I am under a lockdown, but not because of the coronavirus

Israel has banned me from leaving the West Bank and has refused to tell me why.

Amnesty Palestine campaign photo
Laith Abu Zeyad has been banned from leaving the West Bank since September 2019 [courtesy of Laith Abu Zeyad]

In the last few months, due to the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people around the world experienced for the first time the difficulties and frustrations of living under state-imposed rules and regulations that restrict their freedom of movement. 

For me, however, the lockdown was nothing new. I am used to living under shifting sets of rules which define where I can go and what I can do. Why? Because I am a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation.

I grew up in the occupied West Bank, so checkpoints and curfews have always been a part of my daily life. Last year, Israel made my prison even smaller by barring me from leaving the West Bank for any reason. 

The Israeli authorities refused to give any justification for the ban beyond “security reasons”, and denied that the move has anything to do with my job as Amnesty International’s Israel/Palestine Campaigner. 

I learned about the ban in the worst possible way, when I was denied a permit to accompany my mother to her chemotherapy appointments in occupied East Jerusalem last September. While I was frantically reapplying for permits, my mother was getting sicker. I was only a 15-minute drive away from the hospital, but my desperation to be with my mother was no match for Israel’s rigid enforcement of the permit system. My mother passed away on Christmas Eve before I could ever see her again. 

The “security reasons” which caused me so much heartbreak have not been revealed to me to this day. All I know is that I am under a full travel ban, which means I cannot travel outside the West Bank, even to my office, which is in East Jerusalem. The COVID-19 lockdown, which has been in place since March 22, therefore, is nothing but another bar on the cage I have long been living in.

I will never get back that precious opportunity to be with my mother in her last days, but I can do right by her by challenging this injustice. On March 25, 2020, Amnesty International submitted a petition to the Jerusalem District Court seeking to have my travel ban lifted, and a hearing will take place on May 31. It will be held in my absence, of course – and since I am not allowed to know the details of the allegations against me, my lawyer and I cannot meaningfully challenge them. 

Still, in the past, travel bans against Palestinians have crumbled under legal scrutiny. Between 2015 and 2019, Israeli rights organisation HaMoked filed 797 travel ban appeals, and succeeded in getting 65 percent of these lifted. Looking at this outcome, it is reasonable to assume that most of these bans were completely unjustified in the first place.

Israel has a track record of using arbitrary travel bans against human rights defenders, including Omar Barghouti, a cofounder of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, and Shawan Jabarin, director of Palestinian rights organisation al-Haq. In Shawan Jabarin’s case, as in mine, no justification was given beyond “security concerns”.

What does that mean? If I am such a grave security risk you would expect the Israeli authorities to have questions for me. But I have never been questioned about any security issues, not even at a border crossing, just turned away. I have never been given the chance to challenge the decision or defend myself. How is this fair?

It is hard to explain just how tightly Israel controls the movements of Palestinians. 

Two million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip have been under a brutal military blockade for more than 12 years, making it the biggest open-air prison in the world. We, in the West Bank, cannot travel internationally through Israel’s seaports or the Ben Gurion International Airport – our only option is to travel into Jordan using the Allenby/King Hussein border crossing. Many people do not realise that they are banned from travelling until they arrive at the crossing. Last October, for example, I wanted to attend my aunt’s funeral in Jordan; when I arrived at the crossing with my father and my suitcase, I was denied entry. 

There are so many stories like this. The COVID-19 lockdown has given people the world over a glimpse into the Palestinian experience – the sadness of being separated from loved ones, the boredom of confinement, the fear and the sense of isolation. While coronavirus lockdowns were enacted to protect populations from a deadly virus, Israel’s lockdown deprives Palestinians of freedom of movement as a form of collective punishment.

Like so many people around the world, I hope that I will soon be able to return to my office, see my friends and family in other cities, and experience the excitement of travelling somewhere new. After 72 years of displacement and injustice, Palestinians want and deserve the same rights and freedoms as everybody else.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.