I am a Palestinian refugee, from the village of Fallujah which lies between Gaza, Hebron and Asqalan. I’ve never been allowed to visit Fallujah; my grandparents were exiled from there in 1949 (a year after the founding of Israel) and took refuge in the Gaza Strip. My father and I were both born in the Khan Younis refugee camp-he a few years before Gaza was occupied by Israel, and I in 1988, a month after the outbreak of the first intifada. My dad married a woman from the West Bank-they had met and fallen in love while they were both studying at Birzeit University, and when I was two years old we emigrated to the UK where he received his Phd.
Fourteen years later, in 2004, we all returned to Palestine to live in Ramallah. Now British citizens, my parents were determined that my three siblings and I would forge a stronger connection to our homeland than we ever could living abroad. At first, the transition was made easier by the fact that our foreign passports gave us the freedom of movement that was denied to other Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. For me, this reality was shattered when in late 2005 I attempted to cross the River Jordan from the West Bank to visit my aunt in Amman. The Israeli border agents told me that I could not pass, because I had an Israeli issued Gaza ID. Under Israeli military rules, this meant that I could not ‘legally’ be present in the West Bank because the Israeli occupation had mandated that Palestinians from Gaza could not enter the West Bank, and Palestinians from the West Bank could not enter Gaza. This policy had been in force since the early 1990′s, but was applied with increasing severity after the outbreak of the second intifada.
I lived the next four years under constant fear of arrest by the Israeli military, because that would have resulted in almost certain deportation to Gaza, and isolation from my family. For those four years, I never left the confines of Ramallah, so as to avoid the Israeli checkpoints on every one of the town’s entrances-but even this couldn’t give me a sense of security because I had to commute daily to Birzeit University, on a route frequently patrolled by Israeli forces from the nearby settlement of Bet El.
In July of this year, after many pleas for assistance from the hapless Palestinian Authority, I asked the Israeli NGO Gisha to help me obtain permission from the Israeli occupation to leave the West Bank. I wanted to take part in an internship in the United States, but I would only be granted the permission to exit on the condition that I only return to the Gaza Strip, which had been under siege and total closure for the better of two years then. I accepted this impossible choice-after four years of imprisonment in Ramallah, I wanted to see the outside world and look for a job abroad.
During this entire period, my family had more or less been saved the travel restrictions imposed on me. As a foreign journalist, my dad frequently traveled between the West Bank, Gaza and inside the Green Line, and my mother and siblings would join him on day trips to Jerusalem, Umm al-Fahem, Acca and Haifa. But that all changed this August when he was entering Gaza through the Erez crossing as he had done many times before. On this day however, he was arrested by the Israeli military and had his press credentials revoked. He was told his British passport was worthless, because they had made a frightening discovery: My dad had been born and raised in a refugee camp in Gaza, and had a Gaza ID. They told him he would henceforth be treated not as a foreigner, but as a Gazan-he was sent into Gaza and told he could never cross the Green Line or enter the West Bank again.
My mother and siblings back in Ramallah were also informed that their British passports were worthless and that they would be issued Palestinian IDs by Israel. Despite being raised in the West Bank and still owning a copy of her old West Bank ID, my mother was actually issued with a Gaza ID. We assume this is because she married a Gazan 22 years ago, but nobody has given us a clear answer. This has put her in the same quandary I was in for the last four years. She cannot leave Ramallah for fear of arrest and deportation to Gaza, away from her children, her sister’s and the young children of her recently deceased brother. This situation was compounded by another perplexing development; my brother and sisters, all of whom were born in the UK, and whose parents and older brother had been issued Gaza ID’s, were issued West Bank IDs.
My dad spent the last few months trying to get permission to go back to the West Bank to see his wife and kids-even for a day to pick up his clothes. But whether it was through the British consulate or Israeli NGO’s, the Israeli occupation was adamant that he would not be allowed out of Gaza, unless it was to be deported from Ben Gurion airport. Eventually, in order to save his job, he left Gaza when Egypt opened the Rafah crossing in early December.
