I recently interviewed a Palestinian family in Gaza about their struggle to obtain an Israeli-issued permit for their son to receive medical treatment for cancer abroad, since it is unavailable in Gaza. After describing the complicated process, the boy’s father said: “It’s a game… You might win or lose with your life.”
Over the past couple of years, I “won.” Two years ago, I obtained a rarely issued permit to leave Gaza for the first time in my life, at age 31, to travel to New York for Human Rights Watch. I’ve since obtained several other permits, including one earlier this year to attend meetings in Paris. My first time in Europe, I planned my first real vacation.
As I traveled through France last month, I felt like a free bird, a prisoner out on bail. Friends and colleagues warned me that the Covid-19 pandemic could ensnare me in government-imposed lockdowns, but I was not bothered. After a lifetime caged in Gaza due to the generalized travel ban that Israel has enforced since 2007, which, with rare exceptions, robs two million Palestinians of their right to freedom of movement, and Egypt often sealing its border, what did I have to fear from some travel restrictions?
The warnings grew more dire, and I eventually cut my trip short. I had to fly through Jordan to return to Gaza, since Israel bars Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank from using Ben Gurion Airport without a permit. But as soon as I arrived, Jordan imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, banning the public from driving without a permit or leaving the house on foot some days, barring inter-city travel, and effectively closing its airports and border crossings.
I am now in Amman, unsure when I will be able to return home. The almost nightly air raid sirens that signify the start of curfew in Amman have stirred up repressed memories of the buzzing of Israeli drones and F16 warplanes during the 2014 fighting in Gaza that left us “sheltering in place” for long stretches.
The pandemic will eventually subside, and the world will begin to open again. But Gaza’s two million Palestinians will remain in a man-made lockdown so long as Israel continues to impose its cruel closure.