The only way that Moamen Asad Bashir could live with his wife was to flee Gaza.
Moamen married Nermeen Hamdan in Hebron five years ago. The couple had met in Ramallah – another city in the occupied West Bank – where Moamen worked as a carpenter and Nermeen as a teacher.
In June 2015, Moamen returned home to Gaza for his mother’s funeral. Afterwards he made multiple applications to cross the Erez checkpoint, which separates Gaza and Israel. But the Israeli authorities refused to give him a permit.
Forced to live apart from his wife and children in the West Bank, he also lost his job in a Ramallah furniture factory because he couldn’t return to it.
It wasn’t until February this year that Moamen and Nermeen were reunited. They now live in Brussels, with their two daughters, Yumna, 5, and Ayah, 4.
Reaching the Belgian capital proved arduous. Moamen first traveled through Rafah, the crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and then on to Turkey. He was smuggled into western Europe. The people smuggler who arranged his trip charged him almost $3,000. Nermeen and their children flew to Brussels from Jordan.
“I was extremely distressed,” said Moamen by Skype. “The Israeli occupation wouldn’t let me see my wife. I decided to emigrate after all the doors were closed in my face.”
Ahmad Shaheen is in a similar situation. A plumber from Gaza, Ahmad has been married to Nisreen Abu Arab for eight years. She and their four children live in the West Bank city of Nablus; Ahmad has been prevented from joining them.
Two years ago, Ahmad left Nablus for Gaza as his mother was severely ill.
Two months after his return to Gaza, Ahmad set about returning to Nablus. He has still not been able to leave Gaza. All his applications to travel via Erez have either been turned down – with Israel citing “security” reasons – or elicited no response.
“Our rights are enshrined in international conventions and yet we can’t see our wives,” he said. “That is the most basic of rights. Today, I am thinking of emigrating not because I don’t love my homeland and the Palestinian cause but because I want to live with my family and raise my children.”
Ahmad’s mother has died since he came back to Gaza. She never once met her grandchildren from Nablus face-to-face.
Israel has routinely blocked Palestinians from traveling through Erez in recent times.
Between January and August this year, Israel permitted an average of 9,000 Palestinians to exit Gaza via Erez per month. Before the second intifada began in September 2000, the average number of Palestinians allowed to leave through Erez each month exceeded half a million.
Israel’s harsh policies on travel are – in some cases – preventing couples from getting married.
Manal has given up hope that she will be able to wed her beloved Nayif.
The couple, whose last names are not included to protect their privacy, met following Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza. Nayif, who lives in Ramallah, traveled to Gaza at that time to visit his mother. During the trip, he and Manal fell in love.
Nayif subsequently went back to Ramallah but Manal remains in Gaza. She, too, has been refused permission to cross the Erez checkpoint.
In Palestinian tradition, a couple registers their marriage contract before their engagement begins. As Manal and Nayif have taken that step but cannot formally go ahead with their wedding and live together, they are now considered divorced.
“My dreams and our love story have been killed by the occupation,” Manal said. “I don’t know if I or our marriage presented any danger to them. My only offense is that I lived in Gaza.”
Fadel Ashour, a Gaza-based psychiatrist, said that Israel’s policies have a marked effect on mental health. People who are forced to separate from their spouses can end up feeling disconnected from society at large, he added. Emotional healing is difficult to achieve amid the stress of life in Gaza.
“These cases are like birds kept alone in a cage,” Ashour said. “Maybe the cure for them is to go outside Gaza, change where they live and get married again. But these solutions cannot be attained while Gaza remains under siege.”
Ahed, another man from Gaza, went to live in Bethlehem during 2009. As well as finding work in one of Bethlehem’s sweet shops, he met his wife-to-be Dunia in the West Bank city.
The couple wed in 2014. For the next two years, they lived in Bethlehem. Ahed went back to Gaza in 2016 for his father’s funeral. Israel then denied him permission to leave the territory via Erez.
With no prospect of them being able to reunite, Dunia and Ahed divorced in July this year. The couple have a son, though Ahed has never seen him in person. Dunia was pregnant at the time Ahed went to Gaza for his father’s funeral.
“I feel pain every evening,” said Ahed. “The occupation has claimed that it cannot give me a permit for security reasons. I don’t know if that is based on the truth. How do they judge that I am such a danger that they won’t allow me see my family?”
Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.