Now, my father is in one country and I am in another, while my mother is trapped in the West Bank, unable to travel for fear of never being allowed back. Thankfully, my brother and sisters are able to cross into Jordan, where we may see each other, but our family has been torn apart and separated under the most arbitrary occupation laws imaginable. Despite the continued attempts of Israeli and Palestinian NGO’s, we have found no recourse with the Israeli authorities, and the British consulate has proved useless. We even sent a letter to Tony Blair, the representative of the Quartet, imploring him to intervene on our behalf as British citizens (the letter is included below). Unsurprisingly, we were ignored.
I believe this story needs to be told not because our situation is so unique, but precisely because it isn’t; this is the result of a deliberate Israeli policy, one that has been in place since the early days of the Nakba and has been evolving ever since. It is a policy that has led to the dispossession of millions of Palestinians, and the separation and breakup of tens of thousands of families. The forcibly imposed separation between the West Bank and Gaza is illegal under international law, and through it Israel is succeeding in separating the Palestinian people, one family at a time.
This is the letter my father sent Tony Blair:
Dear Mr. Blair,
I write to you as a British citizen who has exhausted most of the options available to him in the pursuit of a basic human right – the right to see and be with my own family.
I was born in the Gaza Strip in 1962 and left to the UK in 1990 to pursue my PhD at the University of Bradford. In 2004, I moved with my wife and four children to the West Bank town of Ramallah. I was working as a foreign journalist, licensed by the Israeli Government Press Office and staying in the country along with my family on one year renewable work visas. In 2005 my eldest son Mohammad was turned back by Israel border agents as he attempted to cross into Jordan to visit his aunt. The agents told Mohammad that since he was born in the Gaza Strip in 1988, he had been issued a Gaza ID by the Israeli occupation, that his British passport was worthless and that he was not allowed to legally reside in the West Bank as per the Israeli occupation authority’s rules. For the next four years, he risked daily arrest by Israeli troops to get his university education at Birzeit University. This summer, he left the West Bank to find work abroad, and was told by the Israelis that once he left he would not be allowed to go back home.
Despite this clearly reprehensible situation, I and the rest of the family were thankfully spared such hardship. I was able to pursue my professional duties relatively unhindered in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. This all changed very suddenly in August of this year when, on a routine trip to Gaza where I had several assignments and where I wanted to visit my ailing father, Israeli security detained me at the Erez checkpoint, harassed me, stripped me of my press credentials and told me that my British passport was worthless to them. I was told that I too have an Israeli-issued Gaza ID and thus would be treated as a Gazan; deprived of the most basic freedom of choice and movement. I was sent into Gaza and have not been allowed out since.
At the same time, my wife Manal and our children Linah and Ahmad, all still in Ramallah, were forced to accept their own Israeli-issued ID cards. Incredibly, Manal was given a Gaza ID despite being born abroad, raised in the West Bank and still owning a copy of her original West Bank ID. Like Mohammad before her, she has been told that Israel dictates that she cannot change her ID and lives in constant fear of arrest and deportation by Israeli troops. If she were to leave the country she would also be banned from returning to our family and home in Ramallah.
Meanwhile, Ahmad and Linah, who were both born in the UK and are new university students, have bizarrely been issued with West Bank ID cards, even though their parents and older brother were given Gaza IDs.
As a result of all of this, our family has been torn apart. I am stuck in Gaza, unable to travel freely between my sick father and wife and children. They are stuck in the West Bank, with my wife living in constant fear of deportation, while my oldest son is abroad, barred from entering the West Bank to see his mother, sisters and brother.
Israel has treated us like criminals for being Palestinians. We have been punished, displaced and deprived from each other’s company. The British Consulate has been trying to mediate with the Israeli authorities, but all it has managed to achieve is an Israeli offer to deport me if I decide to leave Gaza through Erez. I refuse to be a party to my own deportation, yet my livelihood is at stake, as is my children’s education. We cannot go on like this, and I appeal to your humanity to intervene and render this nightmare over.
Mohammad Alsaafin was born in the Khan Younis refugee camp and grew up in the UK and the US, before going back to Palestine for college at Birzeit.