‘Heartbreak’: Israel’s cruel policy of splitting families

Women wait on Palestinian side of Erez Checkpoint to be allowed into Israel. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 28 Feb. 2017Women wait on Palestinian side of Erez Checkpoint to be allowed into Israel. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 28 Feb. 2017

It's very hard when you’re denied your most basic right: to meet your children whenever you want, to hug them. It's very hard to live with the yearning. I want to hug my daughter so much. A person can't know in advance how much she’ll miss and want to hug her children or grandchildren. We have been denied these experiences, and the right to see the people who are dearest to us.”

Excerpt from a testimony given by F.I., a resident of Um a -Sharayet in the Ramallah District, whose daughter lives in Gaza..

Since the 1990s, Israel has restricted the movement of Palestinians between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In 2000, the restrictions were tightened and the “split family” procedure was introduced to regulate family visits. This procedure was in force until Hamas seized power in 2007, following which Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip. Since then, Israel has permitted visits between the two areas by immediate family only, according to a special procedure that applies in cases that fall within its narrow definition of “humanitarian”: serious illness, a wedding, or mourning.

However, according to statistics compiled by the Department of Civilian Affairs in the Palestinian Authority, in 2016, Israel approved only some 25% of requests filed by Gaza residents to visit family in the West Bank that met “humanitarian criteria”:*

Requests denied Requests with no replyRequests approvedRequests submittedReason780 (13.9%)3,476 (61.7%)1,375 (24.4%)5,631Visit immediate relative who is critically ill153 (16.3%)532 (56.7%)253 (27%)938Attend wedding of immediate relative68 (23.4%)118 (40.6%)105 (36%) 291Mourning for immediate relative1,001 (14.6%) 4,126 (60.14%)1,733 (25.26%)6,860Total

*Does not include East Jerusalem

The statistics show that most requests receive no reply. This leaves the applicants in a state of uncertainty and denies them the possibility of appealing the decision. 

According to the Palestinian District Coordination Office (DCO) in the West Bank, in 2016, residents of the West Bank submitted 2,449 requests to visit relatives in Gaza. Israel approved only some 25% (578) of these requests, too; 1,871 requests were either denied or have yet to receive a response.

According to the 1995 interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, “powers and responsibilities in the sphere of population registry and documentation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will be transferred from the military government and its Civil Administration to the Palestinian side”. The agreement also states that the Palestinian Authority must notify Israel “of every change in its population registry”. However, in 2000 Israel stopped updating changes of address from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank in its copy of the population registry. Since then, residents of Gaza who have moved to the West Bank have been unable to formally change their address. 

Since Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank are essentially part of the same society, men and women have continued to marry partners from the other area. This has created a gap between Israel’s copy of the  registry and reality. As Israel no longer enables Palestinian residents of Gaza who move to the West Bank to update their address, they are exposed to being arrested as “illegal aliens” and sent back to Gaza. Yet Israel readily changes the addresses of West Bank residents who move to Gaza, from which point on they lose the right to visit the West Bank, except under the extreme limitations of the special procedure. 

Since I got married, I haven't seen my daughter from my first marriage, Yasmin, or any other relative. I haven’t attended family celebrations or sad events. Three of my brothers got married and I couldn't go to their weddings. Yasmin got engaged to a young man from Gaza and I couldn't go to the betrothal. I wanted very much to be with her and celebrate with her on that day. Three years ago, my sister Ni'mah died of cancer. I couldn't visit her the whole time she was ill, and I had no chance to say goodbye to her before she died.

 Excerpt from a testimony given by Muna ‘Abd al-Rahim Ahmad Ghannam, 53, who was born in Gaza and lives in Hebron, in the West Bank.

Under the Oslo Accords, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are considered a single entity and residents of both areas have the right to freedom of movement between them. The restrictions imposed by Israel since 2000 on the movement of Palestinians between these two areas violate the right to freedom of movement, which is enshrined in international humanitarian law, in human rights law, and in Israeli constitutional law. 

The restrictions have split up families, subjecting couples in which one partner is from Gaza and the other from the West Bank or from Israel to a series of bureaucratic restraints that preclude a reasonably normal life. Tens of thousands of people have to cope with an impossible reality, in which the state interferes in the most intimate aspects of their lives through a series of procedures that set strict criteria that are virtually impossible to meet. The most basic aspects of life, that are usually taken for granted – starting a family, living with one’s partner and children, and staying in regular touch with relatives on both sides – have become unattainable.

