People at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, on August 11, 2020. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib /

Leaving Gaza: a journey through space and time

  • October 13, 2020

Borders & Beyond

A young mother’s escape from the open-air prison she grew up in sets the scene for a moving historical account of the collective suffering of an entire people.

On the night of October 9, 2018, 24-year-old Haneen was sitting on the uncomfortable benches of the Rafah border crossing between Palestine and Egypt. The night was growing darker, but sleep would not come. Instead, Haneen spent hours scribbling real and fictitious stories of her surroundings. Beside her sat dozens of people, some alone, like she was, some with their friends and families, all waiting for the same thing — getting out. If all went well, at dawn she would leave, for the first time in her life, the open-air prison she grew up in — the Gaza Strip.

Squeezed between Egypt to the south, the Mediterranean to the west and the territory claimed by the State of Israel to the north and east, the Gaza Strip is a rectangle of about 365 square kilometers — about the same size as Detroit — that is home to about 1.9 million people.

For those who live there, there are only two ways out: through the Israel-controlled Erez crossing in the north, or through the Rafah crossing in the south, which is controlled by Egypt. Neither is particularly easy to cross — both require approvals from two or more authorities and its routes are often sealed, opening and closing with little to no warning. Passing through Erez requires an exit permit that, unless certain criteria are met, is almost impossible to obtain. Over the past few years, only a few thousand people got it: people in need of urgent health care, their companions, certain traders and members of humanitarian organizations. Many requests are denied based on supposed “security considerations.”

This means that, for the vast majority of Gazans, the only way out is through the Rafah crossing, which is open only for a few weeks per year. But the gates that keep it are not always open — in 2016, they were only opened for 44 days; in 2017, 36; in 2018,198; and in 2019, 241 days, the highest number since 2013. But the COVID-19 pandemic shut the door once again — since March, people have only been allowed to cross to Egypt for seven days in total: from August 11 to 13 and September 27 to 29.

Life in an unlivable place

This was the path Haneen followed. “I had to pay $1500. That’s the first step, through the tanseeqat,” says Haneen. The tanseeqat are a kind of unofficial, Palestinian travel agents who work together with Egyptian officials to speed up the exit process. “You either put your name on [a list at] the border and then wait months or years until you’re approved to leave or you go through the tanseeqat, wait just one or two days and you’re in Egypt,” she explains. “But you need to pay a lot of money.”

Not everyone is as lucky as Haneen and can pay the $1500 — or more — to jump the queue. And so, most people are left waiting. As of October 2018, there were over 23.000 people registered to leave. Even with all the necessary paperwork, entry is sometimes refused without any explanation.

Haneen managed to raise the money thanks to a crowdfunding campaign organized by a Palestinian friend who currently lives in Australia. Alone, she never would have made it — jobs are scarce in the Strip and Haneen never did hold on to one for long. She would work odd jobs here and there whenever she could: “Sometimes I worked in a kindergarten as a teacher and another time I worked in a bakery with cakes.” In 2019, Gaza’s unemployment rate was 45 percent. For women, the situation is even worse — six out of 10 do not have a job.

The lack of opportunities is one of the main reasons that leaves Gazans, especially the young generations, desperately looking for a way out. But it is far from the only one. In August 2012, the United Nations Country Team in the Occupied Palestinian Territory published a report asking the ominous question: “Gaza in 2020: a liveable place?” The conclusion they reached was that, unless “herculean efforts” were made in terms of energy, education, health, water and sanitation, Gaza would become unlivable in eight years.

According to Matthias Schmale, Director of Operations of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for Gaza, those efforts were not made: “Well, let me be more precise. Several efforts were made, including by UNRWA, of course, and many other non-governmental organizations. But the truth is that living conditions are worse. Unemployment has risen, the lack of drinking water is even bigger, and I think 97 percent of the population doesn’t have safe access to drinking water.”

“There’s an ecological crisis,” Schmale warns. “Our UNICEF colleagues tell me that, every day, at least four to two Olympic sized swimming pools of sewage go towards the ocean. So I often get asked the question ‘So now that’s 2020, is Gaza liveable?’ And what I say is that we did not need 2020 to arrive to see that it’s unlivable.”

