GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In the wedding hall of El-Helou international hotel north of Gaza City, everything was spectacular: the decorations, lights and flowers. The bride, Fatima al-Awda, was mesmerizing in her white gown. All that was missing was the groom.
Wael Mhanna was not able to attend his own wedding in person because the Rafah crossing — the only means of accessing the Gaza Strip from Egypt — has been closed almost entirely since July 2013.
“Wael and I got engaged in January 2014 and decided to get married in August of the same year. But three months before our wedding, Wael traveled to the United Arab Emirates, having received a great job offer and knowing he would come back to Gaza on the wedding day. But we had to postpone the wedding to November 2014 because of the closing of the crossing. And as the crossing remained closed, we postponed it again to February 2015, and twice later. Wael was never able to come to Gaza to get married, which is why, eventually, I had to go on with the wedding ceremony without him.”
The couple was wed by proxy instead, via Skype.
“Wael was supposed to take me to our marital house in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, like any other bride, but now I will go back to my parents’ house in Gaza City. I am the saddest bride in the world,” Awda told Al-Monitor, with tears streaming down her face.
Mouna, the bride’s mother, told Al-Monitor, “I feel deeply sorry that my daughter had to get married in this way, but she did not have any other choice but to go through with the wedding without the groom — who had his father in Gaza make the necessary arrangements — and wait for the crossing to open again so she could join her husband.”
The head of the Islamic Court in the Gaza Strip, Sheikh Hasan al-Juju, said marriage by proxy is becoming more common because the crossing is closed.
“There has been a clear increase in proxy marriages in light of the closed Rafah crossing. The groom usually designates his father to conclude the marriage contract, which is permissible in the Islamic religion,” he told Al-Monitor.
Bahira Kheyri from Gaza is another bride who had to go through with her wedding ceremony without her groom, who is her cousin Murad. As Murad is staying in Turkey to pursue his studies, he designated his father through a power of attorney to complete the requirements for marriage in the Sharia court in Gaza.
During the wedding, Kheyri’s family connected with the groom via Skype on a big screen set up in the al-Jazira wedding hall west of Gaza City.
Two days after her wedding, Al-Monitor met with Kheyri who said, “I felt like I was in a conference call, not a wedding. I danced alone, while Murad was watching me through the screen silently. We spoke together and we cried so hard.”
For his part, Murad told Al-Monitor in a phone interview, “I am studying engineering in Turkey. I cannot leave college and go back to Gaza, as the land crossing opens for one or two days only, and remains closed for one or two months in a row, which is a threat to my future and my studies.”
He added, “We are denied a proper, normal life, and we cannot move freely from and to Gaza because of the blockade and the closure of the crossing."
Amy Khaled managed to join her husband in Germany in August 2013, where he is pursuing his studies. She carried out the marriage procedures alone in Gaza while he was away, but is now living with him. “We had to put off the wedding three times and each time, I would hope the Rafah crossing would open so that my husband could come to Gaza. But after losing hope, my husband and I decided to go through with the ceremony in Gaza without him being here. When I wanted to join him, I stayed at the crossing for 10 hours before I was allowed to pass and travel. It was a bitter experience,” Khaled told Al-Monitor.
Khaled thought that by leaving Gaza and joining her husband, she would finally close the book on the hellish Rafah experience. She did not realize that other chapters of pain and suffering awaited her. “I have not seen my family since I traveled to my husband. The almost continuous closing of the Rafah crossing makes it impossible for me to see my mother, father and siblings,” she said.
There are 25,000 people with humanitarian cases who are stuck in Gaza and waiting for the crossing to open, according to the spokesman for Gaza’s Ministry of Interior and National Security, Iyad Al-Bazm, who made a statement on his Facebook page Oct. 13.
Because of the deteriorating security situation in north Sinai, Egyptian authorities open the crossing only sporadically, and then mostly for urgent humanitarian cases. Since the beginning of 2015, Egypt opened the crossing for 19 days intermittently, according to the official website of the Ministry of Interior and National Security in the Gaza Strip.
In addition to the Rafah crossing in Gaza, there is the Israeli-controlled Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing. However, the director general of the crossings in the Gaza Strip, Maher Abu Sabha, told Al-Monitor, “90% of Gazans cannot travel through the Beit Hanoun crossing for political and security reasons, such as [accusations] of sympathizing with the resistance. They are likely to get arrested there.”
As for Juju, he said, “The closure of the Rafah crossing contributed to the increase in cases of divorce, as couples find great hardships to be reunited.” He said that only 5% of Gazans abroad take the risk of coming for the wedding ceremony, while the other 95% prefer to have a proxy wedding and then wait for their wives to travel to them.
Kheyri is still on pins and needles in Rafah, waiting to be united with her husband in Turkey, but she fears she will not be allowed to travel since people with humanitarian cases have much higher chances of crossing.