Sunday, January 17, 2021

Gazans only allowed into West Bank if relative is “dead, dying or getting married”

June 30, 2014
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Life under Occupation]
Tags: [Gaza] [Gaza Blockade] [freedom of movement] [family reunification] [artist] [culture]

A detail of Shareef Sarhan's painting that is exhibited at the Franco-German cultural center in Ramallah.

Because of strict Israeli travel restrictions, none of the members of the Gazan modern art collecitve Shababik could attend the opening of their exhibition in Ramallah. Even for relatives divided between the West Bank and the Gaza strip, family reunions are a rare luxury.

“The space around us is limited, the ideas in us are unlimited.”

This is how Shareef Sarhan, Majed Shala, and Basil Al Maquosi from the art collective Shababik present themselves. On Wednesday night, their exhibition “Tales of the city” opened in Ramallah, featuring paintings, digital art, and Arabic calligraphy.

The artworks give a rare insight for Palestinians in the West Bank into the experience and emotions of artists from the Gaza Strip. Despite the fact that the Oslo Accords stipulate the Palestinian territories constitute one unified entity, Israel severely restricts movement between the two areas, making even cultural exchange difficult.

Traveling from Gaza to the West Bank is especially troublesome, which is why the three artists could only be present at the exhibition opening through a videoconference.

Video art easy to export abroad

The exhibition is currently being hosted by the Franco-German culture institute in Ramallah. According to Shareef Sarhan, one of the artists involved in the project, this kind of foreign support is vital for Gazan artists, who receive no funding from Palestinian authorities. Even the local people are not interested in art, he says.

“It’s not their priority in life,” Sarhan said during a Skype interview with Palestine Monitor. The connection was cut several times due to power shortage in the besieged strip. “Usually only other cultural people come to the exhibition openings.”

Exchange with foreign artists has sometimes renewed the cultural scene completely. About ten years ago, a Parisian photographer introduced video art to his colleagues in Gaza, who were more used to painting and drawing. For them, photos had only served as a tool for documentation.

“It is very difficult to exit Gaza with a painting. But videos and photos can be easily sent to exhibitions outside,” Sarhan said.

Under blockade, even finding paint is a challenge

In 2007, Israel further tightened its limitation on movement into and out of the Gaza Strip, following Hamas' take over of the costal enclave. Although Israel had already controlled the strip's land crossings, air and seaspace, these increased restrictions significantly worsened Gaza's import and export activity. For artists like Sarhan, this means a serious lack of materials, like paint or paper to print photographs.

Although studying art is possible at the Al-Aqsa University, the only options are to become either an art teacher or an interior designer. The department of visual arts has been closed down, as there are not enough jobs within the Gaza Strip to work as an artist only.

Searching for education elsewhere is challenging, as Gazans are not allowed to attend universities in the West Bank, even if they offered programs unavailable in Gaza. Studying abroad is possible, but only under certain conditions.

“I wish that one day I could live from making art; that I could just go to my studio and work there the whole day,” Sarhan said. For now, he tries to make ends meet by teaching graphic design and working as a professional photographer for UNRWA, the United Nations Work and Relief Agency for Palestine refugees.

Only superstars can change residency status easily

Sarhan and his colleagues are a case in point of the various limitations that Israel has placed on the movement of Palestinians. Very few cultural or sports stars are allowed to travel from Gaza to the West Bank – members of the Palestinian national soccer team from Gaza, however, are always eligible to request permits..

“There are various international bodies which have influence on Israel’s criteria for travel,” said Tania Hary, the deputy director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO working for freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially Gazans.

Other athletes are less fortunate. Last April, Israeli High Court banned a Gazan runner Nader Al-Masri from participating in the second annual Palestine marathon organized in Bethlehem. Although the Palestinian Authority had invited Al-Masri to the event, the court argued that the Israeli authorities have the right to evaluate invitations on an individual basis, depending on Israel’s relations with PA at that moment.

Muhammed Assaf, winner of the Arab Idol in 2013, is one of the few exceptions to the rule. Born and raised in Gaza, he was allowed to move to the West Bank after becoming world-famous at the song contest.

“You basically have to be a superstar to change your residency status so easily,” Hary said.

Permit delays make people miss weddings and funerals

Limiting the freedom of movement is an Israeli attempt to break family and economic ties between Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank, according to Gisha. Only 2% of the amount of goods that used to exit from Gaza are now exiting mainly because Israel denies access for Gaza-made goods to their traditional markets in Israel and the West Bank.

Similarly, several civil society organizations that used to work in both Palestinian territories have now been obliged to create two separate entities.

According to Hary, most people exiting Gaza are medical patients and their companions and senior businesspeople. Family visits account for less than a third of travel.. A poll conducted by Gisha at the end of 2013 showed that more than one in every four Gazans has relatives in the West Bank. Yet few are eligible to apply for a travel permit as Israeli authorities only allow visits to first-degree relatives, and even then, visits are permitted according to strict criteria.

“Sorry to be so crass, but the first-degree relative you want to visit has to be dead, dying, or getting married,” Hary said. “Sometimes there are disputes about whether the person is ill enough to justify a relative’s visit. It’s problematic that the army is charged with making these kinds of judgments.”

Many times permits are given with a delay, making people miss the wedding or come in time only for the mourning rituals after the funeral.

Clashes mean more restrictions

Restrictions on movement have varied over the years depending on the political situation. After international criticism on the deadly Israeli raid of a Turkish flotilla, which was meant to deliver aid to Gaza in 2010, senior merchants were permitted to travel from Gaza to business meetings.

Other escalations of violence, however, have often resulted in increased restrictions, at least for certain periods of time. For instance, 15 June and 16 June – three days after the kidnapping of Israeli teenagers in the West Bank – the crossing point Kerem Shalom was closed for all goods except for fuels and export of goods abroad. During 20-25 June, the Erez crossing was open only to patients and foreigners.

Since the fall of the Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi, the new Egyptian regime has taken suppressive measures against the Hamas-dominated government in Gaza, including closing down hundreds of smuggling tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Sinai.

“In terms of access, the situation today resembles the earliest days of the closure of Gaza in 2007-2008,” Hary said.

She added that politics should not have such a huge influence on civilians. “As the occupying power, Israel has an obligation to allow normal life in Gaza,” the deputy director said.

Family separation hurts the most

Only the Israeli government can improve the situation, believes Hary. “They are the ones holding the keys. And they are the ones setting the criteria as well,” she said.

The human rights defender is skeptical of significant change happening anytime soon but believes that it’s in Israel’s interest to do everything in its power to allow Palestinians in Gaza to thrive, not just survive.

Meanwhile, people like Sarhan have to keep filing applications to see the other part of their homeland. Thanks to his work at UNRWA, the artist had a travel permit, but that expired about two weeks ago.

“I should get a new permit in September, which means I could visit the exhibition in Jerusalem and Nablus. But you never know what’s going to happen,” Sarhan said.

Gisha maintains that limiting freedom of movement affects all other rights as well, such as access to education, jobs, and better healthcare.

“But being separated from one’s family hurts the most,” Hary said. “Polls have shown that the factional split is consistently cited by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as being one of the most important issues facing Palestinian society. No matter what the political situation, solutions can be found to allow people and goods to move.” 

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