The thousands of undocumented Gazans living in limbo

Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza can't work, travel, or get health care. Between the Israeli-controlled population registry and the Fatah-Hamas rivalry, they see little hope for any kind of stable future.

By Amjad Yaghni

Wafaa Abu Hajjaj has been active in the media industry in Gaza for the past eight years, working as a correspondent for various local and regional television news outlets. But she has also been deprived of dozens of job opportunities abroad because she doesn’t have a Palestinian identification card. Without it, she can’t be officially employed or access government services.

Abu Hajjaj appealed to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to obtain residency and a passport in 2015, but to no avail. Her 70-year-old father, Abdel Mun’em Abu Hajjaj, suffers from heart disease; he too has been denied access to medical treatment, both in and outside Gaza, for the same reason.

Abu Hajjaj and her father are among thousands of undocumented Palestinians in Gaza.

Israel withdrew its military and civilian presence from the Strip in 2005, but one of the countless ways it still exercises immense control over the lives of Gazans is through its control over the Palestinian population registry. Many simple types of changes to the registry, including changing the address or place of one’s residence, still require the Israeli army’s approval.

Under the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian Authority, only Israel can has the power to authorize the entry of anyone, including Palestinians, into the occupied territories. Likewise, only Israel has the authority give residency status for spouses and children of Palestinians, including those living abroad, through a family unification process.

Gaza journalist Wafaa Abu Hjajj. 'For 12 years I’ve been carrying a temporary ID that amounts to nothing.' (Mohamed Al Hajjar)
Gaza journalist Wafaa Abu Hjajj. ‘For 12 years I’ve been carrying a temporary ID that amounts to nothing.’ (Mohamed Al Hajjar)

Also under Oslo, Israel and the Palestinians negotiated the return of 600,000 Palestinians from the diaspora to the occupied territories, according to Saleh al-Zeq, the director of the General Authority for Civil Affairs (GACA) in Gaza. Israel agreed to approve family unifications in five batches, but since the Second Intifada in 2000, it stopped processing all Palestinian applications for visitor permits and family unification.

When Hamas took over Gaza in June 2007, Israel severed all ties with the Palestinian authorities there, and soon after imposed a blockade on the coastal enclave. By then, it had already processed four of the groups that were approved under Oslo talks, but the final batch of 4,645 people is still pending to this day, according to al-Zeq.

“When the ministry reviewed our applications for identity cards, I was informed that, since Hamas took over Gaza, family reunions were no longer possible. For 12 years I’ve been carrying a temporary ID that amounts to nothing,” said Abu Hajjaj. “My ill father can’t travel either. He was supposed to be transferred to the West Bank for treatment, but when the doctor realized he doesn’t have a proper Palestinian ID card or travel documents, he cancelled the transfer,” she added.

Abu Hajjaj and her family arrived to Gaza in 1998. Her father, a Palestinian refugee, received temporary travel papers from Egypt and worked as a teacher in Saudi Arabia. He would go back to Egypt every four years to renew his work and travel authorization, but when he eventually returned to Gaza, he became a resident without status and could no longer travel. Abu Hajjaj describes this predicament as a double siege: that of the Israeli government, and that of the Palestinian identification process.

Rola Abu Obeid and her brother Mohammed. (Mohamed Al Hajjar)
Rola Abu Obeid and her brother Mohammed. (Mohamed Al Hajjar)

The Abu Obaid family sought to return to Gaza after escaping the war in Iraq. Their Palestinian grandfather, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), had emigrated to Baghdad a few years before the 1967 war broke. But decades later, three months into the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the family fled to the Ruwaished Refugee Camp in eastern Jordan. The family of seven spent a year in the camp, but could not obtain a permit to enter and live in Jordan, since the government’s policy at that time only allowed entry for Palestinians who were married to Jordanian nationals.

They then tried their luck in Egypt. The Rafah crossing between Egypt in Gaza had been closed for an extended period, until Palestinian militants blasted a hole in the barrier, allowing them to cross into the Strip. The family arrived in Gaza in 2006, hoping to rebuild their lives there. More than a decade after their return, they still haven’t been able to register as Palestinian residents.

