Strange to think, but until 1993 Gaza was not a distant planet. Closure had not yet been imposed on the Territories, and Palestinians could move freely inside Israel. You could drive from Hebron to Khan Yunis or from Jerusalem to Gaza in no time flat. Gazans could move to the West Bank at will. There was enormous difficulty, it is true, in changing one’s identity card to reflect the new residency. (Israel conducted separate registries for Gazans and West Bankers, and it almost never allowed anyone to shift from one registry to the other.) For this reason, Gazans who moved to the West Bank, or vice-versa, could not receive governmental services in their new homes, but at least the move itself was possible. The Palestinians of 1948 [the Arabs living in Israel – Ed.] and those of East Jerusalem (on whom the status of Israeli resident was imposed) could enter the Gaza Strip without impediment and live there. In the course of the years relationships developed – commercial, political, economic and social – among the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel and the Strip. Cross-border marriages occurred and families grew. Sometimes one spouse received the status of the other. When Palestinian women from Israel married men from the Territories and moved there, Israel encouraged them to give up their Israeli citizenship. In certain cases it was also prepared, when the couple wanted to live in Israel, to approve family unification. Sometimes the spouses remained with different statuses.
The “peace process” changed all this. In tandem with the negotiations, Israel implemented the policy of closure. Entry from the Territories to Israel depended on personal permits, which were handed out in ever diminishing numbers. Israel fenced Gaza in, so that passage without a permit became virtually impossible. (Today’s separation barrier in the West Bank is intended to achieve the same result.) When Israel transferred control over parts of the Territories to the Palestinian Authority (PA), the army forbade Israelis to enter the Gaza Strip except by permit. At first such permits were granted liberally, but gradually the requirements stiffened, until today they are attainable only in the rarest of cases. Likewise, in order to move between the West Bank and Gaza it is necessary to pass through Israel. This requires a permit, with the result that movement is limited by the policy of closure.
Places like Jericho, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron are today light years from Gaza.
In order to ensure the viability of this strange entity (one political unit composed of geographically separate parts), Israel and the PA arranged a “safe passage” between the West Bank and the Strip. The idea was that Palestinians should be able to travel between the two with minimal Israeli interference. It took several years until this arrangement went into effect, and then the second Intifada cut it off.
Ironically, the political unity between the two regions achieved recognition in the means of collective punishment that Israel carried out against the Palestinian people. In 2002 Israel initiated a policy of deporting family members of Palestinian military activists, transferring them from the West Bank to the Strip. International law forbids the forced resettlement of citizens (both deportation from occupied land and “internal” deportation). An exception, anchored in the Geneva Convention, allows an occupying power to assign residence to a particular person in order to reduce a threat posed by him or her. The occupier may limit a person’s freedom of movement to a certain part of the occupied territory (e.g. a district, city, village or house). In order to portray the transfer of the above-mentioned family members as such an “assignment of residence,” Israel’s lawyers claimed, with much vehemence, that the Strip and the West Bank are a single, integral territory, and that the division of authority between two military headquarters was merely an administrative issue. Israel’s High Court accepted this position.
A special order is needed, then, to confine a Palestinian to the Gaza Strip. There must be good reasons, and the matter must be reconsidered every six months. You might think that the vast majority for whom no such order has been issued would be permitted to move freely within and between the two Territories. Not so. Even the relatives of those who were transferred had to put in repeated requests in order to get permission to visit them in Gaza.
What is worse, according to Israel’s concept, a Palestinian who is registered in Gaza may not reside in the West Bank except by a special permit, limited in duration. From the legal standpoint, this position is baseless; no instrument allows such restriction. The power, though, belongs to the occupier: people who’ve been living for years in the West Bank are arrested at this or that checkpoint, thrown into prison, and then deported to Gaza – far from their homes, families, and jobs. Petitions to the High Court (or the threat of such) have sometimes secured their return. (The State prefers to solve the humanitarian problem of this or that individual rather than submit its policy to judicial review.) But the practice goes on, hardening the lives of these “illegal dwellers.” They cannot go abroad, for if they appear at the Allenby Bridge to Jordan, they might be sent the opposite way. They cannot visit relatives in Gaza – lest they be unable to return. They cannot receive services or licenses from the Israeli authorities, who are prepared to see them only in Gaza. Just recently, after the Center for the Defence of the Individual took the issue to the High Court, an exception was made: Israel now permits these people to join Red Cross convoys to visit relatives in Israeli prisons, despite the fact that the vehicles start from the West Bank, not from the Strip.
Among the victims of this policy are students from Gaza who attend universities in the West Bank. When the present Intifada began, they found themselves in a dilemma. Even going home for a break meant giving up one’s studies. Sometimes, when a family tragedy occurred, there was no choice. As for those who stuck to their studies, they were in constant danger of deportation to the Strip. Just this past November, four students from Bir Zeit University were shipped back to Gaza: the army arrested them in their dormitories. And Israel’s High Court – the same Court which determined that the West Bank and Gaza were a single, integral territory – laconically confirmed an army decision to prevent a group of Gazan youth from studying health care in the West Bank.
The Arabs in Israel and East Jerusalem are also affected, especially those with relatives in Gaza. In the first post-Oslo years, after forbidding Israeli residents to enter the Strip, the government established procedures to allow a degree of family visitation. Spouses of Gazans who came from Israel were permitted to live in the Strip on the basis of long-range permits, according to what was called “the procedure for divided families.” Other relatives were permitted to enter for special occasions. On Muslim holidays the Strip was opened freely to Arab residents of Israel. Since the start of the current Intifada, however, these arrangements have been severely affected. The “procedure for divided families” has been shelved time after time, often for months. Holiday visits are rarely allowed.
Recently, side by side with the talk of disengagement, the Gaza Strip has been closed for extended periods. Now one, now another outlet is sealed: the Erez Checkpoint, intended for people traveling to and from Israel; or the Karni Checkpoint, used for the passage of goods; or the Rafah Border Station, used to go abroad. Sometimes all the gateways are closed together. The Disengagement Plan of Ariel Sharon could easily lead to the isolation of the Strip from Israel, the West Bank, and the world, sealing the Gaza prison more hermetically than ever. Israelis would then be able to forget that Gaza exists – out of sight, out of mind – as if a Mediterranean tsunami had washed it away. No more friction. No more responsibility. A similar, if more moderate, program is now shaping up for the West Bank as well.