Although the electricity supply has improved in recent years, it remains terribly precarious. In January 2019, UNRWA reported that Gazans only had access to electricity for less than seven hours per day, a number far below their needs. They manage their lives around the few scraps of energy they can get — it is not uncommon to get up in the middle of the night to use washing machines or walk aimlessly around the block until electricity comes back again to power the elevators, as a Palestinian woman who lived on the ninth floor and was seven months pregnant explained. Power failures derail many essential services, especially in terms of health care, water distribution and sanitation and hinder the growth of many of its industries.

A never-ending blockade

For Schmale, the cause of this crisis is the land, sea and air blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. Many studies by organizations like UNRWA, Amnesty International and the International Red Cross, but also financial institutions such as the World Bank, come to the same conclusion.

Human rights experts point out that Gaza’s blockade violates international law — a 2015 report produced by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights states that “Israel has continued to impose its blockade of Gaza in violation of international law, which remains the most important obstacle to a sustainable recovery in the Gaza Strip and enjoyment by its inhabitants of their economic, social and cultural rights.” Although the State of Israel removed its military and settler population from the territory in 2005, arguing that it could no longer be considered an occupation, the blockade goes on.

To understand the blockade, we need to go back almost 33 years, to December 1987. An Israeli tank drove into a line of cars outside the Erez crossing, killing four Palestinians and injuring seven others. The crash sparked a civil rebellion against the military occupation that had oppressed them since Israel’s invasion in 1967. This was the start of the First Intifada in English, “shaking off,” or “unrest” an uprising that began as a series of civil disobedience actions, strikes, boycotts and mostly unarmed protests that quickly spread across Palestine. But violence escalated quickly, and over the six years it lasted more than 1,000 Palestinians and 200 Israelis were killed, according to data from B’tselem.

And that is why, in 1991, four years into the uprising, Israel started imposing movement restrictions on Gazans. Three years later, the first physical barriers went up, completed in 1996. The siege was tightening. Further restrictions were put in place during the Second Intifada in the 2000s. But the most asphyxiating stage was only enforced in 2006, after the political party Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union won elections and consolidated its power in Gaza. Hamas’ victory in Gaza politically severed the region from the West Bank, which was governed by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, the interim government of the State of Palestine.

“They were waiting for Fatah [the dominant political party in Palestine] to win,” says the scholar, political scientist and author Norman Finkelstein, “and that didn’t happen. They were punished for exercising their democratic rights. Jimmy Carter, the former US president [and founder of the Carter Center, one of the organizations which monitored the elections in 2006] was in Gaza and he said the elections were free and fair, but they were punished.” Hamas, he explains, was not supposed to win. And the Palestinians in Gaza were about to pay dearly for that.

View of Gaza Strip from Israel. Photo by David Berkowitz / Flickr

Norman Finkelstein, son of Holocaust survivors, has been investigating the Israeli occupation of Palestine for over three decades. In 2018, he published Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom, which opens with the line “this book is not about Gaza. It is about what has been done to Gaza.” In the book he writes extensively about Israeli abuses in the Strip, and that, right after the blockade started, “economic activity in Gaza came to a standstill, moving into survival mode.” At one point, coriander, potato chips, chicks, chocolates and even musical instruments were among the many items forbidden to cross the barrier. The reason, typically cited, was one of “security,” to “thwart Hamas’ offensive capabilities.”

All these years of blockade, especially in the last decade, left 80 percent of the population relying on humanitarian help. UNRWA Director for Gaza Schmale explains that over a million people receive food assistance from UNRWA but, at least, no malnourished children are dying in the streets, like in Yemen. But if there were any doubts about how fortuitous this was, the comments of the advisor of the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert back in 2006, quickly set the record straight, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Six years later, the Human Rights organization Gisha won a legal battle which forced the Israeli government to release a document that advised the calories Gazans needed to consume to avoid malnutrition: 2,279 daily calories per person.

But the situation in Gaza is not a humanitarian crisis like the others, according to Schmale. It is not a natural crisis, nor a tsunami, nor an earthquake. It is a human-made crisis. Finkelstein agrees — in a 2018 interview with Democracy Now!, he explains that “Gaza is different from all the other humanitarian crises. Why? If there is a natural disaster, like a drought, people move. If there’s a human-made disaster, like Syria, people move. Gaza is the only place on Earth where the place is unlivable and the people can’t move. They can’t leave. They’re trapped.”

