Gideon Levy
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July 14, 2000

As Israel and the Palestinians prepare for an historic peace summit, four West Bank men have a much more modest dream: to visit their parents and siblings in Gaza. Israel refuses to let them, together with thousands of others, use the so-called 'Safe Passage' between Gaza and the West Bank

Sunday was very hot, and Imad Sherif longed to go to the beach. He had grown up on the Gaza shore, and on hot days he and his friends would go swimming in the open sea. It has now been seven years since Sherif last saw the beach. It has also been seven years since he visited his elderly mother, his sister and his two brothers. For seven years now, Israel has denied Sherif entrance to his childhood landscape, the city of his birth. A refugee in his own home, he is not allowed to travel freely between two places in the Palestinian Authority, by now practically a free state. Why? Because. Security reasons. Israel forbids him to travel. And what about the Safe Passage? Ha.

Thousands of Palestinians are denied access to the Safe Passage, that much-discussed road connecting the two parts of the Palestinian Authority. The whole purpose of this passage was to allow Palestinians to travel freely between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, acknowledged by Israel in the Oslo accords to be a single territorial entity. The agreement, ironically enough, reads as follows: "In order to maintain the territorial integrity of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, and to promote their economic growth and the demographic and geographical links between them, both sides shall implement the provisions of this Annex, while respecting and preserving without obstacles, normal and smooth movement of people, vehicles, and goods within the West Bank, and between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip" (Annex I to the Interim Agreement, Article 1.2).

"Normal and smooth movement of people, vehicles, and goods." That is hardly the case for people such as Imad Sherif and the three other Palestinians we met this week, or for the thousands of others whom Israel imperiously forbids to use the Safe Passage. While delegates in Washington negotiate the details of future agreements, thousands of Palestinians are still suffering from Israel's failure to comply with the accords signed years ago.

This week in Ramallah, I met four men from Gaza, prevented for years from going home to their parents and friends. For them, this 90-minute drive is an impossible odyssey. Their freedom to travel, a basic human right, is limited to their own town, perhaps to the neighborhood they live in. On clear days, Gaza is almost visible in the distance, but they are forbidden to go. Their children have never met their grandparents, they themselves have yet to see their nieces and nephews; their parents are growing old and dying far away. These families are torn and divided at the two ends of the Safe Passage.

Safe Passage? In the first two months after it opened, 4,050 Palestinians were denied access (this according to figures provided by the Civil Administration to the B'Tselem human rights organization). Since then, thousands more have been turned away, exactly those people for whom this carefully guarded passageway was established, at least in theory (the spokesman for the Civil Administration characteristically failed to respond to questions on the topic submitted this week by Ha'aretz).

And so, just a few days before the historic Washington summit, I met with four Palestinians homesick for their mothers and fathers. Engineering professor Imad Sherif has not been to Gaza since 1993. Educator Mohammed Zanoun has not been to Rafah since 1995. Soccer coach Nasser Abu Matar last visited his hometown in 1991. And water engineer Bassam Sawalheh has only been allowed one or two visits since 1989 to the refugee camp he grew up in. Some of them cannot leave their towns, others cannot exit the West Bank. Ironically, since the signing of the Oslo accords, their lives have only taken a turn for the worse, their freedom has become even more restricted. As Israel and the Palestinians prepare to try and resolve their major disputes - Jerusalem and the Right of Return, settlements and borders - these four men only ask to be allowed an occasional trip to Gaza.

Imad Sherif was born in Gaza. He received his undergraduate degree in engineering in Alexandria, Egypt, and his graduate degree from Stanford University. Having worked as an engineering professor at Bir Zeit University, he now runs a private engineering firm in Ramallah. With his blue-checked button-down shirt and fluent English, the 40-year-old Sherif might have lived the life of a typical Palestinian yuppie. His wife, Maisoon, also from Gaza, teaches public health at Bir Zeit. They have three children. The couple settled in Ramallah when both Maisoon and Imad were working at the university, and have lived there since 1988. Their siblings, relatives, friends and childhood memories were all left behind in Gaza's Rimal neighborhood.

