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Social media is a bridge for Palestinians with no freedom of movement

  • Yousef Alhelou
  • 15 Jan 2020

Israel's draconian control over freedom of movement has haunted Palestinians for decades. Now its debilitating effect on society means many Palestinians are finding love, and getting married, over social media.

Palestinian security officers and residents sit at the closed entrance of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, July 17, 2018. ( AP )

Without an Israeli approved ID card issued upon birth, Palestinians cannot cross into the occupied Palestinian territories even for visits unless in exceptional cases after receiving security clearance.

Israel controls the birth and population registry, through which it controls Palestinian movement. Human Rights Watch warns that it separates families, and it has led to a loss of jobs and educational opportunities, barred people from entering the Palestinian territories, and trapped others inside them.

The occupied West Bank shares its border with Jordan, but it is Israel that controls the Allenby Bridge pedestrian terminal and decides who gets in and who gets out. 

Gaza shares a 12-kilometre border with Egypt, and the Rafah crossing is the only access point for nearly 2 million Palestinians who have been living under a crippling land and sea blockade since 2006 when parliamentary elections brought Hamas to power in January of that year.

Having a foreign passport does not guarantee your entrance into what remains of historic Palestine (The West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem) whether by Israeli or Egyptian authorities. The ongoing split between the two main rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas compounds this problem. 

Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport – welcomes citizens from all over the world, except for Palestinians, who may only pass through the airport subject to special movement authorisation given by the Israeli District Coordination and Liaison.

However, Gaza, commonly referred to as the world’s largest 'open-air prison' bears the brunt of this collective punishment and denial to free movement. The coastal enclave is under Hamas rule and has been subject to three devastating Israeli assaults, or more accurately, wars.

One of the lesser-known effects of the Israeli siege is the impact it has on social life. Instead of finding love in person, many now have to choose the hard way: social media.

The Rafah border crossing into Egypt is often closed by the authorities in Cairo and sporadically open if the security situation is quiet along the north Sinai route. But even those who have a Haweyyah, or permit, and are allowed to enter Gaza via Rafah think a hundred times before travelling as they risk being stuck in Gaza for weeks or months if the crossing was closed suddenly.

So then what's the safest option? Arrange the proper documents and visa for ones prospective spouse to get them out of Gaza and start their new life without the joy of a family celebration and wedding party.

“I met my wife online as she was an online activist,” explained KM, a Palestinian who asked not to be named. “After spending some time chatting online, I proposed to her, and she agreed to marry me."

"I arranged for my family to meet hers. During the engagement meeting, which I was watching online via Skype, my mother presented the engagement ring to my fiancee on my behalf. We only knew each other online until the crossing was re-opened."

KM says his wife-to-be managed to leave Gaza and arrived at Cairo Airport after a dangerous journey that lasted a few days thanks to several Egyptian security checkpoints, searches and delays on the 400-kilometre route from Rafah to Cairo via North Sinai. That journey should take no longer than 7 hours, under normal circumstances.

A bureaucratic black hole

Those Palestinians and their descendants who do not have Israel-approved ID Cards have a serious problem if they wish to visit Gaza. They have to prove to Egyptian authorities at Cairo Airport or Rafah crossing that they have the correct paperwork (Green Haweyyah), normally registered on Israel’s government database. If they can’t do that, then they can’t travel, unless again a special permit was granted, which is a very lengthy process.

No matter what citizenship or foreign passport you hold, Egypt does not allow you to visit Gaza via Rafah unless you have high-level security clearance given from the Egyptian intelligence agency.

Aid workers may be given such clearance, for example, including non-Palestinians. This has to be done through the agreements between Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Israel has been in control of the Registry of Palestinians since 1967 when it captured Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan during the Six-Day War, known by Palestinians as the Naksa, or setback.

A census of Palestinians conducted by Israel at that time recorded 954,898 people physically present in the West Bank and Gaza; 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.

According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, between 1967 and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in 1994, about 50,000 Palestinians, mainly refugees, fled from historic Palestine who, for various reasons were not granted ID cards and are not recognised by Israel nor have official status in any other country.

In that 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 Gaza who were abroad at the time, for not being present in Gaza for more than seven years.

Following the autonomous rule of the PA, thousands of Palestinians, including security personnel and staff with their families returned to Gaza, which was the headquarters of the PA under Yasser Arafat’s rule and up to 2006. 

Many of them were spouses of local residents allowed in on short-term visitor permits who overstayed its expiry. Some without ID cards managed to enter Gaza via underground tunnels, while others entered via tunnels when militants blew up parts of the security barrier along the Gaza-Egypt border in 2008, allowing them to cross into Gaza.

Colonising love  

Marrying someone residing in Palestine 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 if they have don't have an Israel-approved ID.

Saeed has a Palestinian ID and currently lives abroad but going to Gaza means that he might be stuck there for a long time while 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 55 kilometres away from Rafah.”

That’s why, he added, his fiancee in Gaza – whom he met online – agreed to travel to his country of residence after the engagement was arranged between the two families.

Thousands of Gaza's residents have already left due to the harsh living conditions, including some of those who have no Haweyyah. It’s a one-way ticket, as they know they might not be allowed back into Gaza.

“Thanks to the internet and social media apps, we overcome geographical boundaries and talk to our relatives and families. Travelling freely as we wish and at any time without any restriction is a basic human right, but this right is denied for us Palestinians. We are being subjected to a new form of modernised slavery through this control from A to Z. Colonialism persists, and it's not easy for some powers to give it up,” Nidal, originally from Gaza but lives in Europe, told TRT World.

Digital technology may make it easier for people to “meet” online, and even get married, but it is hardly a way to start a life together. It is yet another, less obvious, harmful effect of the Israeli-led siege and control imposed on Palestinians.

Many feel that Israel controls every aspect of Palestinian life to keep a check on its population growth and to sever ties between those who live inside and those who in the diaspora. It is perceived as a strategy to de-Palestinise, de-Arabise and de-populate what is left in Palestine and of its indigenous people.

The system of ID cards is used as a weapon to fragment the Palestinian population further as it confines Palestinians to their geographic Israeli controlled Bantustans – and it is increasingly an obstacle for young Palestinians looking for love and wanting to share that happiness with their families.

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