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‘Split in half’: Gaza mother's years-long wait to reunite with her children in West Bank

Rights groups say Israel's 'separation policy' is keeping apart dozens of families
Niveen Gharqoud has submitted five exit permit requests to Israeli authorities since 2018 in the hope of joining her husband and children (MEE/Mohammed A Alhajjar)
By Maha Hussaini in Gaza

Niveen Gharqoud has only seen one of her five children in the past four years. She has been cut off from the others since sending them to live with their father, roughly 100 kilometers away in Qalqilya, a city in the occupied West Bank.

Niveen and Ameer on a call to the rest of their family in the West Bank, March 2021 (Mohammed A. Alhajjar)
Niveen and Ameer can only interact with the rest of the family in the West Bank through the phone, March 2021 (Mohammed A. Alhajjar)

Gharqoud, 39, who lives with her parents and youngest son in the Juhr al-Deek village, in the central Gaza Strip, has submitted five separate exit permit requests to Israeli authorities since 2018 in the hope of joining her husband and children in the West Bank.

None have been approved.

“It has been four years since I last saw my children. I used to sleep with the five of them on one bed, and now I cannot see them except through a mobile phone screen,” Gharqoud told Middle East Eye.

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“It is painful to accept the idea that my four children are taking care of themselves without a mother, while their father is working most of the time."

Policy of separation

Residents of the besieged Gaza Strip need exit permits from the Israeli authorities to enter the occupied West Bank through the Israeli-controlled border at Erez, the only land crossing for people wanting to move between Gaza and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory.

In 2007, a year after it won legislative elections, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. Israel soon imposed a suffocating blockade on the coastal enclave, restricting the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, under what the Israeli government calls “the separation policy”.

According to the Israeli government, the policy aims to restrict travel between Gaza and the West Bank to avoid transferring “a human terrorist network” out of the Strip.

“Even if the Israeli government wants to reduce what it calls the transfer of terrorists into the occupied territory, its separation policy imposed on over two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is simply collective punishment that is prohibited under international humanitarian law,” Mohammed Emad, director of the legal department of the Stockholm-based advocacy group Skyline International for Human Rights, told MEE.

“Such restrictions are imposed arbitrarily on random civilians and are resulting in the separation of dozens of families.”

Families like the Gharqouds.

A family divided

Niveen married Sami Gharqoud in Gaza 18 years ago. He has been working various labourer jobs in Israel throughout their marriage.

“He used to move between Gaza and the West Bank,” Niveen said. “He worked there and used to come to visit me every now and then.

“He has not witnessed any of the births of our five children, and has never seen me pregnant except in photos and video calls,” Niveen told MEE.

“I used to go to the hospital with my mother, go through all the pain [of labour] alone, give birth and return home. He would visit us only after the delivery of each child, stay a couple of weeks then leave to the West Bank again.”

Niveen and Sami Gharqoud. March 2021 (Mohammed A. Alhajjar)
Niveen and Sami Gharqoud, March 2021 (MEE/Mohammed A Alhajjar)

But since the start of the ongoing blockade, Sami has only visited his family in Gaza once.

“Before the last war on Gaza [in 2014], I visited him in the West Bank, stayed for about six months, and got pregnant with my last child, Ameer,” said Niveen. This turned out to be the only time she could visit Sami.

“I then had to come back to Gaza, because the [Israeli authorities] only allowed me to take two of my four children with me to the West Bank. They intentionally did not allow me to take all four children. They wanted to force me to return to Gaza. So I was obliged to come back.”

'They [Israel] intentionally did not allow me to take all four children. They wanted to force me to return to Gaza'

- Niveen Gharqoud, Gaza 

Sami has never met his youngest child, Ameer, who is now six years old.

Niveen has been trying to rejoin her husband since the birth of their last child, in 2014, but Israeli authorities have not allowed her to travel to the West Bank.

She decided in 2016 to send her children to their father first, after her relatives and friends told her that this would help her get a permit to join them all later on.

“My father took my four children and travelled via the Rafah border [with Egypt] to Jordan. But he left them at the Allenby Bridge [that connects Jordan to the West Bank] because he could not cross - his ID states that he lives in Gaza, unlike my children and their father, whose IDs state that they live in the West Bank.

“Now I cannot send Ameer to join his four siblings. My eldest daughter, who is now 17, already shoulders the responsibility of her three brothers and takes care of them. She is still a child, but she is overwhelmed with all those responsibilities.”

Niveen’s four children in Qalqilya see their father barely once or twice a week due to his work, and spend the rest of the week alone. Whenever they need anything, the children call their mother in Gaza.

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“About two years ago, my daughter called me screaming,” Niveen Gharqoud recalled. “She said that boiling water had spilled onto her younger brother’s face while she was boiling some eggs for him to eat. I did not know what to do - I called their neighbour and begged her to go help them.”

