Since returning to the Palestinian territory 25 years ago, Khader Al-Najjar has been unable to leave the Gaza Strip, not even to seek medical care for a spine disease or to say goodbye to his mother, who died in Jordan last year.
The reason for this was because Israel refused to allow the Palestinian Authority to grant him a national ID. Even before Israel and Egypt enforced a harsh embargo when the Hamas armed organization took control of Gaza in 2007, it was practically difficult to escape.
In recent months, Israel has awarded residence for thousands of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza in an effort to defuse tensions while retaining its decades-long control over the lives of over 4.5 million Palestinians.
“My pain was enormous,” Al-Najjar, a 62-year-old carpenter, said, describing a “nightmarish” succession of fruitless efforts to evacuate the tiny coastal area. He is now one of over 3,200 Palestinians in Gaza who will receive a national ID card in the near future.
This will make travel simpler, but he will still have to overcome a tangle of bureaucratic roadblocks related to the blockade. Israel claims the limitations are necessary to keep Hamas in check, but rights organizations see the siege as collective punishment for Gaza’s 2 million Palestinians.
In 2005, Israel evacuated its soldiers and settlers from Gaza, and two years later, Hamas pushed out PA forces. However, Israel retains control of the Palestinian population registration, a computerized database of names and identification numbers.
The Palestinians, as well as the majority of the international world, consider Gaza to be part of the occupied territory.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians are reported to lack legal status, making it nearly impossible for them to pass international borders or the Israeli military checkpoints placed around the West Bank. The majority are people who returned to the region after residing abroad, and Israel refused to register them.
According to Ahed Hamada, a top official in the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, there are more than 30,000 undocumented citizens in Gaza alone.
Following recent conversations between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel decided to issue residence to around 13,500 Palestinians as a goodwill gesture. It is the first batch after more than a decade of peace efforts had failed.
Israel’s current administration, which is made up of pro and anti-Palestinian parties, has ruled out substantial steps to end the conflict, but has stated that it wants to improve living conditions in the territories. It also wishes to support the increasingly unpopular Palestinian Authority (PA), which controls sections of the West Bank and coordinates security with Israel.
Gantz promised to continue implementing “confidence-building initiatives in economic and civilian spheres” in a statement issued after meeting with Abbas.
Palestinians in Gaza cheered and danced as they waited in line to get letters from the Palestinian Office’s civil affairs authority allowing them to apply for national ID cards and passports. Some cried happy tears, while others were heartbroken after realizing they were not on the list.
Hamas, which has fought four wars with Israel, the most recent in May, has slammed the Abbas-Gantz meetings, claiming they “deviate from the national spirit” of the Palestinian people.
The problem of residence stretches back to 1967, when Israel took east Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza in a battle with surrounding Arab states. The Palestinians want the three regions to be the foundation of their future state, alongside Israel.
Three months after the conflict, Israel conducted a census, only registering Palestinians who were physically present. Later, Israel issued visitor permits to those who did not have legal status in order for them to visit relatives. Many Palestinians returned following the Oslo agreements in the 1990s, anticipating that their status would be settled in a final peace agreement that never came to fruition. After the commencement of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israeli control, in 2000, family unifications virtually came to a halt.
Palestinians are also mainly barred from relocating from Gaza to the West Bank. The most recent permits provide West Bank residence to around 2,800 Palestinians who migrated there from Gaza before to 2007 and were facing expulsion.
According to Gisha, an Israeli rights organization that works for freedom of movement, by framing the expansion of residence as a goodwill gesture, Israel is just repackaging something that it is required to do under international law.
“In some respects, this is a start, but this whole situation has been caused by Israel’s severe policies toward Palestinians under occupation,” said Miriam Marmur, a Gisha spokesperson. “Of course, there are thousands who remain without status and millions who are still subject to the permission regime.”
Al-Najjar, who resided in Jordan before relocating to Gaza, was among the fortunate. He, his wife, and their four children were all awarded residence this month. “Thank God, now that we have passports, I can go and visit my sisters and relatives (in Jordan),” he remarked.
Foreign nationals, usually Palestinians born in other countries, who married Palestinians in the territories have faced a similar situation.
Tareq Hamada said he is still waiting for his wife, a Palestinian who migrated to Gaza from Kuwait in 1997, to be granted residence. He claimed she had hoped to make the Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah her entire life but had been unable to do so.
Fayeq Al-Najjar, a distant relative of Khader, attempted to return to Gaza from Libya in 2008 but was denied entry by Egypt due to a lack of a national ID. Instead, he got in through the Egyptian border smuggling tunnels, which have since been mostly dismantled. He applied for an ID but is unsure if he will be granted one.
“I have sisters in Egypt whom I would like to see,” he explained. “I’m 60 years old; when will I be able to acquire an ID?” When I’m on the verge of death?”