Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Three of Sabreen’s daughters live only a two-hour drive away, but for the past eight years she has not been able to see them.
Like thousands of others, Sabreen’s family is divided between the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israeli policies mean that travel between the two is often impossible.
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“Can you imagine? My daughter gets married, or succeeds in her tawjihi [matriculation exams] and I’m not there?” Sabreen, who has five other daughters, told Al Jazeera from Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank.
“Every celebration for my daughters … I just spend it crying,” the 36-year-old said. “They also gave birth and I wasn’t there.”
The majority of Gaza’s two million Palestinians, particularly those under 29, who make up more than 70 percent of the population, have never left the besieged enclave.
In mid-June, Gaza marked its 15th year under a suffocating Israeli blockade that not only isolates it from the world, but also from the West Bank, where another 2.5 million Palestinians live.
The family’s separation began in 2014 when Sabreen and her husband, 47-year-old Nidal, applied for Israeli military permits for their family of 10, then based in Gaza, to leave the territory and visit relatives in Ramallah.
The couple and their five youngest daughters received a one-week family visit permit, but their three eldest did not.
The restrictions are part of what Israeli officials refer to as a “separation policy”, which has been tightened since the blockade of Gaza began in June 2007, after Hamas took control of the territory, and which Israel says are necessary for “political-security needs”.
Under this policy, which has been in place since 2000, most Palestinians in Gaza cannot move to, or even visit, the occupied West Bank, unless there are “exceptional and humanitarian cases” – or unless they have business permits or it is a time when Israel has eased restrictions as part of political “gestures of goodwill”.
Seeing the occupied West Bank for the first time, where the standard of life is significantly better than in Gaza, Sabreen and Nidal were stunned.
“When we arrived [to Ramallah] and my husband saw that there were work opportunities, salaries, that life was very different from Gaza, he said we’re going to stay here,” said Sabreen.
The family applied to change their address to the West Bank upon arriving, but eight years later, like the majority of applicants, they have not received a response. That makes them “illegal” residents in their homeland under Israeli military law, and they have been unable to bring their daughters who remained in Gaza, or visit them.
Israel’s policies of separation between different parts of the Palestinian population, including, but not limited to, those in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, have been described by local and international human rights groups as tactics of fragmentation and domination, aimed at ensuring Jewish demographic control over Palestinians.
It is estimated that tens of thousands of Palestinian couples and families across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories are forced to live apart.
“Israel has pursued a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy … and engages in population control by encouraging, coercing and preventing movement in ways that meet its demographic goals,” the Israeli NGO Gisha said in a 2020 report.
The policy, another report says, “severs the fabric of life that exists between Gaza and the West Bank, de facto erasing Palestinians’ right to family life while splitting families apart, separating partners, parents from children, and grandparents from grandchildren.”
Sabreen says “I feel so much frustration, I keep asking: What is this life we’re living? What is Gaza from the West Bank, two hours?”
“I could be with my daughter in just two hours, and it’s been eight years that we haven’t been able to see each other.”
‘We live in a prison’
The occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem are recognised internationally as a single territorial unit meant to form a Palestinian state under the 1993 Oslo Accords.
However, in 2000, Israel, which controls the Palestinian population registry, stopped processing applications for address changes from Gaza to the West Bank. Those who are present in the occupied West Bank without an Israeli military permit are rendered criminal ‘‘infiltrators’ in their own homes.
In 2011, the number of Palestinians registered as Gaza residents who were living in the West Bank without military permits stood at around 20,000.
Official data shows that between 2009 and 2017, Israel approved only five relocation applications after the individuals filed High Court petitions. Four of the five cases involved children who had no relatives to look after them in Gaza, according to Gisha.
For Sabreen, who works as a chef at a Palestinian medical company, returning to life under the blockade in Gaza is not an option.
“I have a family. If I go back to Gaza, I will go hungry,” she said.
“With the 2,000 shekels [$570] I make, I keep my girls afloat in Gaza,” Sabreen said, adding that her husband works in construction.
Nearly 80 percent of Palestinians in Gaza rely on humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.
More than half of Gaza’s just over two million residents live in poverty, and nearly 80 percent of the youth are unemployed, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on the 15th anniversary of the blockade.
“Gaza’s situation is very difficult. People just cry. The youth are in the streets, there’s no work,” said Sabreen.
While the family is able to make ends meet in the occupied West Bank, moving to Ramallah meant going from one prison to a larger one.
Residents of Gaza who are stopped at any of the hundreds of Israeli military checkpoints in the occupied West Bank risk being forcibly deported back. This forces any Palestinian living there “illegally” to limit their movement to the boundaries of the city they live in.
“My family and I stay inside Ramallah – we don’t leave. I see my friends, they come and go, but I am afraid to go even to the town of Silwad, 20 minutes away from Ramallah, where one of my friends lives,” said Sabreen.
“There are Israelis there, settlements, a military base – I’m afraid. We live in a prison.”
Israeli policies, rights groups say, aim to ensure maximum land with the minimum number of Palestinians possible in the occupied West Bank, where Israel has de facto annexed large chunks of territory.
The policies aim to “limit the number of Palestinians living in the West Bank,” Miriam Marmur, public advocacy director at Gisha, told Al Jazeera, adding that they “serve Israel’s demographic goals and the goal of maintaining control and deepening its hold over the West Bank.”
Fadel Almzainy, the director of the economic, social and cultural rights unit at the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), said the policies have multiple aims. He estimated that there are thousands of nuclear families split between the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
“On a political level, the goal is to prevent the formation of a Palestinian state,” Almzainy told Al Jazeera.
“From a human rights perspective, what Israel is doing is collective punishment, the crime of collective punishment which is unacceptable on an international level,” he added.
Almzainy said the international community “is complicit with Israel” by not confronting it and forcing it to end such policies.
“The siege on Gaza must be lifted immediately,” he said, “and all basic essentials for residents must be allowed in”.