At first it all worked out: travel permits from Israel were relatively easy to obtain, allowing the couple to visit their families whenever they wanted. No big deal, this asking permission for each 90-minute drive to visit the folks - Palestinians are used to that kind of thing. But even that reality got steadily worse as years passed and agreements were signed. To make life easier, the Sherifs applied for West Bank IDs, the equivalent of changing the address that appears on your ID card. What for most Jews is a minor technicality turned out to be a great obstacle for Imad and Maisoon. Their application was repeatedly turned down. The university intervened, attorney Leah Zemel tried to help, but nothing worked.

Israeli soldiers stationed at West Bank roadblocks would stop Professor Sherif, and he repeatedly found himself detained and humiliated. He had no permit to live in the West Bank, and Israel refused to issue one. Sometimes he would head out for work in the morning, spot a roadblock in the distance, and return home immediately, unwilling to face another ordeal.

Visiting his parents in Gaza was then still relatively simple: his mother could easily secure him a permit there. In 1993 he met with Major Udi of the Israeli Civil Administration. The meeting was a friendly one, he now says; Udi asked why Sherif was staying in the West Bank illegally. "What would you suggest?" Sherif asked. "My home, my job and my life are all here." The major suggested that he try to obtain the necessary permit in Gaza, but Gaza was by then heavily barricaded, with very few people coming in and practically none getting out. Sherif was afraid that if he entered, he would be stranded inside. Udi insisted that risking the trip to Gaza was his only option. Sherif continued to reside illegally in his Ramallah home.

When the Palestinian Authority took over Ramallah, Sherif's sister became a reporter on Palestinian Television. One day she interviewed MK Hashem Mahmid and told him of her brother's problem. Mahmid sent a letter to the Israeli defense minister; the personal intervention of Yitzhak Rabin, no less, won Sherif the coveted change of address. But then the next part of the saga began: Sherif could no longer go to Gaza. In the seven years since then, Israel has denied each one of Sherif's requests for a permit to visit his aging mother (his father has died). Security reasons, he was told each time. But Professor Sherif was never arrested or questioned.

"Gaza is my hometown," he said this week. "I grew up there. All my friends are there. My mother is old and sick, and it's hard for her to come here and see us. Some of my relatives - my mother-in-law, my aunt and my uncle - died, and I was not allowed to attend their funerals. I am asking for my own, private little Right of Return, just to visit Gaza."

Mohammed Zanoun was born in the Rafah refugee camp. His family originally lived in Abassiyeh, where the Jewish town of Yahud and the Ben-Gurion International Airport now stand. One of 11 children, Zanoun is now 32 and works for the Palestinian Authority's youth movements council. He started out by studying engineering at Bir Zeit, moved on to the social sciences and from there to the humanities, until the 1988 Intifada, when the university was shut down as it was considered a hot-bed of unrest.

Zanoun was accepted to medical school in Yugoslavia, but Israel would not allow him to leave. After a year and a half of requests, the Shin Bet security service finally let him go, with certain conditions. He ended up doing a single year of biology at Suez University in Ismaelia. When the tuition fees proved too high, he returned and worked as an agricultural hand at Israeli moshavim. Then he went back to Bir Zeit and finally completed his degree as a sociology major.

Zanoun's school days at Bir Zeit were not easy: like many other students from Gaza who didn't have permits to be in the West Bank, he lived under the terror of nightly raids and arrests by the Israeli army. He, too, contacted an Arab MK, Abdel Wahab Darawshe, who in turn went to Rabin. The answer came swiftly: Zanoun and the rest of the students from Gaza posed a risk to Israel's security by being at Bir Zeit. Meanwhile, going home to Gaza had become too risky; he might not be allowed back to Ramallah. His last visit to Gaza was an illegal one. That was in 1995.

