Palestinian unity undermined by geographic divide

By Jon Donnison
BBC News, Gaza City

Image caption,
The sons of Issa al-Haddar cannot leave Gaza to visit him in the West Bank

The two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, are still trying to thrash out the details of a unity deal to end five years of bitter division.

Since 2007, Hamas has been in power in Gaza with Fatah left to govern the West Bank. So, Palestinians face not only a political divide, but also a geographical one.

"I just want to see my father. We only have photos and phone calls. It's hard to remember what he's like," says 13-year-old, Uday al-Haddar.

Sitting alongside his mother, Alya, and two younger brothers, Uday shows me the family album.

"If my husband were dead, I'd know for certain I'd not see him," says Alya. "But now I am in limbo. I don't know whether I will see him or not."

Alya and her three boys live in Gaza. Her husband, Issa, was born in the West Bank and is now back there. They have not seen each other for more than two years.

Alya says Issa, who works in the Fatah Security Forces, had to leave Gaza in 2009 after being arrested several times by Hamas. If he were to return, she fears he could be arrested again.

Alya says she applied for Israeli permission to go with her children to live with her husband in the West Bank, but this was refused.

Even if Palestinian leaders meeting in Cairo can resolve their political differences, the Haddar family's case illustrates how the physical separation of the Palestinian people could prove harder to overcome.

Near yet far

At its narrowest point the distance between the West Bank and Gaza is just 40km. But that short stretch of land is across Israel, and Palestinians cannot pass without Israeli permission.

Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, Israel has severely restricted the movement of Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank.

Image caption,
Israel limits Palestinian exits from Gaza via Erez

The Palestinian population registry is controlled by Israel, which has occupied the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since 1967.

A Palestinian with an ID card that registers them as living in Gaza cannot easily move to the West Bank.

"The separation between Gaza and the West Bank has only deepened over the past many years as part of a policy by the Israeli government to separate the two," says Sari Bashi from the Israeli human rights group, Gisha, that campaigns for greater freedom of movement for Palestinians to and from Gaza.

"The communities are divided, families are divided, and economic ties are being dismantled," she adds.

Image caption,
A Gaza sign points to cities that cannot be reached easily by Palestinians

According to Gisha, political reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas would be a welcome step but would have little impact on Palestinians' ability to move.

"Certainly it would be helpful but there's a reality, Israel controls the borders and only Israel can decide to allow people to travel back and forth," Ms Bashi says.

Security concerns

The Israeli government says it allowed around 38,000 exits for Palestinians to travel out of Gaza in 2011.

Many were for people seeking medical treatment and some will have travelled several times over 12 months.

That compares to more than half a million exits a month before the year 2000.

Israel says it is worried about Palestinians leaving Gaza to carry out attacks against it, as has happened in the past.

Israeli officials also point to the fact that Egypt has now eased restrictions at its border with Gaza allowing Palestinians to travel.

Egypt allows between 500 and 700 people to cross every day through the Rafah crossing. But most Gazans are not particularly interested in going to Egypt. They have far more reason to want to go to the West Bank where they have relatives, friends and business contacts.

Even travelling to the West Bank via Egypt is not easy. It typically involves a 6-hour drive to Cairo, a 500-km flight to the Jordanian capital, Amman, and then an hour-long drive to the border with the West Bank.

But Israel also controls that border and it is unlikely that a Palestinian from Gaza would be given permission to cross.

Degrees of separation

Many Palestinians are sceptical about political reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas despite President Mahmoud Abbas's announcement last month that he would head a unity government to prepare for elections later this year.

There have been many false dawns leading to frustration and anger among ordinary people.

By no means is everyone in Gaza, a Hamas supporter. While in the West Bank, not everyone backs Fatah. Many people consider themselves apolitical and are disillusioned with both factions.

But Palestinians also feel Israel's forced separation of Gaza and the West Bank has made reconciliation harder to achieve.

Israel, which regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation, is strongly opposed to the Palestinian unity deal.

"There are divisions between Fatah and Hamas but Israel is not innocent in this," says Andaleeb Adwan, a 45-year-old, mother of four in Gaza. "Israel has created the hole between Gaza and the West Bank."

The separation has had a direct impact on Andaleeb.

Image caption,
Gaza Master's student, Andaleeb Adwan, has been unable to make a class in 12 years

In 1999, she started a Master's Degree in Gender Studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank. But since 2000, she says Israel has refused her a permit to attend any classes.

"I wanted to use my degree to be a teacher but now who knows when I will finish my studies? Maybe when I am 50," she says.

Andaleeb is not hopeful that Palestinian reconciliation can be achieved nor whether it will change her daily life.

I ask her if one day she can imagine going to do her shopping in the West Bank in the morning, before attending her classes in the afternoon and then heading home to Gaza in the evening for dinner with her family.

"It's a dream," she smiles. "But I am not optimistic."

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