The Gaza Strip has often been called an “open
air prison” in light of the illegal closure imposed on it by the Israeli
authorities. However, the territory became a prison for many Palestinians long
before the closure came into effect. In the early stages of the occupation of
the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which has been
ongoing since 1967, Israeli authorities conducted a census in the occupied
Palestinian territory, and counted 954,898 Palestinians. This census excluded
all Palestinians who were not present during the process, either because they
had been displaced due to the 1967 war or because they were abroad for studies,
work, or other reasons. These Palestinians were not included in the population
registry. Thousands more Palestinians, who spent any considerable length of
time abroad between 1967 and 1994, were also struck from the registry. Israel requires
Palestinians to be included in this population registry in order for them or
their children to be considered lawful residents and obtain Israeli-approved
identification cards and passports. Israel, being the occupying power
of the Gaza Strip, decides which Palestinian citizens should receive
identification and travel document. According to the Ministry of Interior in
the Gaza Strip, there are 4058 Palestinians in Gaza
who do not have travel documents to enable them to travel outside Gaza.


Mona Khrais, 27, and her family have borne the
brunt of these harsh policies for many years. Mona’s father, Abdulfattah
Hussein Khrais, 70, was forcibly displaced to the Gaza Strip in 1948 and lived
there for many years as a refugee. In 1967, when the Israeli census was carried
out, Abdel was studying abroad in Egypt. Mona explains: “From Egypt my father moved to Libya and worked there for 15 years, where he
got married, and then my parents moved to Saudi Arabia and stayed there for
20 years until 2000. My father worked as a physics teacher in Saudi Arabia and when his tenure ended there, we
came to Gaza.
To reach Gaza, we had to obtain visiting
permission from the Israeli authorities but, since arriving here, we have not
been able to travel outside Gaza.”
Mona adds: “We are not able to leave because we are not recognised by Israel as
Palestinian citizens. We need Israeli-approved passports to be able to travel
outside Gaza.
We applied for them after coming here in 2000, but so far we have not heard
anything from the authorities.”


Mona and her family have suffered great
hardship as a result of being trapped in the Gaza Strip, and her frustration is
reflected in her voice as she says, “We are recognised as Palestinian citizens
by the government in the Gaza Strip, but because Israel does not have our names
on a list we are not recognised anywhere outside Gaza. The local government in Gaza has issued us identity documents, but these can be
used only inside Gaza.
These documents are meaningless beyond the borders of Gaza.”


Mona further explains the impact of the lack of
valid identification and travel documents: “We have had to face many problems
because of our situation. My brother, Hani, who lives in Canada and has a Canadian passport, was denied
entry into Gaza by the Egyptian authorities
because, just like us, he too is not registered as a Palestinian by Israel. Last
year, in July, he and his wife and three children travelled from Canada to visit
us. They were not allowed to enter Gaza and had
to stay in Egypt
for an entire week. During that time, they travelled to the Rafah crossing
every day to try to reach Gaza,
but they were denied entry each time because they don’t have Israeli-approved
passports. I have not seen my brother in 12 years, and my nephews not even
once.


Other family members living outside Gaza have also been affected: “My mother’s brother, who
lives in Sweden, cannot
travel to Gaza due to a serious heart condition
and, because my mother cannot go outside Gaza,
she has not been able to see him for a very long time. Also, my father has not
seen his brother, who lives in Gambia,
for years because he can’t come to Gaza
either. My family has been separated because of our situation.”


Not having a valid travel document has
negatively impacted Mona’s ability to advance in her education and career. She
explains, “I wanted to study Management in a university abroad but, because I
cannot travel outside, I cannot apply. I am also not eligible to apply for
various jobs because they require me to hold a travel document. My younger
brother, who lives with us in Gaza,
achieved a score of 96% in his high school exams but, just like me, he has been
unable to enrol in a university abroad. It is my right to choose my education
and the same goes for my brother.” Despite these difficulties, Mona has been
trying to make the best of the past 12 years. She presently works with the
Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza.


The family’s inability to leave the Gaza Strip
could have serious consequences in the event that a member of the family falls
ill, something Mona fears: “My worst fear is that if anyone in my family falls
seriously ill and has to travel outside Gaza
for treatment, they won’t be allowed because they don’t have a passport.”


Mona’s father Abdulfattah says: “The simple
thing is that, because we are Palestinian citizens, we should have Palestinian
passports. Just like us, there are many other Palestinians who are in this
difficult position.” Mona’s mother, Samira Ibrahim al-Najjar, makes a plea to
the Israeli authorities, saying, “I want my passport. Please give it to me. I
want to see my son and grandchildren.”


Under international law, Article 12 of the 1966
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees that “
everyone shall be free to leave any country,
including his own and no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to
enter his own country.” Moreover, according to the United Nations Human
Rights Committee [General Comment No. 27], “Freedom to leave the territory of a
State may not be made dependent on any specific purpose or on the period of
time the individual chooses to stay outside the country. [. . .]The right of a
person to enter his or her own country recognizes the special relationship of a
person to that country. The right has various facets. It implies the right to
remain in one’s own country.” The Human Rights Committee also observed that “A
State party must not, by stripping a person of nationality or by expelling an
individual to a third country, arbitrarily prevent this person from returning
to his or her own country.” Also according to the International Court of
Justice, persons who have a genuine and effective link to a country, such as
habitual residence, cultural identity, and family ties cannot simply be banned
from returning to that country.