For many of us who are Palestinians, we fight and sacrifice for those things we have yet to touch, experience, or see. Myself, in the 27 years of my life I have never smelled or gazed upon land that was once Palestinian and now part of Israel, especially al-Majdal. It was my family’s village whose last Palestinian inhabitant was dumped in Gaza by the Israeli military in 1953, well after the end of the 1948 war. Today it is known as the Israeli town of Ashkelon. All I have are stories I heard from my grandfathers and friends who were lucky to have visited. Israeli procedures that control Palestinian movement, especially the youth in Gaza, are very restricting.
Therefore it is through the eyes of others that I tell this story. Recently some friends managed to obtain much coveted permits to visit Israel, which in Gaza is commonly referred to as “our occupied lands.” They were among the participants of the Great March of Return and this is their account of what is beyond the fence that hems in Gaza.
At the request of the interviewees, last names are withheld from publication**
Reem at Erez crossing
In the middle of January of this year, Reem, 29, was leaving her doctor’s clinic after being told that she my not be lucky this month either. She had been trying to conceive for two years. The bad news was upsetting, yet after this doctor’s visit she received a phone call that changed everything. The HR department of her work told her that her Israeli permit had been issued to her for a week of training.
“It was a dream that came true, I never had the chance to leave Gaza before,” Reem told me.
“All I wanted to see was my city Jaffa and Jerusalem. I really wanted to pray there and see what we’re fighting for all the time,” she continued
Within two days of being notified about her permit, Reem had bagged her stuff and left one early morning for the northern Gaza crossing in Beit Hanoun, Erez.
“I completed the required procedures on the Palestinian side. They checked my ID and I took my ticket to move on to the other side of the crossing. I put my bag with other passengers in an golf cart and rode it to the one kilometer to the Israeli side,” Reem said.
“I was really happy and excited until we reached the door on the Israeli side of the crossing, where I saw a blue poster that says: “Welcome to Israel.” I wasn’t able to prevent my tears, it was only a kilometer away from Gaza, how it could be Israel now?!” She added.
About the processes in Erez, Reem continued: “I gathered my strength and waited for my turn to cross a space where I had to use a conveyor belt for my luggage. I had some personal stuff in my bag like a perfume, makeup, and toothpaste. They dumped all of it back to the Palestinian side. I couldn’t understand why, but I had to say yes to that in order to pass,” she said.
Worth noting that Reem’s permit had a phrase written on it that said ‘despite the ban’, about that Reem said: “I didn’t understand why I had that phrase written on my permit, I never contributed in any political event and my family members don’t belong to any factions. I didn’t think it would cause me a problem.”
When Reem reached the hall where Israeli border officials check the permit and ID and then give clearance to exit the crossing, the employee standing in a booth asked her to return to the previous corridor and sit until someone comes for her.
“All of the other travelers had already together exited this hall, yet I stayed for around four hours, waiting without any explanation of why I was not allowed to pass,” Reem continued.
While Reem was waiting, she took a look at some of the instructions written on the walls by her. “I saw some instructions related to the amount of money you’re allowed to have in your pocket. Other posters were photos and information about members of the Palestinian resistance, men saying that they belong to terrorist groups and that travelers are welcomed to provide any information about them to Israel,” she explained.
“Among the encounters I witnessed while I was waiting there was a young girl who seemed to be around ten years old, waiting to cross with her with her parents clearly in order to get treatment. She needed a kidney transplant. What surprised me, and all travelers who were waiting, is that they only allowed the girl to pass without her parents! May of us cried with her parents and the girl when she hugged them saying goodbye,” Reem said.
Entering Israel for cancer treatment
Majd, 32, whose family is originally from the village of Ashdod, had also the chance to get permit after doctors discovered brain cancer that he had to travel to get treatment not available in Gaza’s hospitals.
About his trip through Erez, Majd told Mondoweiss details similar to what Reem mentioned. Like her he had to wait inside of the checkpoint for hours. He saw two young men, both of whom had permits to work in the West Bank for two days. After two hours of waiting, the men were moved to an interrogation room. When one exited the room, he headed back towards the Palestinian side of the checkpoint, indicating he would not be crossing after all.
“When I saw him returning, I asked him what had happened?” Majd said, continuing, “He told me. ‘Because I forgot my phone at home and I only have my work phone. I think they suspected something of me, but I was in hurry and forgot it. They informed me that I have a permit, but I can’t use it.’”
First time in ‘the occupied lands’
“When I left Erez I tried to forget everything I experienced there, to enjoy the coming moments of my life. Moments that I’ll never forget.” Reem said
Reem added: “When I took the bus to go to Bethlehem, where I’ll have my training, I was totally exhausted but I wasn’t able to close my eyes for a minute, I was extremely happy with the green lands, mountains, blue sky, and smell of the roads.”
