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Travel Restrictions Take Toll On Palestinian Relationships

Gazan filmmaker Abu Sido thought that his six-year relationship with a girl from the West Bank could work, but travel restrictions proved to be stronger.
Palestinian couples participate in a mass wedding in the West Bank city of Nablus May 12, 2011. A group of 22 couples, some disabled, participated in the wedding ceremony which was sponsored by the United Arab Emirates. REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini (WEST BANK - Tags: SOCIETY) - RTR2MBU0

Seven years ago, Abu Sido, then 22, met the girl of his dreams online. While he lived in Gaza, his girlfriend was a Ramallah [West Bank] resident.  

He already knew that gaining access to the West Bank was hard, yet he didn't think it was impossible. "I thought it was a hardship like many others that relationships may face, but it was beyond my abilities to overcome it," Abu Sido explained, while lighting his cigarette.

Abu Sido could see and talk to his girl during the six years they spent together, but only via Internet and telephone. He had tried all conventional and unusual ways to obtain an Israeli permit to the West Bank, but all his attempts were shattered on the rock of Israeli rejection.

"I tried [presenting] health reports that said I should receive treatment in the West Bank, I sent letters to President Mahmoud Abbas, (Israeli President) Shimon Peres, I even sent [letters to US President] Barack Obama, but I never got a reply," Abu Sido said, while bursting out in laughter.

As a movie director, Abu Sido was regularly getting invitations to attend cinema workshops and events in the West Bank, which would usually help one obtain an Israeli permit, but even this did not work for him.

Gaza and the West Bank are geographically separated territories and moving between them requires passing through Israel.

Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, Israel dramatically restricted travel permits for Gaza, limiting them to humanitarian cases, mainly patients seeking advanced medical treatment in Israel or the West Bank.

Today, only international aid workers, patients and some businessmen are able to travel from Gaza into Israel. Ordinary citizens are rarely granted permits.

After losing hope of getting a permit to travel to the West Bank, Abu Sido proposed to his girl, asking her family to let her come and live with him in Gaza. Her father, however, was totally opposed to this idea, as Gaza is a wartorn city and it would make it very difficult for him to see his daughter again. 

With the one nation in the two enclaves being unable to contact physically, the cultural gap between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank widened more and more, until they became different people with different concerns and interests, especially given that their governments are split as well. 

The couple were able to see one another for the first time in person in Jordan in 2011, when Abu Sido was participating in a workshop there — she made it all the way up from Ramallah to see him there.

"I entered the overcrowded cafe where she was waiting me. I easily recognized her, before running to her and hugging her; it was unbelievable," Abu Sido recalled.

After that day, the young director, who traveled to many places outside Palestine, proposed again; suggesting that they both start their life outside the Palestinian territories. Yet, once again her family rejected the proposal.

With that final refusal, Abu Sido thought that escaping to Europe with his girlfriend and seeking asylum would be the last solution, yet she had totally refused to leave her family and get married without them on her side.

Since then, Abu Sido realized that his relationship apparently wouldn’t get any better, so he made the hardest decision ever. "I know it was hard on both of us to break up, but it was the only possible solution after I tried everything," he explained.

Israeli borders haven't only affected Abu Sido's life, but also those of his two siblings. His sister, who married a Palestinian man from the West Bank eight years ago, still hasn't made it to Gaza since that time, nor has her family been able to visit her. Furthermore, his brother got married in Dubai in 2009 without his family being there, due to the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah being closed back then.

Using this as inspiration, Abu Sido is now making his own short movie about how relationships among Palestinians are badly affected by borders, using his experience, along with those of his siblings, as the main storyline.

A similar experience to that of Abu Sido, albeit with a different ending, was lived by another couple, but this time the man was in the West Bank and the woman in Gaza. 

Sameer Khoury, 27, of Bethlehem, fell in love with a Palestinian girl from Gaza, yet it took him more than five years to marry her.

After four years of a long-distance relationship, Khoury got engaged to Nadine in 2008. At the time, she was in Bethlehem for a Christian holiday, having obtained an Israeli permit to travel to the Church of the Nativity. It was the last time Christians younger than 35 were allowed to travel to Bethlehem for the holidays.

“After the engagement, I spent more than a year looking for a way to get Nadine here; I reached a point of desperation where I stopped trying,” Khoury told Al-Monitor in a phone interview from Bethlehem.

After a year and a half of waiting, Nadine received a four-hour permit. She made it to Bethlehem and stayed there illegally for more than two years until she could change her address in the Israeli-controlled civil registration — to get her new address as a West Bank resident.

“Before she could change her address, Nadine did not dare to leave the city's downtown area, for fear of being stopped at one of the Israeli checkpoints and being deported to Gaza again,” Khoury continued.

Khoury and Nadine are now parents of a 2-year-old girl named Kenzi. Although Nadine’s life is now stable, she can’t visit her family in Gaza; she can only see her parents when they come to Bethlehem for Christian holidays.

“You can’t have everything when you are living under occupation, you should sacrifice something,” Khoury noted.

Shadi Batthish who works for Gisha — an Israeli nongovernmental organization that promotes freedom of movement for Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank — said that his organization regularly receives calls from Palestinian couples from Gaza and the West Bank asking for help to change their place of residency.

Batthish said that Israel usually does not allow Gaza residents to move to the West Bank, but might allow the opposite.

“We always tell these people that it’s almost impossible to move from Gaza to the West Bank, because of the Israeli separation policy of the two territories and the two populations. From the Israeli authorities' point of view, these are not humanitarian cases. We even sometimes advise people not to sign a marriage contract when one is from the West Bank and the other from the Gaza Strip, because the Israeli policy makes it impossible for them to live together in the West Bank,” Batthish explained to Al-Monitor.

In an info sheet prepared by Gisha, Israeli security officials explain that they form part of the “policy of separation” between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This term reappears in official statements but has never been explained.

Gisha documented cases where some Palestinian Authority employees moved to the West Bank after Hamas' coup in Gaza and the ousting of Abbas' forces to the West Bank in 2007. Gisha said that it couldn’t even help these men's wives and children follow the head of the family to the West Bank.

“We witnessed a married couple who got divorced, since Israel would not allow spouses to move from Gaza to the West Bank. If this is the case when they have children, you can imagine how the Israeli treatment would be if you are talking about a relationship that hasn't even started yet.”

Two years after Abu Sido's difficult decision, he thinks that it wasn't a healthy relationship from the beginning, and he totally blames Israeli occupation for that. "I wonder how I could have spent all this time fighting for someone I had never met; it was insane," he said.

But he then immediately answered his own question, saying that with time he figured out that it was a challenge for him, rather than a love story.

"My main goal was to break the borders Israel is building around me, I wanted to oppose Israeli attempts to destroy my life, but as usual it ended up with Israel destroying [my life] again and again." 

Abeer Ayyoub is a contributor to Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. She graduated from the Islamic University of Gaza with a BA in English literature. She is a former human rights researcher turned journalist whose work has also appeared in Al Masry Al-Youm, Al Jazeera and Haaretz. On Twitter: @Abeerayyoub

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