This year marks a decade since Israel began its cruel blockade on the Gaza Strip, which it continues to maintain while shirking responsibility for the extreme implications for the lives of residents there. Israel must respect the right of all residents of Gaza and the West Bank to family life and to freedom of movement between the two areas, which comprise a single territorial unit. It must allow couples in which one member is from the West Bank and the other from Gaza to choose their place of residence and move freely between the areas. Moreover, all residents of the West Bank and Gaza have the right to maintain normal family ties, and Israel is not allowed to deny this right in a sweeping manner and to restrict it to such limited exceptions.

Testimonies of women from Gaza: 

Wiam Maher Suliman a-Nimes, 31, married and a mother of three, related in a testimony she gave to B'Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sa'id on 14 Nov. 2016:

Wiam a-Nimes

My family returned to Palestine in 1994, when the Palestinian Authority was established. At first we lived in Jericho, and in 1998 we moved to the Gaza Strip along with my father's family. 

In 2007, I graduated from Al-Aqsa University in Gaza and got married here, in Gaza. My children were born here. My sister also got married in Gaza. In 2008, my parents and the rest of my brothers and sisters moved to Jenin, in the West Bank, after things got worse in Gaza and my brothers couldn’t find work. Israel let them move because they were still listed on their identity cards as residents of the West Bank. 

In 2009, I managed to get a permit to visit my family for the first time. In 2010, my father got a permit to visit Gaza when his mother, my grandmother, passed away. But the permit was only for two days. I submit applications for travel permits all the time, but the Israeli side rejects them. Even when my mother was ill and I enclosed medical documents, they wouldn’t let me visit her. In 2013, I got a permit to attend the wedding of my sister Fatimah. I traveled with my sons and we stayed for a week. It was the first time that my sons met their grandparents and aunts and uncles.

I keep imagining how my life would be if I could meet my father and mother once a month or even once a year. This reality is very hard for me. It’s been three years since I last saw my parents face to face, in the 2013 visit. I have to make do with phone calls. 

There have been so many festivities and events when my family couldn’t come and visit me as is customary. This separation saddens me very much. At the end of 2014, my brother Suliman got married, but the Israeli authorities didn’t allow me to go to his wedding. I have never met my nephews, who were born in Jenin. 

Amani Kamal ‘Abd al-Majid Sharif, 30, married and a mother of five, a resident of Gaza, said in a testimony she gave to B'Tselem field researcher Khaled al-‘Azayzeh on 15 Nov. 2016: 

I was born in the city of Gaza. In 2001, when I was sixteen, I applied with my parents for a permit to enter the West Bank. We received permits for three days. We went to the al-‘Arub refugee camp in the Hebron District, where I married ‘Adnan Hassan a-Sharif, a resident of the camp. After three days of celebration, my parents went back to Gaza and I remained alone with my husband. 

Over the next four years I submitted three requests to enter Gaza to visit my family, but they were denied. During this time, my mother came to visit me three times, including twice on high holidays. 

I missed many special family occasions because of the Israeli prohibition. In 2002, my brother Muhammad got married and I couldn’t go to the wedding. When my mother came for visits, she brought photos of my brothers with her.  

In 2005, my husband and I submitted requests to visit Gaza. My husband received a permit within a week, but my request was denied. We had two daughters then: Suha, 13, and Sahar, 11. I decided to take them and go with my husband anyway, because I missed my brother, father and nephews very much. When we arrived at Erez Checkpoint, my husband and Suha were allowed into Gaza, but they kept Sahar and me at the checkpoint until 3:00 P.M. Then they let us through, without asking any questions. My husband waited for me outside the checkpoint. When we reached my parents’ home, the whole family was there waiting for me. I was so happy to see my brothers and father after four years of separation. 

We stayed in Gaza for two months and then we all submitted requests to go home to the West Bank, but they were denied. We kept submitting requests every month or two, and they were repeatedly rejected. This went on for three years. During that whole time my husband did not work, because he couldn’t find work in Gaza due to the bad economic situation. My father supported us, and we were in a bad state emotionally. 

In 2013, my husband received a permit to enter the West Bank, but my request and my daughters’ were rejected again. During the years we lived in Gaza, we had three more children: Sama, Haya, and Muhammad. When my husband received the entry permit, he tried to get permission to take our two eldest daughters but was denied. On 24 March 2013, my husband returned to the West Bank and I stayed in Gaza with the children, at my parents’ home. Since then I have submitted about twenty requests for permits and haven’t succeeded in getting a single one.