Maybe that is why Gaza is called an “open-air prison” so often. We have even heard it from the former conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron, multiple times from the world-renowned linguist, philosopher and author Noam Chomsky, and several members from humanitarian organizations. Above all, I have heard it from every Palestinian I have interviewed.

Haneen, however, managed to get out. But even with exit guaranteed, she spent the night at the border. Hours after the gate to Egypt opened, the dozens of people waiting for their turn to cross were told that no one else would be allowed to pass that day, that they would have to wait until morning. Haneen started doubting whether she had actually made the right decision: “I was very scared, it was my first time. I was crying, asking myself if this was the right thing. Am I ready to go out to the world like this?”

72 years of Nakba

Haneen was born in Gaza City in 1993, the main urban center of the region, where more than 700.000 people live. The story of Haneen’s family is similar to many others — they are part of the hundreds of thousands of refugee families in Gaza whose fate was sealed over 70 years ago. On May 14, 1948, on the fifth day of the Hebrew calendar of Iyar and after centuries of persecution of the Jewish people, David-Ben Gurion proclaimed the creation of the State of Israel. Yom HaAtzmaut has become one of the most important holidays in the country, celebrated every year in April or May.

On the other side of the barrier, May is commemorated in a very different way. Every year, on the 15th of the month, the Palestinians remember Al-Nakba, which marks the ethnic cleansing and destruction perpetrated by the Israeli military during the 1947-’49 war. In 1948 alone, thousands of Palestinians were massacred and about 800,000 were driven from their lands — one person’s independence is another one’s catastrophe. “I grew up hearing the story of my grandparents who were displaced, knowing that there was another home in our ancestors’ land,” says Haneen, “and there was this hope in my grandmother and grandfather, this idea that we would come back. We always thought it was just temporary, even though it was more than 70 years ago.”

It was also over 70 years ago, on December 11, 1948, that the United Nations (UN) adopted the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. The resolution 194 reads: “Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” For the past seven decades (except for 1956, 1960 and 1964) the UN has reaffirmed this right every single year. For the past seven decades, the Israeli government has refused it.

Before the Nakba, Haneen’s family used to live in Bayt Tima, a village 34 kilometers outside of Gaza. Haneen tells me her grandparents still have the house key, but there is no house to go back to. Bayt Tima was one of the about 500 cities and villages destroyed to make way for the newly-formed State of Israel. Today there is nothing but rubble where her grandparents once lived. “Sycamore and carob trees grow around the rubble on the site,” writes the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi in his book All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948.

For many Palestinians, opening up about their own Nakba is not easy — it brings back too many memories, too much pain. Sometimes, Haneen said, tears would run down her grandmother’s face. But she would always smile as she remembered her childhood: when she used to pick fruit up with her dad, milk the goats and arrange breakfast for the entire family. They had a big house where they lived with their cousins, aunts and uncles: “Everyone lived together,” she said, “It was beautiful for her.”

Haneen explains that her family was always very traditional. As such, she never told them the truth about leaving: “I told them I’d be having a good job with a good salary,” that would allow her to support her family. “This is the thing I said to my family and my husband’s family.” Her husband knows the truth, though, since they both decided she should leave to try and get a better future for their two kids. It was not a rash decision, but rather something that materialized over time.

She first started entertaining the idea when she was 16, as she and her sister dreamed about traveling and exploring the world: “There are many things out there and we haven’t seen anything,” she would think. Over the years, the idea disappeared into the background. That is, until the Summer of 2014, during the so-called Operation Protective Edge.

The summer of children dying

The sequence of events that in 2014 led Gaza to the brink of collapse is fairly clear. You can track the political and diplomatic timeline that led to the escalation of the already shaky relationship between the State of Israel and Hamas. But for the journalist Ben Ehrenreich, who was living in Palestine when it all began, it is not of governments or agreements he thinks about when looking back. “What I will remember of that long summer had nothing to do with Fatah or Hamas or the unity government or what appeared to be the real and final end of the peace process and the Two-State Solution,” he wrote in his book The Way To The Spring: Life and Death in Palestine. “I will remember it as the summer of children dying.”

