In Sweden, where I was born, all that’s needed to travel is a Google search for hotel deals, a few clicks to book a flight, and occasionally a visa application. Yet in the Gaza Strip, where my parents were born and I live now, being able to travel is akin to achieving a miracle. I know because I have spent more than a year trying to leave.
My reasons for travelling seemed compelling to me: security training in London mandated by the organization that employs me, and a visit to Sweden to see my husband and parents.
But travel into and out of Gaza is reserved for exceptional cases. Israel controls Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters and doesn’t allow Gaza to operate an airport or seaport. Israel says travel through the Erez crossing, the only crossing linking Gaza to Israel and the West Bank, is inherently dangerous and limits it to “exceptional humanitarian cases,” a category that, according to the Israeli military, includes medical patients and their companions, merchants buying large quantities of goods, and family visits for marriage, death, or grave illness. These restrictions are imposed on everyone, even if the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet, makes no claim that they pose a security risk. We ordinary people pay the price.
These restrictions redirect anyone who wants to travel abroad to the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border. But since the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the military-backed government of Egypt has mostly shuttered Rafah. The crossing opened for a total of 32 days last year, during which access was granted to fewer than 30,000 people - just 8 percent of the number who crossed in 2013. Travel is limited to medical patients, Egyptian passport-holders, students, and foreign citizens and residents. At least 25,000 remain on waiting lists, but most Palestinian residents of Gaza don’t even meet the criteria to get on the waiting list.
I tried to leave Gaza three times last year, in anticipation of a rare opening of the Rafah crossing. I couldn’t even get close to the border area, though my Swedish passport means I’m eligible to try.
The routine was the same each time word came that Egypt would open the border. To register for the waiting list, I headed to the Abu Khadra complex in Gaza City, run by Gaza’s Hamas-led administration. I spent five hours standing outside getting sunburned or freezing, depending on the season.
Those five hours are not enough time to register the masses who show up. There is shoving, yelling, and fighting. Behind barred windows, clerks work by generator due to power cuts that average 12 hours a day. Inevitably the generator fails, or the computer freezes, or the clerks, overwhelmed by the mobs of people pressing against the bars, take a break. These lost minutes can mean the difference between getting on the waiting list or not.
Tensions runs high, people start crying, and then it is over. You either go home bruised and sweaty, or bruised, sweaty and holding a piece of paper with your name and number. But only a fraction of those lucky enough to register actually get to travel in the few days that Egypt opens the crossing. Priority is given to medical patients, those with connections and those who pay bribes.
The travel line at Abu Khadra is a microcosm of the physical reality of the Gaza Strip: 1.8 million people crammed into 365 square kilometers [141 square miles].
As part of my work, I document the growing phenomenon of young people, in some cases children, approaching the fence between Gaza and Israel to demonstrate. They look at the fields and valleys beyond Gaza, toward cities from which their grandparents fled or were expelled and toward the West Bank, which forms the other part of the Palestinian territory yet has been mostly off-limits since 2000. They throw stones, try to tear down the fence, or simply shout their anger and frustration. Israeli forces, which declare the border area a “no go zone,” have killed 21, including two children, and injured more than 1,200 since October.
The motives and political views of young people in Gaza may vary, but I sense that many of us share a feeling of being caged in, able to glimpse beyond the barbed wire a world filled with possibilities that is beyond reach.
I am more fortunate than many in Gaza. I belong to the professional middle-class, and I have a foreign passport. Yet I share the feeling of so many young people here, that life is passing by, taking with it opportunities for advancement, professional and personal, while they – we – are trapped.
Young people in Gaza want to travel. They want opportunities. They want freedom of movement.
So do I.
Deema El Ghoul is a research assistant at Human Rights Watch.