After a decade of Israeli siege: When will Gazans be free?
GAZA CITY – Bayan Awawdah, 25, tries her best to avoid answering the constant questions of her five-year-old daughter, Shaima. “Why can't I see my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts during Eid holiday like the rest of the children?” the little one says.
Pretending not to hear her questions because she does not know what to tell her, she keeps busy with house chores.
Awawdah, from Hebron, came to the Gaza Strip for the first time in 2011 to attend the wedding of her uncle, who is an ex-prisoner.
During her visit, she attended an event held for Palestinian prisoners who had been released from Israeli jails. While there, she met her husband Bassam Abu Snaine, a Palestinian activist who is also a former prisoner.
After seeing Awawdah, he proposed and they were married one month later.
'Travel is literally a tragedy for me and for my children'
- Bayan Awawdah
"Deciding to live in Gaza was a great risk for me, for I have to always think of my family whom I cannot reach so easily," Awawdah says while swaying her child.
After studying English and French at Hebron University for one year, she resumed her studies in the English literature department of the Islamic University of Gaza.
To be beside her husband, Awawdah was always ready to undertake the struggles inside the strip. Nursing and raising her three children far away from the comfort of her family is difficult for the young mother. Without the support of her family, she must stand on her own two feet.
According to a 2014 report by the Israeli rights groups B'Tselem and Hamoked, Israeli authorities use a very strict and limiting approach when it comes to Gaza residents visiting their relatives and loved ones living in the West Bank.
The report states that Israeli authorities do not usually give permits unless the requests include visiting a seriously ill first-degree relative at death's door or who has been in prolonged hospitalisation, and attending a wedding or funeral of a first-degree relative.
According to a report by the Israeli human rights group Gisha, the number of exits through Erez Crossing fell by 55 percent in the first half of 2017 in comparison with the same period in 2016.
Since 2013, after the military coup that removed president Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian-controlled Rafah Crossing has been mostly closed.
Awawdah was fortunate to have delivered her three children in Hebron, where there is better medical care and where her children were able to obtain West Bank identification papers.
"When I found out I was pregnant, I registered my name at the Rafah Crossing so that I could leave at any time the borders opened," she says.
"The West Bank IDs have more privileges than the Gaza IDs because they do not need Jordanian non-objection clearances to be permitted to walk on Jordanian lands,” she explains.
When she was able to exit the strip, she travelled through the Rafah border crossing, as Erez has never been an option for her.
"Getting out from Erez is not possible either for the ex-prisoners or for their families," she says.
But the journey through Egypt and Jordan to get to Hebron was never an easy one for Awawdah and her children. A trip that could take a maximum of around one hour by car, takes Awawdah three days because it is filled with checkpoints. "Me and my luggage get searched by more than three authorities," she says.
Awawdah has only been to Hebron three times in six years to visit her family, despite it being only around 60km away from Gaza.
For Awawdah, the solution is to suppress her feelings of homesickness and nostalgia and go about her life.
“Travel is very difficult, thus, I should control all my feelings. Travel is literally a tragedy for me and for my children," she says.
Building a future
After nearly a decade of isolation from the outside world, young Gaza residents such as Amany al-Maqdama find their lives coated by doubt, insecurity and fear, as they try to build their futures.
In December 2016, Maqadma was accepted to participate in UNILEAD 2017, a leadership and management training programme, at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. The programme brings successful professionals at higher education institutions together to address educational challenges.
‘Education and knowledge know no borders’
- Amany al-Maqdama
The 33-year-old was overwhelmed with joy when she first heard the news, and quickly told her husband, family and colleagues.
Yet she was quickly disappointed and her ambitions defeated when she never made it there.
There is no functioning airport in Gaza, so its residents must leave the strip in order to travel internationally, and without permission from the authorities, it is not possible.
With help from the Islamic University of Gaza and a letter of support written on her behalf, Maqadma secured a multi-entry Schengen visa. After waiting for one month, she obtained her visa and simultaneously applied for passage through both the Erez Crossing and Rafah Crossing, as she did not want to have any regrets in case one application were to be rejected.
But she was not given permission to cross the border, due to security concerns.
Maqadma already knew what it was like to miss attending and speaking in seminars abroad.
In November 2016, Maqadma was supposed to take part in the BERC seminar in Sweden, which is supported by the European Commission, but she was denied entry through the border as well.
Yet this did not stop her from attending sessions via Skype whenever she could, considering the long power cuts that plague the strip.
"I kept telling myself that Skype meetings are better than nothing. Yet I cannot do this now as this nine-month-journey [for UNILEAD 2017] requires full involvement, for it has tour visits and other external workshops," sighs Maqadma.
'I kept telling myself that Skype meetings are better than nothing'
- Amany al-Maqdama
When asked if she would ever apply to other international programmes, she did not hesitate to show her enthusiasm.
“Education and knowledge know no borders, and we should contribute in education regardless of our inability to freely travel," she says.
The ambitious Maqadma is among the nearly two million Palestinians living inside the impoverished strip, where Israel has imposed a blockade after Hamas took over the coastal enclave in 2007.
Manal Hassan is the executive director of al-Awda, a leading factory in Deir al-Balah in the middle of the strip. It specialises in making biscuits, ice cream and krembos (a chocolate-marshmallow treat).
Many Gazans often approach her asking for jobs, while her employees have repeatedly asked for a raise in their salaries. For Hassan it is very difficult to turn them away, but she has no other choice.
“Every day, new people come and knock on the door of the company to ask for jobs. They are engineers, technicians, drivers; however, I always apologise for I do not know from where to bring them work,” says Hassan.
Since its founding in 1977, the factory had managed to expand to 400 employees who used to work 24 hours a day over the course of three shifts before the siege.
'I cannot ask the current workers to stay at home, for all of them have families and responsibilities'
- Manal Hassan, executive director, al-Awda factory
Prior to 2006, the company successfully managed to sell 60 percent of its production in the West Bank, five percent in Israel and 35 percent inside Gaza. Additionally, they were reaching other markets in the MENA region.
However, this success did not last long. On 30 May 2007, the factory's last truck left to make its way to the West Bank. As a result, their production has been reduced to 35 percent, according to Hassan.
This has affected employment, as it is not possible to hire new recruits.
Instead of working six days a week, employees work about two days a week. This makes a total of around 10 days per month for each employee.
In the past, an average employee would earn around 1500 NIS ($423), but with the reduction of working days, wages have been reduced to less than half or a third of that.
“I cannot ask the current workers to stay at home, for all of them have families and responsibilities. That is why I can reduce the working days instead,” she clarifies.
After the Israeli aggression against the strip in 2014, the factory was forced to reduce its operating production lines from five to only one, as the rest were severely damaged from the war. With restrictions imposed on importing materials essential for maintenance such as pipelines, the damage has been difficult to repair.
"If there were no siege, there would be more production lines, more operations, more exports, more profits, securing more families, and helping more graduates, and creating more opportunities," Hassan says.