Reem had five days left in her permit to use after she finished training. She visited Jerusalem, Akko, Jericho, Haifa, Rosh HaNikra grottoes, and her original city of Jaffa.
About what she experienced there, she said: “When I reached Jaffa, I felt like a stranger but at the same time I felt like I’m home. It was really a mixed feeling.”
“I saw civilization in all the cities I visited. But when I visited Jerusalem and Akko I saw history there, they’re really warm places that make you feel safe and peaceful,” she added.
In her interview, Reem talked more about Jerusalem, she said, “when I first entered Jerusalem, I found tens of Israeli soldiers, I felt overwhelmed. But this didn’t prevent me from continuing my way towards Al-Aqsa Mosque to pray. I prayed and sent many wishes to God there, I was blessed to have this opportunity.”
“I never believed in holy places until I visited Jerusalem. The comfort, peace, and warm there make you feel different and make you always have the wish to return and live there. I wish I had the choice to live there,” she said.
Reem ended her interview saying: “After I returned to Gaza, I heard best news ever. I discovered that I’m pregnant, I feel that God accepted my prayer in Jerusalem. My doctor always told me that my psychological situation affects my chances of pregnancy. The change I had made a difference to me.”
Majd also visited Jerusalem for the first time, “It really feels different from watching videos and photos. When I lived in Jerusalem for around a month, I felt really connected to the place and I started to understand why it is really worth our sacrifices. I wish we could live in peace and have the chance to visit our lands at any time we wish.”
During his time in Israel, Majd’s health deteriorated. He didn’t have the chance to visit many places. But he visited Akko and entered Tel Aviv once to meet a friend. While he was there, an Israeli screamed at him “this is Israel,” at that moment Majd screamed with a louder voice “this is the occupied Palestine.” Majd guessed the incident started after the man he heard him speaking in Arabic with his friend.
“At that moment, I realized that if one of the soldiers heard me that could cause me trouble, so I decided not leave Jerusalem until I finish my treatment,” Majd commented.
Afraid to tell anyone I’m from Gaza
Samar, 25, a journalist from Gaza, had the chance to participate in a media course in Jerusalem.
“The most thing that hurt me is that I felt that the settlers live in dignity and have their rights,” she said using the word settlers to describe all Israelis, “While we, and our children, suffer to get our basic needs. My heart was breaking every time I watch a child enjoying their childhood and having enough space to grow while my daughter lacks all of it.”
Samar, who is originally from Burayr village, told Mondoweiss that her colleagues warned her many times not to share that she’s from Gaza if any of the Israelis asked her, “I felt a lot of tension when I passed by an area where Israeli soldiers stand. Even hearing people talking in Hebrew made me feel nervous. I remember that I was in a mall buying a gift for my daughter and husband, the seller asked me where you from are, I was afraid to say Gaza, I lied and said Ramallah.”
Jerusalem is off-limits to most of Gaza’s youth
Most of Gaza’s youth do not have a pathway to visit Jerusalem, outside of the channels for permits for medical treatment. Once a Palestinian from Gaza reaches the age of 60, he or she can get a six-hours permit to pray on Fridays at al-Aqsa Mosque.
Such trips for persons over 60 are frequently on a bus with blacked out windows that prevent them from seeing the road. Palestinians argue this is done out of a fear of arousing emotions, reminding them of their expulsion during the Nabka.
Worth noting that around two years ago Israel began implementing new criteria for Palestinians exiting Gaza through Erez who were continuing on to travel abroad. After crossing into Israel Palestinians were handed a document to sign that said they would not return for at least one year. Even minors were required to sign this document, which caused human rights groups to decry as completely invalid.
Israeli authorities also announced last March that Palestinian Christians from Gaza seeking permits to Jerusalem during the Easter holiday now must be above the age of 55. Of the 500 permits issue for Easter, Haaretz estimated that only 10 percent were able to travel because of the new regulation that was handed down after permits were initially approved.
Participating in the Great March of Return
Of the interviewees, Majd and Samar participated in the Great March of Return. Majd did not not miss a single Friday, and he intends to participate on June 5 for the Naksa march, Arabic for “the setback,” a commemoration of the Palestinians who became refugees following the June 1967 war.
Majd was shot in the leg on May 14, the day of the heaviest injuries and casualties in the Gaza Strip since the 2014 war. in the memory of Nakba. He told Mondoweiss: “I’ll not stop until I return to my land.”
Samar also attended, it’s actually part of her work as a freelance reporter, she said, “I attended for two reasons: to cover Israeli massacres and tell the world with the violations of our rights, and second because I really want to be part of this if we succeeded to return.”