On June 12, 2014, three Israeli teenagers disappeared on the West Bank. Barely a day had passed when the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “This is the result of bringing a terrorist organization into the government.” Three days later, in a weekly cabinet meeting, he declared he had proof that Hamas was involved in the kidnapping of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frankel and Eyal Yifrach: “The same Hamas that Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority] made a unity government with,” he said. The act, he warned, had severe repercussions. If Netanyahu was looking for a motive to undermine Hamas as a legitimate political power, this, one can say, “dropped into his lap.”

The story was repeated over the following days. Then, the invasion of Gaza. “As ground troops crossed into the Strip, Israel let loose with abandon its explosive arsenal. Gaza’s civilian population and infrastructure — homes and businesses, schools and mosques, hospitals and ambulances, power stations and sewage plants, civilian shelters and civilians fleeing in panic — came under relentless, indiscriminate, disproportionate, and deliberate attack,” writes the scholar Norman Finkelstein in Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom.

Haneen was 20 years old. She lived in Deir al-Balah, and her first child had just been born. “You never forget these things,” she said. She saw buildings collapse around her house: “It was a lot of fear and exhaustion and I was tired of living this vicious cycle of being under the threat of death. We did not have a shelter to run to,” she said. “So I had my daughter and we would put her in between — her dad on one side and I on the other — and we were both like a protection shield for her. We would sleep somewhere in the middle because if there is bombing happening and you are next to the window, the glass will shatter on top of you. And I would look at my daughter and it is hard to imagine a life like this for a child. It’s unlivable.”

The attacks went on for 51 days until a ceasefire was announced on August 26. In a report released in 2016 by the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory, they wrote that the operation was “the most devastating round of hostilities in Gaza since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967.” According to the UN, in those two months, 2,251 Palestinians were killed, of which 1,462 were civilians. Of the victims, 551 were under the age of 18. Over 11,000 were injured and 10 percent of those suffered permanent disabilities. Over 18,000 families — around 100,000 people — saw their houses destroyed. Behind, laid 2.5 million tons of rubble. On this Israeli side, 72 people were killed, six of whom were civilians. One of them was underage. Around 1,600 were injured. A house was destroyed and 11 others damaged. “These are not wars. These are just protracted massacres,” argues Norman Finkelstein.

Apartment building after it hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Friday, July 18, 2014. AP Photo/Hatem Moussa via iZ designer Photo / Flickr

Haneen was just 24 years old when she left Gaza in 2018, but by then, she had already lived through a decade-long blockade, the Second Intifada, a civil war between the two major political forces in Palestine — Hamas and Fatah — and several massacres, most notably in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2018. Not to mention the sporadic but continued bombings which Gazans experience until this day. “In the time I have been here,” says UNRWA Director for Gaza Schmale, who moved to the Strip in 2017, “it felt like we were at war at least five times — rockets were flying back and forth, people were killed, buildings destroyed. You know, even today, I can hear surveillance drones.”

And it was then, in one of these bombings which Schmale speaks of, sometime around 2016 or 2017, that Haneen’s plan to leave the Strip became more palpable, necessary. She can not recall the year exactly, and due to the frequency of these attacks, it is hard to confirm which one it was exactly. Haneen was in her kitchen when a bomb exploded near her house. She quickly turned off the stove, grabbed her two kids by their hands and swooped them across the stairs, blinded by the white smoke which enveloped the house.

That day, Haneen and her husband started thinking about a plan. The opportunity came in 2018 when Haneen met two activists, one Israeli and one Portuguese: “They were the ones who supported me and my family to have a better life.”

A Bedouin in the city

Finally, Haneen was on her way to Egypt. Although the journey takes little over five hours by car, she spent the entire day to go across the 400 kilometers that separate Rafah from Cairo. “There were a lot of checkpoints, like it was almost 20 checkpoints,” she said, “you need to show your passport, and then they go through your stuff again and again. Sometimes they ask questions. It was a really long journey of being stopped every time. It was something for me to see how much we Palestinians struggle for the simplest rights of free movement. Just the right of going from somewhere to somewhere else… It was so challenging and shocking to see how much we need to struggle to have one of the most basic rights that we are entitled to.”

