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Gaza border controls: frustration, despair and death

This summer how many people will drive, walk, or take a train and barely realise that they have crossed a border?  How many people will know about the 2 million residents of Gaza that don’t have that right?

Palestinians gather in front of the gate of Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza during a protest against the blockade calling for reopening of the crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip July 3, 2017. Picture by: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/Reuters/PA Images. All rights reserved. On which side of the border were you born?  On the side of high security walls, of permits, of strict military controls and interrogation?  Or on the side of freedom of movement?  The feeling of getting up one morning, pulling on some trainers and running from home into another country seems so liberating that I decided to do it. I’m setting off from my house in Catalunya in the cool hours of the morning to run 111 km north, ending in the Pyrenees with a hot, hard climb  to Le Perthus a small French town just over the border.

Article 13 of the Declaration of Human Rights recognises the human right of freedom of residence and movement, to leave any country and to return.  So many people around the world do not enjoy this fundamental right. 

Described by various world leaders as a “prison-camp or open air prison for its collective denizens”, Gaza is home to 2 million people who do not have the right to freedom of movement.  Gaza residents are contained by a high security 60 km wall along the border with Israel, a high security fence along the Egyptian border and a blockade of Israeli warships along its coast.  There are two border gates for people.  The Rafah border crossing in the south is completely closed for most of the year and when it does open, crossing is limited and very strictly controlled.  The Erez Gate crossing point in the north is the only way out of Gaza all year round but less than 1% of the population succeed in leaving each year.

Why are seriously ill patients left to die in Gaza when the required medical treatment is available in a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem?  Why are immediate family members prevented from visiting convicts in Israeli prisons?  Why is the Gaza economy being crushed by arbitrary restrictions on trades people?  Why is the future of so many students blocked by denying them the opportunity to study abroad?

Gaza residents can only cross the border if they have a permit approved first by the Palestinian authorities and ultimately by the Israeli military.  The permits fall under four categories all with strict criteria: Health, economy and employment, movement of population for various needs and senior Palestinian officials.  The process is arbitrary, non-transparent, lengthy and frustrating.   Even if the applicant meets the criteria for a permit to leave Gaza, the permit may be refused at any time with the simple motive of “for security reasons”, without any further explanation.

International humanitarian law requires Israel, the occupying force, to ensure the Palestinian population’s access to medical treatment but many residents in Gaza suffer from the lack of medication and medical resources.   A patient can only apply to go to a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem for “life-saving” or “life-changing treatment” if that treatment is not available in Gaza.  Medical teams can apply to go for medical training only if that would improve the medical response for Gaza residents in cases of life-threatening danger.  Families can apply to visit a seriously ill first-degree relative for a maximum of 1 week. Children who are ill or who have special needs can apply to go on “exceptional organised day trips of a humanitarian nature”.

Hind Shaheen has breast cancer.  The necessary treatment is unavailable in Gaza due to the ten year blockade but her application to cross the Erez Gate in order to receive the treatment in Jerusalem has been turned down three consecutive times, without explanation.  She has lost hope.  Lack of essential medication, resources and training mean that the five-year survival rate for breast cancer in Gaza are 30% compared to 86% in Israel.  In Gaza the postcode lottery is a harsh reality. 

Sausen Kadih, was diagnosed with a brain tumor last June.  She was at first cleared to undergo treatment in a Ramallah hospital, but in the past month the permits were not issued and her request was denied by the Israeli army.  Here, as in many other similar cases the international humanitarian law which requires Israel, the occupying force to ensure the Palestinian population’s access to medical treatment is not respected. 

A report from the World Bank states that the Gaza economy has reached “the verge of collapse” with employment at 41%.  The general rule is that employment of Gaza residents in Israel is not approved.  There are 5000 permits available for trades people to go across the border which last a maximum of 3 months.  The trade must be in goods approved by the civil policy and the entry must contribute to improving the Gaza economy. There are 500 permits for senior Palestinian businessmen which last up to 6 months.  A limited number of emergency medical teams may work in the Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem.

Permits are available for other various needs.  First degree relatives may apply for a permit to attend a funeral, a wedding or to visit detainees in Israeli prisons.  However, prison visitors are also subject to the Israeli Prison Service rules and are limited to one visit every two months.  Permits can also be applied for by journalists, for legal needs, to attend an embassy interview, to attend work meetings and conventions and by athletes participating in official team activities. It is worth noting that the head of the Palestinian Olympic team was denied a permit to leave Gaza in 2016 to join his team in Brazil.

In June 2017, the Israeli authorities issued a statement that all Palestinian families of Gaza prisoners jailed in Israel are banned from visiting.  Dia al-Agha has been held in an Israel prison for 26 years.  His 67-year old mother had not been allowed to see her son for a year and every time she applies for a permit it is rejected. “I don’t know why I get rejected. I am 67 years old. What security threat am I to Israel? All I want is to see him and make sure he is well. I don’t know how long I will live. Any visit can be my last. I am scared of dying without seeing him.”

Awad was imprisoned for 19 years for attempting to cross the borderline between Gaza and Israel. His father died during the 2007 ban on prison visits and was never able to visit his son.  His mother, 64, worries that due to her deteriorating health she will soon no longer be able to endure the long, tiring visitation process that often starts at 5am, involves humiliating strip searches, and finally finishes at around 4pm.

Some permits are available for those holding VIP1 or VIP2 documents and key positions in the Palestinian Authority.

It must be emphasised again that even though the applicant fulfills the criteria above, permission is often denied without any reason given.  The application could be turned down due the month’s quota being reached, or because the application process has taken so long that the reason for going has expired.

This summer how many people will drive, walk, or take a train and barely realise that they have crossed a border?  How many people will know about the 2 million residents of Gaza that don’t have that right?  And if they do know, how many of you will stop and think of that infringement to freedom?  That is the aim of my 111km run through the border this summer to highlight how the arbitrary border controls in Gaza lead to despair, avoidable deaths and contribute to the decline in the economy. The freedom of crossing borders in Europe is in contrast to the daily frustration and impotence of the Gaza residents when their lives and livelihoods depend on passing through unnecessarily strict border controls.


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