Stranded in Gaza

The Rafah crossing — between Gaza and Egypt — has mainly been closed this year.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Mahmoud Moussa has been stranded for much of this year.

Until recently, he has lived in Oman, where he worked as a hospital radiologist. In February this year, Moussa and his family took a trip to Gaza, where he was born.

He had hoped to spend a month with his parents in Gaza but his plans have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For most people in Gaza, the only exit point to the rest of the world is by traveling via the Rafah crossing into Egypt. In response to the pandemic, that crossing has been mainly closed since 15 March.

After realizing that leaving Gaza was impossible, Moussa, 40, contacted his employers in Oman, who gave him a deadline for returning to work. The deadline was extended several times.

But after six months had elapsed, Moussa was told that his contract had ended.

Not only has he been deprived of a steady income – he earned around $1,800 per month – Moussa’s residency permit for Oman has now been cancelled.

Moussa, his Egyptian wife and their three children had lived in Oman for 12 years.

He had taken a $14,000 loan with an Omani bank two years ago as his wife needed eye surgery. So far he has repaid just $4,000 of that sum.

He also owes back rent of approximately $1,500.

The Omani authorities have informed Moussa that he may re-enter the country. He is worried, however, that he may be arrested following his return because of his unpaid debts.

“My children are always asking me when we can go back to Oman, where they have been growing up,” he said. “I don’t know how to answer that question. I just say, we will go back very soon.”

Few opportunities

Gaza’s inhabitants have few economic opportunities at home. Data published recently by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics put the unemployment rate in Gaza at 49 percent between April and June 2020.

The data does not take into account an increase in unemployment since then. That resulted from a lockdown imposed in August when it was confirmed that COVID-19 had been detected outside of Gaza’s quarantine centers for the first time.

Whenever it has been possible to leave Gaza in recent years, large numbers have emigrated. Building new lives abroad has generally meant that emigrants only visit friends and relatives in Gaza every once in a while.

Lately, people who have come to Gaza for what they thought would be brief spells have found that they have been unable to leave.

The Rafah crossing was briefly opened in August but only a limited number of people were allowed travel through it.

“These difficult circumstances are causing severe emotional stress, depression and despair for many Gazans,” said Usama Hamad, who campaigns for the opening of the Rafah crossing.

“I need to leave now”

Ruwaida Bashir has only seen her family in Gaza a few times since Israel placed it under a comprehensive siege 13 years ago. Making the journey from the United Arab Emirates, where she now lives, can be a major ordeal as the Rafah crossing has been repeatedly closed throughout that period.

Bashir made one of her rare visits in February this year, leaving her husband behind in the UAE city of Ajman.

As her husband – aged 60 – has restricted mobility due to a fractured pelvis, he depends on her considerably. Yet Bashir has been unable to return to him.

Bashir’s residency documents for the UAE expired in August. To renew them will take at least three months.

She had been receiving medical care in the UAE for a back complaint. The treatment she requires is not available in Gaza.

“I cannot wait another few months,” she said. “I need to leave now because my health is getting worse.”

Fearing eviction

Nael al-Draimli, 37, is the sole breadwinner for his family. His wife, their four children and his mother all depend on the wages he has made from working as a building site supervisor in the UAE.

For that job, he was paid around $2,000 per month. Unable to reach the UAE, he is now unemployed.

Earlier this year, al-Draimli paid a visit to Gaza, where he was raised, to undergo a medical procedure. He decided to do so as he did not have health insurance in the UAE.

His stay in Gaza turned out to be much longer than he had anticipated.

The Rafah crossing was closed following his arrival. His employers gave him a deadline to resume his job, which they extended more than once before ending his contract.

“That’s my luck,” he said. “And I should accept it. But I don’t know how my family and I are going to live. We are depending on help from my relatives and my old colleagues at work. Sometimes we go into debt to provide for our basic needs.”

He is worried that his children will not be able to attend school as he cannot afford their fees. The UAE only provides free education to children whose parents hold citizenship.

Al-Draimli also fears arrest and imprisonment if he goes back as he owes about $3,000 in back rent.

His family could have lost their home by now, were it not for a freeze on evictions introduced in response to the pandemic.

“They don’t know where they will go if they are evicted,” he said. “They have friends in the UAE but they do not want to be a burden on them.”

Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman is a journalist living in Gaza.