The Gaza Strip is well known for the hardships imposed by Israel’s ongoing 13-year land, air and sea blockade, as well as three devastating military offensives. As “the world’s largest open air prison”, its two million residents face travel restrictions and punitive measures. People are surviving on the bare minimum of provisions, and rely heavily on humanitarian aid. For many of them, though, this is not the main issue, which is freedom of movement and being able to travel whenever and wherever they want.
One of the less well known effects of the siege is the impact it has on the social and personal aspects of life. Engagements and marriages, for example, often start via social media because of the travel restrictions. The Rafah Border Crossing into Egypt is often closed by the authorities in Cairo; it is Gaza’s main window to the outside world.
Those who do not have Palestinian ID Cards known as “Haweyyah” and issued by Israel at the time of birth in the occupied Palestinian territories have a problem if they wish to go to Gaza. They have to prove to the Egyptian authorities at Cairo Airport or Rafah that they have a Palestinian, Israeli-approved ID card, normally registered on Israel’s government database. If they can’t do that, then they can’t travel.
“I met my wife online as she was a media activist in Gaza,” explained “LM”, a Palestinian who asked to remain anonymous. “My family in the Gaza Strip met hers and they became friends; then I proposed to her online due to the travel restrictions and difficulties of getting to Gaza via the Rafah crossing.” He said that his mother had to present the engagement ring to his fiancée on his behalf. “We only knew each other online until the crossing was re-opened. She managed to leave Gaza and arrived at Cairo Airport after a very dangerous journey that lasted 3 days due to the many security checkpoints, searches and delays on the 400km route from Rafah via North Sinai.” That journey should only take 7 or 8 hours, including breaks.
Palestinians without a Palestinian ID card, no matter what citizenship they hold, are not allowed by Egypt to visit Gaza via Rafah unless they have high level security clearance from the Egyptian intelligence agency. Aid workers may be given such clearance, for example, including non-Palestinians. This has to do with the agreements between Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. Israel has controlled the Registry of Palestinians since 1967, when it captured the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan during the Six Day War. The census of Palestinians conducted by Israel at that time recorded 954,898 people physically present in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; it did not include at least a quarter of a million Palestinians who were absent when the census took place, either because they had fled during the conflict or were abroad for different reasons, such as study, work or medical treatment.
According to Gisha, the Israeli legal centre for freedom of movement, the Israeli-controlled Palestinian population registry includes births, marriages, divorces, deaths and changes of address. “The Palestinian Authority may amend or issue an ID card only after Israeli approval is granted,” explains the organisation on its website. “Israel updates all the changes in its copy of the population registry, which determines who is recognised as a Palestinian resident for the purpose of travel permits. Palestinian passports are issued by the Palestinian Authority only to residents who are listed in the Israeli-administered population registry. Coordination on issues pertaining to the population registry for Gaza is done through meetings between representatives from Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”
A 2012 Human Rights Watch report said that between 1967 and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in 1994, about 50,000 Palestinians, mainly refugees, fled from historic Palestine and, for various reasons, were not granted ID cards and thus were neither recognised by Israel nor have they any official status in any other country.
In the same period, according to the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli military revoked the residency status of 108,878 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip who were abroad at the time, for not being present in Gaza for more than 7 years.
Following the start of the autonomous rule of the PA, a few thousand Palestinians, including security personnel and their families, returned to Gaza, which was the headquarters of the PA under Yasser Arafat and up to 2006. Many of those were spouses of local residents allowed in on short-term visitor permits who stayed after their expiry date. Some without ID cards managed to enter Gaza via tunnels under the border with Egypt, while others entered when Palestinians destroyed part of the security fence on the Gaza-Egypt border in 2008, allowing them to cross into Egyptian Rafah and return to the Strip with basic necessities and products unavailable in the besieged territory.
According to Gisha, about half of the permits and legal returnees were designated for status-less individuals in the Gaza Strip. “By 2008, Israel had approved residency for 12,308 status-less persons in the Gaza Strip. The process has since been put on hold. The Palestinian Interior Ministry in Gaza estimates that there are currently at least 10,600 people living in the Gaza Strip without Palestinian ID cards, among them thousands whom Israel considers ineligible for such cards, even in the context of future gestures, since there is no record of them having received Israeli approval to enter Gaza.”
This means that those individuals may not travel through the Erez Crossing into Israel, an almost impossible task in any case unless security clearance is granted, which is a lengthy process. If they manage to leave via Rafah then they may not be allowed to come back, as they are not registered in the Israeli-controlled Palestinian population registry and won’t be able to present the required ID card. Hence, many are trapped in the besieged Gaza Strip with no way out, fearing that if they leave they won’t be allowed back.
The Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas has no control over this matter. Nor has it any effective security control over cities under its administrative rule in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
That means that people like “LM” who want to meet their loved ones have to meet outside Gaza, whether it is in Egypt, Jordan or elsewhere. Getting married means that either the bride or the groom has to abandon their residency in Gaza, and face the possibility that they will not be allowed to return.
“NK” has a Palestinian ID card and currently lives abroad but going to Gaza means that he might be stuck there for a long time waiting for the Rafah Crossing to be open. “This means that I might lose my residency rights in the European country where I live now,” he told me. “The journey from Cairo to Rafah or vice versa is hellish and risky. I wish that the Egyptians would open El-Arish Airport, which is only 55km away from Rafah.” That’s why, he added, his fiancée in Gaza whom he met online agreed to bear the suffering and travel to his home after the engagement was arranged between the two families in the besieged territory. For obvious reasons, “NK” also asked to remain anonymous.
The “time bomb” of Palestinian demography is one of Israel’s concerns, so only those with Israeli-approved ID cards are allowed to go back to Gaza, mainly via the infamous Rafah Crossing. Not for nothing is it called the “gate of hell” by many Palestinians. Digital technology may make it easier for people to “meet” online, and even get married, but it is no way to start a life together. It is yet another, less obvious, harmful effect of the Israeli-led siege on the occupied Gaza Strip.