs.
While Asaid’s story is not unique, it is impossible to know exactly how many Palestinian spouses have been split between Gaza and the West Bank due to Israeli policies and how many parents have been separated from their minor children.
“One of the problems is that people stop asking [the Israeli authorities for permission] to travel to reunite because they know that the answer is no,” said Sari Bashi, Gisha’s director. “We know that it affects a lot of people and it has a disproportionately negative effect on women.”
In February 2011, Israel agreed to allow 5,000 Palestinians to change their address from Gaza to the West Bank. Many were West Bank residents who lived under constant fear of arrest and forced transfer. Some, like Asaid, had already been sent to Gaza. The gesture was brokered by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who now works as a “special representative” for the so-called Middle East Quartet (the US, European Union, UN and Russia). A year and a half later, the gesture has only been partially implemented.
According to Bashi, thousands of applicants are still waiting for an answer. Others were initially told that their address could be changed, only to have the Israeli army rescind the decision. And some are like Asaid — they have new ID documents but are unable to get permission to travel to the address where they are now registered.
“Changing a person’s address within the Palestinian territory should not be subject to the whims of a political gesture,” Bashi said.
The Israeli government says — as it does for all of its policies which profoundly restrict Palestinians’ freedom of movement — that security considerations are at play: “Due to the security threat today, caused by the Palestinian terrorism in general, and particularly the desire of terrorist groups in Gaza to relocate the existing terrorist infrastructure to [the West Bank], Israel has adopted a policy which reduces movements between Gaza and [the West Bank],” Inbar added. The policy, he continued, “enables transition of Palestinians from Gaza only in humanitarian cases.”
But Bashi argues that since Israel has recognized Gaza and the West Bank as a single territorial unit, freedom of movement has to be allowed. Under international human rights law, that means a Palestinian resident may choose to live in Gaza City or Ramallah as he or she likes.
She said the so-called “separation policy” is driven by the fact that Israel has territorial claims in the West Bank, but has abandoned those claims in Gaza. (Palestinians are free to change their addresses from the West Bank to Gaza and are also allowed to move to Gaza. But they cannot return to the West Bank.)
“[Israel] hasn’t given much information about what [the policy] is,” Bashi said, “but the dominant aspects of it are to disallow travel between Gaza and the West Bank, to prevent Palestinians from Gaza from moving to the West Bank and to induce or coerce Palestinians from the West Bank to move to Gaza.”
But for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, “regarding this specific issue, Gaza and [the West Bank] cannot be declared as a single territorial unit.” Inbar said the policy has been examined again and again by the Israeli high court, which found no fault.
“We emphasize, as was decided time after time by the supreme court, there is no legal obligation to allow free movement between Gaza and [the West Bank], and certainly, if the request obligates transition through Israeli territory.”
In December 2009, the Israeli high court received a petition filed by Gisha on behalf of Samir Abu Yusef. Although he was born in Gaza, Abu Yusef lived in the West Bank from 1990 until 2007, when the Israeli authorities arrested him and transferred him to Gaza, under the same pretense that was used to expel Asaid: he had a Gaza address on his ID.
A few months after the petition was filed, the Israeli authorities allowed Abu Yusef to return to the West Bank, sparing the court from making a decision on the issue of separated families.
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