Zanoun married a girl from Nablus. His parents attended the wedding but his siblings were denied the right to celebrate with him. Since then he has lived in Nablus with his wife and son, carrying a Gaza ID and living in constant fear of Israeli roadblocks. "I feel lonely," he said this week. "I'd like my family to get to know my wife, I'd like my son to meet his grandmother, for my siblings to know their nephew and sister-in-law. I haven't seen my siblings in over five years."

Every now and then, he faxes or e-mails a family photo to Rafah, and occasionally receives a picture of his relatives there, filling him with longing. He rarely travels outside Nablus, fearing the Israeli checkpoints. He has 12 nieces and nephews he has never met. What does he think of the upcoming summit? "It would be good if they discussed what is happening to me," he says. "I think they are neglecting all the individual, human, private cases. Even a prisoner is allowed out to attend his father's funeral."

Nasser Abu Matar was also born in Rafah, one of 13 children. Having graduated from high school, he went on to study psychology at El-Najah University in Nablus. He is 40, married to a woman from Jenin, the father of three, and works as an advisor at the Ramallah teachers' seminary. More importantly, he coaches the Jilazoun refugee camp's soccer team.

Abu Matar has lived in the West Bank since 1991, dividing his time between psychology and soccer and dreaming of a visit home. He last saw his parents two years ago, when they came to visit. Except for one sister, he has not met his siblings in years. His children - Rassan, 12, Tarek, 10, and Amer, 6 - know their grandparents almost exclusively from their photographs. He tried to use the Safe Passage, but was denied access.

Try out a sure-fire way of sentiment on Abu Matar: If Jilazoun were to play Rafah, who would he root for? His heart will always be with the Rafah team, he says without hesitating.

A month ago, his uncle was dying of cancer in Rafah. Abu Matar desperately wanted to say a proper goodbye. Only lobbying by B'Tselem succeeded in securing him a one-time permit. By the time the permit came, his uncle had died. He alone was allowed to go, without his wife and kids, for four days only. He spent those four days in the family's mourning tent and then returned home, having had no time to savor his siblings and their unfamiliar children. Last week another uncle of his came from Qatar. He has not seen him in 15 years. Now the uncle is a guest in his family's house in Rafah, and Abu Matar can only dream of seeing him.

Bassam Sawalheh was born in the Maghi refugee camp in Gaza, and is now an engineer at the Ramallah waterworks. He and his wife, who comes from El-Bireh, have three children. His engineering studies at Bir Zeit stretched out over eight years, as the university repeatedly opened and closed during the Intifada. Since 1989 he has not been allowed to visit Gaza. His mother died while Sawalheh was in an Israeli prison. Once, a seven-month struggle by the Center for the Defense of the Individual got him a special permit. Since 1996 he has succeeded in obtaining three one-time permits, the last of which took three months to be processed. The Safe Passage is closed to him as well as to his wife and children, a fact he finds particularly puzzling. Are they also security risks? His nine-year-old son has only seen his grandparents twice. When Sawalheh attempted to go to Jordan to his uncle's funeral, the Israeli border authorities sent him back.

On one of the rare occasions that he was allowed to go to Gaza with his son, Sawalheh arrived at the Erez Checkpoint only to discover, to his great amazement, that he should have brought along his child's birth certificate. Father and son had to wait at the checkpoint for eight hours, until a taxi driver arrived with the document, without which the boy could not visit his grandparents.

"This is not a life, a normal life," says Sawalheh. "This is no way for a people to live, nor is it the way to live for a person who wants peace. Enough of this already. Who are they afraid of? They say we belonged to the Popular Front. All of the movement's leaders come and go as they please, but the "little" people cannot. We simple people can't move freely." Once, his sister from Gaza came to visit him by a roundabout way: she went to Egypt, from there to Jordan, and from there on to Ramallah. Sometimes that's easier than driving straight down a 100-kilometer highway. 

 

 
 
 

  Gideon Levy |

 

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