How are you spending Valentine's Day this year?
Today, as you're planning a surprise for your loved one or helping your child make cards and candies to take to school, I want you to stop for a moment. While flying red hearts are popping from every corner, while flower stores are hiring extra hands -- let us pause for just a moment for a short trip to another place where Valentine's Day is not so merry.
In this place, thousands of people cannot see their loved ones in person, and even sending a bouquet of flowers to a sweetheart is not possible.
This place is called Gaza.
Since 2000, Israeli policies have banned Palestinians from traveling between Gaza and the West Bank. Though it may not seem like it in recent years, Gaza and the West Bank are two parts of the same territorial land of the Palestinians and, as might be expected, there are strong family ties between those two parts. Many Palestinian families have relatives in both the West Bank and Gaza, and until crossing was prohibited, hundreds of Palestinians relocated between the two areas to marry their loved ones.
But for the last 14 years, Israel has banned all travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, except in very few exceptional humanitarian cases involving serious illness, death, or a wedding, for first-degree relatives only. Even then, not all requests are granted, and some -- like many requests to attend a funeral or visit a sick relative -- are granted too late to be relevant.
Because it's Valentine's Day, I want to talk about love. This policy is preventing loved ones from being together. Marriage is not considered a humanitarian circumstance worthy of a permit to cross between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Moreover, as a rule, Israel does not allow Palestinians to update the address on their identity documents from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. It may be difficult to imagine that your registered address could separate you from your family. But for many Palestinians, this is exactly what happens.
When Issa Missak was 37 years old, he fell in love with a young woman from Bethlehem. The couple got engaged, and because Issa lived in Gaza and his fiancé in the West Bank, they planned their marriage through emails, phone calls and Skype. When the wedding came closer, Issa applied for a permit from the Israeli military for his sister and himself to travel to the West Bank. The military's response came back: his sister was approved for a permit; Issa was not. Issa's fiancé applied for a permit to go to Gaza, but she, too, was not approved. You can read Issa's story, in his own words, here.
How can this be? A recent report by B'Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and Hamoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual shows that, according to this policy of separation, Israel treats Palestinians who live in the West Bank but are officially registered in Gaza as "illegal aliens." In very exceptional cases, some Palestinians with registered Gaza addresses have been granted military permits to be in the West Bank. Consequently, residents of Gaza who are caught without permits in the West Bank may be expelled and sent back to Gaza. This means that tens of thousands of Palestinians still registered as residents of Gaza have to undergo bureaucratic procedures resembling an immigration process in order to move from one part of the internationally recognized Palestinian territories to another. They need special permission from the military to remain in their own homes with their spouses and children.
Now let us go back to Valentine's Day and the red hearts, flower bouquets, and small chocolate boxes wrapped in red shiny papers. And try to imagine that your sweetheart lives only an hour drive away from you, but you cannot see her. Let us imagine that your loved one lives 40 miles away, but you cannot unite with him on Valentine's Day or on any other occasion. Let us try to imagine how it feels to have to ask permission from the military to see your partner. Imagine that some inaccessible entity decides remotely and unilaterally if you, who live in Gaza, can fall in love with someone who lives in the West Bank and dream of establishing a family together.
This Valentine's Day, when you think about the ones you love, take just a minute to think about Issa and his fiancé who cannot even see each other's faces.