Besieged in Gaza from birth to death

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Leila Najjar is 25 years old and six months pregnant. She and her husband Mohammed Sulaiman want to be together for their child’s birth. But she may not see him for years.
That’s because Najjar lives in Gaza and her husband is studying in Adelaide, Australia. Israeli authorities won’t let Najjar pass through the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing or the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing to join Sulaiman, 25, in Australia. With only ten weeks before she will be unable to travel by airplane because of health risks, she is struggling to remain optimistic.

“This is our first child and I need to share this experience with him,” said Najjar. “There are special, very first moments that I feel like I want to share with him. The baby started kicking but Mohammed isn’t here to feel the movements.”

In fact, it is possible that Najjar will be prevented from leaving Gaza at all, meaning Sulaiman, who is on track to complete his PhD in 2018, may not see his son-to-be until he is three years old. The young couple plans to build a life abroad, but if Najjar is forced to remain in Gaza, those dreams will be dashed as well. (I first wrote about Sulaiman and Najjar in January).

“I don’t know who to blame,” Najjar remarked to me. “The [Israeli] occupation? The Egyptian government? The Palestinian government?”

With time running out, Sulaiman and Najjar are appealing to the Australian government to pressure Israeli authorities to allow Najjar to leave Gaza. The Australian Friends of Palestine Movement has started an online petition which will be sent to the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop. On Tuesday, Sulaiman will meet with Australian Senator Nick Xenaphon who is known for taking on causes of justice.

Najjar and her husband are not alone. Countless other Palestinian families are separated by Israeli restrictions as well.

Abu Khaled sits in his Gaza City home where he and his wife survived three Israeli wars. (Photo: Dan Cohen)
Abu Khaled sits in his Gaza City home where he and his wife survived three Israeli wars. (Photo: Dan Cohen)

In the Rimal area of Gaza City, Ayaad Aish Sherer, 75, who is known as Abu Khaled, longs to see his children and grandchildren who are spread throughout four countries in the Middle East and North America. Abu Khaled, who is a Nakba survivor, and his wife, Fairouz Shrerer, 70, have been trapped behind Israel’s iron wall in Gaza through the last three wars on Gaza, able to leave just one time.

“I swear to god, I’m not able to sleep at night” said Abu Khaled, exhaling in resignation. “I want to kiss my children. I want to laugh with them. I want to embrace them. Sometimes I find myself weeping alone, wishing to see any of them.”

While Israel’s crushing restrictions on freedom of movement may prevent Najjar and Sulaiman from starting their family together, Abu Khaled dreams of seeing his family before he passes away. “Can I live until the time that I see them? I don’t know,” he said. “This is god’s will.”

Israeli Policy

Like so many others, Najjar, Sulaiman and Abu Khaled are prevented by Israel’s restrictions on freedom of movement for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. With the Rafah crossing open for only a handful of days so far this year, a tiny number of Palestinians have been allowed to cross, and 8,000 people remain on a waiting list.

After repeatedly applying for security clearance and permits to travel through Erez Crossing, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and finally to Australia, Sulaiman managed to leave. Though Najjar successfully obtained an Australian visa and all necessary documents, she was denied on the basis that because she and Sulaiman are married, the State of Israel sees them as a risk to stay in the occupied West Bank.

Gisha, the Israeli Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, confirmed the policy in an email: “the Israeli military does not allow travel in cases in which it suspects people from Gaza may remain in the West Bank.”

The logic of Israel’s policy assumes Sulaiman’s scholarship to pursue his Ph.D. is an elaborate ploy crafted to escape the Gaza open air prison to the larger open air prison of the West Bank. Seemingly bizarre, this draconian policy is explained by the Israeli government’s obsession with demographics — the same policy that considers the fetus inside Najjar’s womb a threat to the “Jewish character” of the state, a phrase that Israeli politicians and their supporters regularly invoke. That Najjar was barred from traveling because — rather than in spite — of her marriage to Sulaiman, sheds light on how Israeli policy makers view the Gaza Strip: a warehouse for non-Jewish bodies.

Indeed, exile and transfer have been a cornerstone of Israeli policy. In recent decades, as the severity of punishment of the Gaza Strip increased, the Gaza Strip became Israel’s preferred destination for transfer of Palestinians. During the Second Intifada, historian Jean-Pierre Filiu notes in his book Gaza: A History, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began deporting families of suicide bombers from the West Bank to Gaza Strip in order to “discourage such attacks.” More recently, after demonstrations began throughout occupied East Jerusalem last summer following the kidnapping and murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israeli settlers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to deport Palestinian Jerusalemites to Gaza, though decided against it because of potential prosecution for war crimes at the International Criminal Court.

For Abu Khaled, seeing his family has become a distant dream as he languishes in the besieged strip. “At least if we had an airport or a harbor, we could go! [There would be] no need to go through Egypt or Jordan,” said Abu Khaled.

If Palestinians had any sovereignty, the construction of a seaport and rebuilding of Gaza’s airport — which Israel has repeatedly bombed — would not be subject to Israeli approval. As the final ceasefire went into effect last year, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Al-Zahar claimed an airport and seaport would be built without Israel’s permission and Hamas would “attack the ports of anyone who attacks ours.” But discussion of construction of ports was included in ceasefire terms that ended Israel’s war on Gaza last summer. Until recently, there had been no progress on the prospect of a seaport and airport, but Israeli politicians are hinting that ports may be part of a long-term truce which is being negotiated indirectly.

Meanwhile, Israel’s travel restrictions have left Abu Khaled in a state of mental and physical isolation. “We can not feel the world,” he said. “We can’t feel life.”

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Dan Cohen…
Many thanks for highlighting these tragic situations in Gaza.

Julie Bishop has unfortunately sold out to the Zionist colonization of Palestine.

Thanks for this, Dan. I simply CANNOT understand why the world stands silently by, watching and allowing Israel to dictate how Palestinians live their lives in every aspect? Where else on this earth is this happening – that one country is in almost total control of another (for no reason other than the first country’s economic gain) without a mandate or agreement from the rest of us, to do so? What is the UN for,… Read more »

Why, of course Israel has bombed Gaza’s airport. How else can they keep those squadrons of Palestinian F-35s from attacking Tel Aviv?!

Israel is one big ongoing Milgram and/or Stanford Prison Experiment, except Israel’s version is a calculated, generational malevolence, not some momentary psychological lapse.