Khadija al-Najjar flipped through pictures of her children and grandchildren, growing more and more agitated.
Some of her children now live in Europe or North America. But Khadija, 72, cannot visit them. She does not hold and cannot obtain a Palestinian ID even to attempt to go and visit. Without one, she has no papers to allow her passage.
She is not alone. There are an estimated 5,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Authority’s ministry for civil affairs office there, who share her predicament. Israel stopped distributing ID cards meant for residents of the coastal strip after 2007, when Hamas took sole control of Gaza from Fatah after winning the previous year’s parliamentary elections.
Khadija and her husband, Muhammad Issa al-Najjar, live in the al-Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City. Muhammad was born in 1945 in Masmiya al-Kabira, a Palestinian village in the then-Gaza district (now on the Israeli side of the boundary) that was forcibly depopulated and largely destroyed in the Nakba of 1948.
He studied in Egypt before the 1967 war and was among those who did not register in the Israeli census of 1967 of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
For this reason, he and his family would find it impossible to return to Gaza until 1999 when, borne by a wave of peace process optimism and the promise held out that Gaza would become an Arab version of rich, dynamic Singapore, they did exactly that.
“We entered Gaza with temporary permits, since my relatives are in Gaza,” said Muhammad. But only half the family went on to get permanent IDs. “We applied for family unification; [my children] Nasser, Razan and I obtained ID cards. Unfortunately, my wife, Ahmad and Lina did not get theirs.”
Khadija gets upset whenever she looks at her temporary ID card. It’s useless to her. She has not seen her daughter Lamis, 41, who lives in the UK, for 20 years. Nasser, 38, has lived in Canada for the past five years. She also has brothers in Dubai she hopes to visit.
The mother of five still hopes to obtain an ID card, but despite having made several calls to the relevant authorities in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, she has repeatedly been told that the decision is up to the Israelis.
“I feel like I am in prison; I cannot visit my children or grandchildren nor perform the Hajj or Umrah. When my son Nasser was in Gaza, he was about to get a job in a bank, but was rejected when they learned that he didn’t have an ID,” Khadija told The Electronic Intifada.
At least Mahmoud Mufid Abdel-Hadi, 40, has a job. Despite not carrying a Palestinian ID, he has found work as a project manager in the NGO sector. His parents had left Gaza before 1967 to work in the United Arab Emirates, where Mahmoud was born, and the family could not easily return after 1967 and the occupation.
The peace process and the creation of the PA changed all that for the Abdul-Hadis, the Najjars and tens of thousands of others who returned to occupied territory in the 1990s after the Oslo accords were signed.
Mahmoud returned to Gaza with his family in 1998. They were eight, but only two ever obtained ID cards. He, both his parents in their 80s, and three of his siblings are among the 5,000 Palestinians waiting to get their IDs.
“We are victims of the current political circumstances. For all I know, the ID file is closed. Israel, which only discriminates against Palestinians, has no interest in helping us in Gaza. Unfortunately, the PA, which is the negotiating party, has appeared weak before the Israelis,” he said.
But Mahmoud held Palestinian political leaders of all stripes responsible for not resolving this issue with Israel.
“This file should be one of the major topics in negotiations, alongside issues such as prisoners,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “In Gaza, Hamas bears responsibility since it is the dominant faction.”
He expressed frustration that there was not more urgency around the ID issue.
“We are in an open-air prison serving a life sentence. Without ID, we have not been able to leave Gaza since we came,” he said.
The holdup is entirely on the Israeli side, said Saleh al-Ziq, of Gaza’s civil affairs ministry.
“Thousands of Palestinians now live in Gaza without ID cards. The ministry has not received Israeli approval to issue their ID cards,” al-Ziq told The Electronic intifada.
The 5,000 people in question were the last group whose ID status was under negotiation when Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, al-Ziq said. Mostly, these had returned on temporary permits before applying for family reunification. As negotiations were broken off, the status of these individuals was never resolved.
Israel has final say on ID cards under agreements struck between Israel and the PLO in the 1990s. While it is the PA that issues ID cards, Israel issues ID numbers, without which the ID cards are not valid. The information contained on the cards is written in both Arabic and Hebrew.
“Unfortunately, people without ID cards are denied their most basic social and political rights. Israel refuses to grant IDs under the pretext of Hamas’ seizure of the Gaza Strip. I do not know what kind of threat ID cards pose to Israel,” al-Ziq said, saying he hoped the issue could be resolved sooner rather than later.
Iman al-Sir, 30, traces her origins back to Jaffa. With just a temporary ID, she has never felt settled in Palestine, she told The Electronic Intifada.
Iman grew up in the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, but returned to Gaza with her mother in 2012 because of the fighting in Syria. Her grandfather had been expelled to Egypt, and he traveled to Syria after the 1967 war during which he had fought for the Arab armies.
“Since my childhood, my father always told us about Palestine and our land in Jaffa from which we were uprooted. The first time I ever saw an Israeli soldier was on TV in 2000.”
She said that she had wanted to return and live in Palestine for many years before she actually did.
“However, when I came to Gaza, I found that it is the Israeli occupation that controls my identity. What kind of peace is this? How can you promote peace with a state that doesn’t recognize your existence?”
She told The Electronic Intifada that had she known she was going to wind up in an “open-air prison,” she would have braved the perilous trip to Europe, undertaken by so many Syrian refugees.
“At least in Europe, I would never have to experience the Israeli occupation deciding whether I am Palestinian or not.”
Ola Mousa is an artist and writer from Gaza.