Haneen arrived in Cairo around 11pm, after an entire day of passing through checkpoints. She was exhausted. She went straight to the home of a friend’s mother, where she stayed for around four weeks. In Cairo, everything was new, glamorous. “In fact,” she says, “we have a saying in Arabic ‘the Bedouin who is in the city for the first time.’” Whenever she saw something new, she wanted to try it — like when she went to the pictures the very first time. She walked in and bought a random ticket for a movie that was about to start. She does not remember which one, but then again, she did not watch the whole thing — as soon as the shooting and deaths began, she decided to leave.

From her time in Cairo, she mainly remembers getting lost. In the subway, the bus, the streets: “By getting lost, you get to know things,” she said. For a “Bedouin” who spent her whole life imprisoned, there was nothing more exciting than the freedom of movement. Almost two months after starting her journey, Haneen finally heard the words she longed for: “Congratulations, your Schengen visa was approved.” She was over the moon — she could, at last, make her way to Portugal.

She got to Lisbon on Thursday, November 29, 2018. She had never been on a plane, or an airport for that matter. Gaza’s only airport, Yasser Arafat International Airport — named after the late Palestinian leader — was only open for two years, from 1998 to 2000. It was closed and partially destroyed during the Second Intifada. Arafat, Nobel Peace laureate and one of the fathers of the struggle for the liberation of Palestine, died four years later, in 2004, in a — still — occupied country. When it opened, the airport was seen as a symbol of Gaza’s freedom, independence and sovereignty. Today, it is just another one of its ruins.

None of this was, however, on Haneen’s mind as the plane landed in Lisbon: “It is a huge coincidence that a woman like me, from this background, to go out somewhere in Europe by herself. It is really not common.” Her Portuguese friend went to pick her up at the airport, and the following day, they traveled to Alentejo in the south. And there she stayed — today, she lives in a community in Odemira, where she works with animals and teaches Arabic online.

As soon as her work visa comes through, she can apply for family reunification, according to the Portuguese Aliens Act. After that, the only step left is to prove that she has housing and “means of subsistence” to provide for her family. She has been in this process for over a year.

Haneen has not seen her kids, of four and six, since she left. They have recently started writing her letters: “Letters to mama,” as she refers to them. I asked if, when she can finally bring her husband and kids over, they will follow the route as her, through Rafah: “We go through where it is possible. If Egypt is possible and Erez not, we go through Egypt. [Rafah] has all the difficulties of checkpoints and two days of traveling, which can be a lot for him and the children, but I told him he does not need to carry much stuff. There is everything here, there is food, there are clothes, we do not need to carry much with us. Just the backpacks for the children and one backpack from him and that is it.”

To exist is to resist

For those who stay behind, there are not a lot of reasons for optimism. On January 28, Donald Trump announced, with a beaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, his “peace plan” for the Middle East, a plan for Palestine negotiated without Palestinians. The so-called “deal of the century” denies the right of return to Palestinian refugees and predicts the annexation of a large slice of the West Bank in Israel, including the hundreds of illegal settlements established after 1967.

The current Israeli government promised to go even further, and the Arab world seems to be slowly coming to terms with it — on August 13, in a historical move that was met with praise from neighboring countries in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates agreed to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, further evidence that pan-Arab solidarity has long lost its meaning. “We are all talking about ‘will Israel annex.’ It is already annexed!” exasperates Norman Finkelstein, “Folks, wake up and smell the coffee! It has been 53 years, 53 years, and you are talking about ‘will they?’ It is over!”

“If only it would just sink into the sea,” sighed the then Israeli Prime-Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. Twenty-eight years later, Gaza is still afloat. The almost two million Palestinians who live there stubbornly persist; in fact, they share that with all who live in the Occupied Territories. “To exist is to resist,” read countless walls across Palestine.

Despite the attacks, the daily humiliations, the right for self-determination which they have been denied for over seven decades, people keep throwing rocks, keep marching for the right to return to the lands from which they were expelled, keep resisting. Even without much reason for it, clinging to a shred of hope most seem to think is lost, they still keep the keys to the homes they once had.

When Haneen tells the story of her grandparents, forced to leave their home in 1948, she speaks about her connection to a land she never knew: “It’s a reminder that we need to stay alive each year,” she said, “this is our only connection to the land of our ancestors, our origins and our history. It is about what it means that we were displaced and what it means if we actually came back.”

Rafaela Cortez

Rafaela Cortez is a Lisbon-based journalist writing about human rights and the lives, struggles and quirks of the people she meets.

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