Rola Abu Obeid, 22, is in her third year of English literature studies at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “Whenever I present my temporary ID card, people point out that I am not from here and question my Palestinian-ness,” she said. “I don’t feel Palestinian because people treat me as if I am not.”

Three years ago, Rola, who maintains a high GPA and is fluent in English, received a scholarship from a university in London. When she learned that she could not accept the scholarship without a Palestinian ID in hand, her father tried to pressure the scholarship directors, but to no avail. Last September, she was denied participation at the 2018 World Youth Conference in Egypt for the same reason.

Without official residency status, members of the Abu Obeid family are unlikely to find lawful employment. They can’t be treated in public hospitals, relying instead on private clinics for health services, which can get very expensive.

Haitham Mohammad Hussein Abu Hani, 35 years old, entered Gaza in 2008 after Hamas militants destroyed parts of the fence once again to circumvent the Israeli blockade. With former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s approval, tens of thousands of Palestinians crossed into Sinai to stock up on fuel and shop for food, while Palestinians in Egypt who had not been granted visitation permits or family unification took the opportunity to return to Gaza.

Abu Hani was born in Egypt to a Palestinian father who fled there after the 1967 war. With the signing of the Oslo Accords, Abu Hani, who was 12 at the time, sought to return to Gaza, where his two brothers served in the PA security forces. His family unification request was denied on the grounds that he was too young. In 1998, he applied again but didn’t hear back.

Abu Hani, like the Hajjaj family, carries Egyptian travel papers, which have expired since his return to Gaza. Despite being married to a woman with Palestinian residency, he hasn’t been able to obtain a Palestinian ID card or passport through her. Meanwhile, he cannot apply for jobs and his financial situation is only getting worse.

“I can’t travel or study abroad, I can’t go on Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) or even visit my mother in Egypt,” he said. “Now I am truly living in a prison. Even if Rafah crossing were to open for days, I wouldn’t be allowed to go through.”

Haitham Mohammad Hussein Abu Hani and his two daughters. 'I can’t travel or study abroad, I can’t go on Hajj or even visit my mother in Egypt.' (Mohamed Al Hajjar)
Haitham Mohammad Hussein Abu Hani and his two daughters. ‘I can’t travel or study abroad, I can’t go on Hajj or even visit my mother in Egypt.’ (Mohamed Al Hajjar)

Abu Hani has pushed for the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs to review his case several times, but he keeps getting the same response: Israel is responsible for the delays. Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestinian minister of civil affairs, has brought up the issue more than once with the Israeli government, according to Abdel Rahim Lubad, the head of public relations of GACA in Gaza. Israel has consistently used security considerations as an excuse to deny these requests, he said.

What more, Palestinians who, like Abu Hani and the Abu Obaid family, returned to Gaza through the Rafah crossing without an Israeli-approved visitor permit fall under a separate category, according to Mohammad Makadma, the spokesperson for GACA in Gaza. This group can’t be issued Palestinian identification cards because their residency is subject to final status peace negotiations with Israel, said Makadma.

But Gazans are not only at the mercy of the Israeli Civil Administration. Since only the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority can issue IDs and make additions to the population registry, it uses the process to pressure and punish its political rival, Hamas, which rules over Gaza.

“People look at me as if I am foreign, and the authorities governing Gaza and the West Bank don’t treat us as Palestinians who have rights,” said Rola Abu Obaid’s brother, Mohammed. “I believe it is their responsibility to pressure the Israeli government to issue IDs for us. I dream of traveling, but after witnessing the obstacles my sister had to face, I lost hope.”

A spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli military body responsible for administering the Israeli occupation and which controls Palestinians’ movement in and out of Gaza, sent the following response: “According to the [Oslo] interim agreement, the Palestinian Authority was authorized to manage the Palestinian population registry, while Israel merely holds a copy of the registry. On some affairs, changes may warrant an agreement from the Israeli side, and on other issues, sending a message suffices.”

Amjad Yaghi is a journalist from Gaza.