My husband and I have been separated against our will for four years, because of the permit issue. My husband is in one city and the children and I are in another. We’re in contact by mobile phone and online. The children cry and want to go to their father, and I’m emotionally drained because of the distance from my husband and my home.

Samirah 'Abd a-Dayem with her children. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 27 Feb. 2017Samirah 'Abd a-Dayem with her children. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 27 Feb. 2017

Samira ‘Izzat Ibrahim Abd a-Dayem, 32, married and a mother of three, a resident of Beit Hanun, gave her testimony to B'Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sabah on 8 Nov. 2016: 

My family is from Tulkarm. In 2002 I met my husband, a resident of the Gaza Strip, when he was working in construction with my brothers in Tulkarm. We got married and I went to live with him in ‘Izbat Beit Hanoun in Gaza. My husband continued working in construction, but later he became ill and had a brain tumor. He was forced to stop working. 

Two years after the wedding, in 2004, I submitted a request to enter the West Bank so I could visit my family in Tulkarm. I received a permit and visited them with my son Fadel, who was 1.5 years  old. I was supposed to stay in the West Bank for a month and then return to Beit Hanoun. Because I have a West Bank identity card, I needed a permit to return to Gaza but all my requests were rejected. After a year and a half, I managed to return to Gaza via Jordan and Egypt. I had to go because my husband had undergone brain surgery. He was in a very bad condition and needed care. 

I returned to Gaza and later submitted requests to enter the West Bank in order to visit the family, but I wasn’t given a permit even though my mother has cancer and is in very poor health. I continued to submit requests for permits, but the Israeli side denied every request. In 2013, my father passed away and I submitted a request for a permit for myself, my husband, our daughter Tasnim, who was then 7, and our sons, Hamdi and Fadel, who were 10 and 11, so we could join the family in mourning my father. We received permits for 11 days for me, for my husband, and for Tasnim, but not for the boys. We made the trip. 

Since then, I’ve submitted permit requests to visit my family on several occasions. In 2015, my sister fell ill with cancer and I requested a permit to visit her, but did not receive one. My other sister had problems with her large intestine and uterus, but I wasn’t allowed to visit her, either. I really miss my mother and brothers and sisters. My mother is bedridden and I want to help take care of her, but since 2013 all my efforts to get a permit, even for one day, have been unsuccessful.

Testimonies of women from the West Bank:

F.I. , 66, married and a mother of six, a resident of Umm a-Sharayet, gave her testimony to B'Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad on 11 Jan. 2017:

My family is originally from Lydda, and has lived in Rafah since 1945. In 1976, I married my cousin and moved with him to Ramallah. For a long time there was free passage between the West Bank and Gaza, and we stayed in touch with no difficulty. We visited our family in Gaza and joined in celebrations and holiday observances, and our relatives visited us regularly. Sometimes we would travel in the middle of the night and the trip took only an hour and a half. 

The continuous contact encouraged us to marry off our daughter ‘Ula to a resident of Gaza. At that time, there was the “safe passage” procedure between the West Bank and Gaza. My daughter last visited us in 2000. Since then, she has not succeeded in getting a permit to visit, and we managed to visit her only twice:  once eleven years ago and again two and a half years ago. 

Since 2000, my husband and I have submitted about twelve requests to visit our daughter, but we only received permits twice. We submitted the last request on 10 Dec. 2016 for my husband, me, and our oldest daughter, Rozalin, who is 37. ‘Ula was supposed to undergo surgery and we wanted to be with her. We enclosed medical documents with the application, but after a week we received an unexplained rejection. We thought we would get a permit because it was a humanitarian issue, but apparently the people in charge don’t have a shred of humanity in them. 

Denying me the right to hug my daughter, my grandchildren, and my brother and his children, causes me pain and heartbreak. In August 2016, I underwent open heart surgery. We submitted a request along with a medical report so my daughter could be with me during the surgery, but the Israelis refused to issue her a permit. I miss my daughter and Gaza all the time. We talk on the phone all the time and whenever we do, we cry. 

My daughter has missed so many family events, both happy and sad. She couldn’t even attend her brothers’ weddings. My brother who lives in Gaza didn’t get a permit to attend them, either. 

On holidays we can’t visit her and give her a holiday gift, so we transfer money to her through the bank. I so much want her to visit me on high holidays, like every mother does. But it is not possible. 

Sometimes we look for people who are about to travel to Gaza in order to send her and the grandchildren clothes and gifts. She is happy to receive gifts from the family and from the city where she grew up. It warms her heart, but it happens only rarely. I have a bag full of gifts from her brothers and sisters that has been waiting a long time, but we haven’t found a way to get it to her. 