“This was not the last time that such a thing happened,” Niveen continued. “A few days ago, Malak [the eldest sister] called me, scared. She told me that someone was trying to open their apartment door. I could not do anything but tell her to lock the door very well and turn the television on to make noise.”

“I have their neighbours’ numbers in cases of emergency because I am helpless here, while their father is absent most of the time.”

Gharqoud is still hopeful that she will make it to her children and husband in Qalqilya, but says that the Israeli authorities “do not even respond to my exit permit applications, they leave them pending”.

When an exit permit is denied or pending, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have to wait for three months until they can submit another request.

A long history of separations

In July 2003, the Israeli parliament passed a law that prevents family unification for Israeli citizens married to Palestinians from the occupied Palestinian territory.

According to Amnesty International, the law constitutes a “further step in Israel’s long-standing policy aimed at restricting the number of Palestinians who are allowed to live in Israel and in East Jerusalem.”

Israel has long been criticised for separating Palestinian children from their families, including those from the Gaza Strip who are referred for medical treatment in the occupied Palestinian territory.

'Since he saw his siblings leave, he has become so needy that he follows me everywhere - to make sure I don’t abandon him'

- Niveen Garqoud

Figures collected by NGO Physicians for Human Rights Israel revealed that more than half of the applications filed in 2018 by parents attempting to accompany their children for medical treatment in the occupied territory were rejected. 

In 2019, around a fifth of the children referred for medical treatment from the Gaza Strip travelled without their parents.

A position paper released by the Israeli human rights group Gisha in 2020 said that by isolating the Gaza Strip and imposing movement restrictions on Palestinians between cities and villages, Israel has “pursued a divide and conquer strategy” to disrupt the ability of Palestinians to maintain unified social and family life.

Israeli authorities didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Traumatic separation

The Garqouds' youngest son, Ameer, accompanied his grandfather and siblings to the Rafah border crossing when he was three years old. Once they arrived at the border, he realised that his closest brother, Muhammed, and three other siblings, were leaving without him. Unlike them, Ameer was too young to travel without a parent.

“When he came back home, he was so in shock that he fainted,” Niveen said. “Since then, he has been so scared of being left alone that he doesn't even go to school.

“A few months ago, I went to attend a relative’s wedding. When I left, he kept screaming and fainted, thinking that everyone was lying to him and that I had gone to the West Bank and left him behind.”

Fearing her son Ameer's anxiety might worsen, Gharqoud now teaches him at home. March 2021 (Mohammed A. Alhajjar)
Fearing her son Ameer's anxiety might worsen, Gharqoud now teaches him at home. March 2021 (MEE/Mohammed A Alhajjar)

To avoid leaving him alone at school, and fearing his anxiety might worsen, Gharqoud now teaches him at home.

“Since he saw his siblings leave, he has become so needy that he follows me everywhere - to make sure I don’t abandon him.”

‘Missing mum’s dishes’

"Your sister told me that you did not go to school the other day, why is that?" Niveen asked her 10-year-old child Muhammed during a video call.

"I woke up and looked for my pants and couldn’t find them, so I could not go," he answered.

"If he had a mother living with him, this would never happen," Niveen, sitting in her living room, told MEE.

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With Sami still in quarantine after testing positive for coronavirus, Niveen also made sure her children had eaten their lunch.

“We usually eat sandwiches or order food deliveries because we have nobody to cook for us. But Malak sometimes calls mum and asks for some food recipes to feed us,” Muhammed, 10, the Gharqouds’ fourth child, told MEE.

Niveen said that she avoids sending photos of family gatherings to her children so that they do not feel they are missing out, or crave “food they cannot have”.

“Malak cooks well,” said Muhammed, “but I am missing mum’s dishes, that only she can make this good.”

Malak, who celebrated her 17th birthday in February, has taken on her mother’s role: keeping an eye on her brothers’ studies and helping with their day-to-day needs.

“A few weeks ago, her 23-year-old neighbour asked for her hand in marriage,” said Niveen. “In the normal situation, I would never accept the idea of allowing my daughter to get married at this age. But since she has no one to take care of her, I want her to feel emotionally stable with someone she can rely on.

'What is so hard about allowing me and my six-year-old son to reunite with our family?'

- Niveen Gharqoud

“We initially agreed on her engagement, but Malak still refuses to proceed with it until I can join them and meet the man.”

Niveen says her children could easily come back to Gaza, but she refuses to bring them back to live away from their father. She is unsure if they would get a permit to leave again if they did return, and the trip, via Jordan and Egypt, is too expensive.

“My children are growing up and they need their father in their life. I am split in half; I want them here with me, but I also want them to live in a healthy environment with me and their father together,” she told MEE.

“What is so hard about allowing me and my six-year-old son to reunite with our family?”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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