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Interview: For Palestinians in Gaza, freedom is priceless

This June marks the fifteenth anniversary of the closure of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli government, a decision that de facto blocks more than two million people inside a territory of 40 kilometers by 11. imposed by the Israeli authorities on the movement of people and goods isolate the Palestinians living in this territory from the rest of the world. Paul Aufiero (Senior Web Content Producer) interviews Omar Shakir (Director for Israel and Palestine) and Abier Almasri (Senior Research Assistant), about their new report, what’s happening in Gaza, and people whose lives are so disrupted.

Tell me about life in Gaza since the imposition of the Israeli blockade 15 years ago.

Omar Shakir (OS): The blockade affects practically all aspects of daily life, whether it is freedom of movement, the possibility of pursuing studies or professional activities, of obtaining medical treatment or of visiting one’s family living elsewhere. The blockade has also contributed to decimating the economy of Gaza, where 80% of the population depends on humanitarian aid and where most families are deprived of access to reliable electricity, quality health care and Of drinking water. Israeli authorities prohibit most Gazans from passing through Erez, the crossing point into Israel, to study abroad, attend conferences or take vacations, activities most of us take for granted. . While an American or French tourist may board a plane tomorrow and visit the Old City of Jerusalem, Ramallah or other parts of the occupied West Bank, most Palestinians in Gaza cannot. Many young people, who form a large part of the population, feel they have no future.

Abier Almasri (AA) : Palestinians in Gaza cannot decide if they can travel, or where, or when. Those lucky enough to receive a scholarship or a job offer abroad can spend months preparing for these positions, only to be denied the chance to leave Gaza.

Many of these training and professional development opportunities do not exist in Gaza, and those we spoke to explained that not being able to take advantage of them has had an impact not only on their personal or professional development, but also on their mental health. These are motivated, educated people who are finishing their studies and see no future living under the blockade. They want to leave and get training, or even discover the outside world, but they can’t. Someone who has been repeatedly refused a travel permit said: ” There is no future in Gaza…There is only one death sentence. »

How does Israel justify the travel ban and continued blockade?

BONE : Security reasons justify the closure in the eyes of the Israeli authorities, who highlight the rise of Hamas in Gaza in 2007. But Israel refuses in principle the free movement of people in Gaza, with rare exceptions, regardless of any evaluation specific to the security risk posed by a particular individual. Under international human rights law, Palestinians have the right to freedom of movement, particularly within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which Israel may restrict only on limited grounds, such as in response to threats. specific and concrete in terms of security. These general restrictions clearly do not meet this requirement.

How does the travel ban work? Are people able to travel outside of Gaza?

BONE : Israel imposes a blanket travel ban on the people of Gaza. The majority of them have never left Gaza, especially those under 30. To go out, one must obtain an Israeli permit, rarely issued, which is limited to a limited number of exemptions, for example for a life-saving medical procedure.

With the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing impossible for most Gazans, the Egyptian-administered Rafah crossing has become Gazans’ main point of access to the outside world. But Egypt often closes it and even when it is open, as has been the case more regularly in recent years, Egyptian authorities heavily restrict movement, including through prolonged delays and, in some cases, mistreatment. to travellers.

To circumvent these restrictions, Palestinians can approach private Egyptian tour operators, some of which have ties to the Egyptian authorities, or Palestinian mediators, and pay large sums of money to reduce the risk of denied entry. or ill-treatment and thus facilitate their journey. But this option is unaffordable for most of Gaza’s population and often forces those desperate to leave for medical reasons, to seek treatment for a sick relative or to catch the start of the academic year, to consent to huge expenses.

Opportunities for life improvement being so rare in Gaza, many take the risk of passing through Rafah. From Egypt, some have sought to travel to Europe irregularly, risking a perilous journey with the help of smugglers in the hope of finding freedom and opportunity in Europe.

Can you give me examples of some people you have spoken to who have tried this journey?

AA: I spoke with Saleh Hamad’s father, who graduated from high school in Gaza and wanted to find a job. Opportunities being scarce in Gaza, Saleh decided to leave. His father told us that Saleh paid $1,000 to expedite his move out of Gaza via Egypt in 2018, then to Turkey, and then paid smugglers there for even more money to get into a risky sea crossing of the Aegean Sea. Once in Europe, he ran into difficulties obtaining status in Greece, then walked through several countries before drowning trying to cross a river that separates Bosnia and Serbia, his dad. Saleh just wanted a job and a better life.

Another man I spoke to, Yahya Barbakh, is the sole breadwinner of his wife, two children, mother and sister. He just wanted to put food on the table. Seeing no way to make it in Gaza, he smuggled himself into Europe in January 2022. He borrowed money and sold his mother’s jewelry to finance his journey, including his toll out of Gaza via Egypt.

Between Turkey and Greece, the wooden boat that the smugglers made available to Yahya and other migrants sank in rough seas, where three passengers drowned. Yahya said he and the other survivors were rescued and taken to a refugee camp in Greece. As rescuers sought to rescue others, he tearfully left a voicemail message for his mother on a friend’s phone: Mom, it’s Yahya. Mom, we drowned for two hours. The [autorités] just got us out of there…. Mom, the guys with us died… Mom, the fish ate us. Yahya decided to return to Gaza. He is traumatized by his experience, vowing never to take that risk again, despite being unemployed and facing the same uncertain future as before. ” What forced us to take this risk is the prison we live in “, he confided. ” I see the pain of my children and my mother when they have nothing to eat. I don’t have a job and don’t know how to feed them. »

The outcome was different for Khalil al Najar, who wanted to go to the UK where he had obtained a scholarship. He tried several times to pass through Egypt, but the authorities blocked him each time. He eventually paid $1,500 to facilitate his shipment out of Gaza via Egypt, but was arrested by police at Cairo airport and deported to Gaza. These delays caused him to miss his scholarship, but he remains determined to leave Gaza to find opportunities elsewhere. He left and paid smugglers to reach Europe by sea. After multiple attempts, including some in which his boat almost capsized, and arrests by different authorities (including one in Greece that lasted four months), he ended up reaching Germany, where he currently resides.

What is needed to improve the living conditions of the people in Gaza?

BONE : The consequences of the shutdown, including economic devastation, attest to the dire situation in Gaza. The lack of opportunity for Gazans is part of a deliberate policy imposed as part of the crimes against humanity and apartheid committed by the Israeli authorities, which persecute millions of Palestinians. This must stop.

Israel must end the widespread closure and allow free movement to and from Gaza. If Israel considers that its security requires screening of people entering its territory, its process in this regard must be individualized and subject to appeal. Tel Aviv has had ample time to develop such a system. Due to its widespread nature, the current travel ban is illegal.

Abier, you were recently able to leave Gaza to work and pursue opportunities abroad. How do you feel hearing other people’s testimonies?

AA: I have my own stories and I carry those of others because I share a lot with them. I’m luckier than most people in Gaza and I work for an international organization, but even I only managed to leave Gaza for the first time in 2018, at the age of 31. When I see how easy it is for other people in the world to move freely, it is difficult to accept the reality of Palestinians in Gaza. It is painful to know that so many people are deprived of the basic right to freedom of movement, simply because they are Palestinians living in Gaza.

I remember talking to Khalil, who described life outside of Gaza to me. He told me how his horizons have expanded since strict boundaries and arbitrary restrictions no longer dictate his life choices and his dreams have become projects he thinks he can achieve. Reflecting on his journey, he told me that he missed his family, his community and his life in Gaza, but that in the end, ” freedom has no price “.

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