It’s very hard when you’re denied your most basic right: to meet your children whenever you want, to hug them. It's very hard to live with the yearning. I want to hug my daughter so much. A person can't know in advance how much she’ll miss and want to hug her children or grandchildren. We have been denied these experiences, and the right to see the people who are dearest to us.

I don’t understand what religion and what laws allow such things. I don’t think that preventing us from meeting our relatives in Gaza stems from security considerations. It’s simply collective punishment.

Dalia Hamdi Ahmad Sikel, 34, married and a mother of seven, a resident of Hebron, gave her testimony to B'Tselem field researcher Musa Abu Hashhash on 9 Jan. 2017:

I grew up in the Gaza Strip. My parents and ten brothers and sisters live there, in Beit Lahiya. In 1998, I married my cousin Yamen Sikal and went to live with him in Hebron. 

At first, there was no problem keeping in touch with the family and visiting them. I didn’t imagine that the situation would change so fast. But in 2000, everything changed and since then the connection with the family has become almost impossible. So many things have happened since then. I had seven children, my parents grew old, my brother Mahmud got married, my little sister got married, and they both have children. There were also family members who passed away in the meantime. There were wars and difficult events. I so much wanted to be with my family, and on happy occasions. But I discovered that it is completely impossible. Gaza is further away than ever, farther than any other place in the world. 

Since I got married and moved to the West Bank, I have visited my family only once. That was ten years ago. I received a permit for three days, two of which were wasted on travel there and back. 

On that visit I promised to visit again and stay longer, but it didn’t happen. My husband submitted several requests for me and for his mother, who is my aunt. But all the requests were rejected. I don’t know why. 

Two years ago, my parents came to the West Bank because my mother needed treatment at al-Muqassed Hospital. They stayed with me for five days, and that made things a little easier. 

The last time my husband submitted a request was two months ago, when my mother fell ill and was hospitalized. We included medical documents with the request, but it was rejected anyway.

I don't know if it was the right choice to marry a cousin who lives in the West Bank. Our lives here are better, but the distance from my family makes me feel like a stranger here all the time. 

Muna ‘Abd al-Rahim Ahmad Ghannam, 53, married and a mother of two girls, resident of Hebron, gave her testimony to B'Tselem field researcher Manal al-Ja'bari on 9 Jan. 2017: 

Muna Ghannam

I'm originally from Beit Lahiya in the Gaza Strip. In 2002, I got married in Hebron. I came there with a visiting permit and haven’t been back to Gaza since. This is my second marriage. I have a 22-year-old daughter from my first marriage, Yasmin, and my husband and I have a daughter, Shahd.

Two years after the wedding, I tried to change my address from Gaza to Hebron in the hope that I would be able to travel to Gaza to visit my parents, my daughter Yasmin, and my brothers and sisters, and then go back home to Hebron. I submitted a request through the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior but it was not approved. My husband calls the ministry offices from time to time, but there’s nothing new. 

Since I got married I haven’t seen my daughter from my first marriage, Yasmin, or any other relative. I haven’t attended family celebrations or sad events. Three of my brothers got married and I couldn’t go to their weddings. Yasmin got engaged to a young man from Gaza and I couldn't go to the betrothal. I wanted very much to be with her and celebrate with her on that day. Three years ago, my sister Ni’mah died of cancer. I couldn't visit her the whole time she was ill, and I had no chance to say goodbye before she died.

During the last war in 2014, I couldn't sleep at night because I was so worried about my relatives. But I am suffering from not succeeding in changing my address not only because I miss my family and long to see them again. This situation also affects my freedom of movement in Hebron and throughout the West Bank. I live in fear that I will be caught at some military checkpoint and they will discover that my address is in Gaza, and then they will expel me there. So I don’t travel to other cities in the West Bank and am very fearful of approaching checkpoints.

I try to compensate for the distance over the telephone and via the Internet, but because of the power outages in Gaza even these means are not always available. Lately I’ve been very worried about my mother, because she’s sick. She has a heart condition, and has been given a pacemaker. I try to call every day to see how she and my father are doing. 

Over the many years since I got married, my father and mother have visited me only once. That was possible because they received a permit for medical treatment that my mother had to undergo at Saint Joseph Hospital in East Jerusalem. 

My suffering is indescribable. Sometimes I think to myself that maybe the decision to marry someone from the West Bank was a mistake.

Blog URL:
http://www.btselem.org/gaza_strip/20170228_israels_policy_of_family_separation