“W” a man in his 20s from the al Shati refugee camp in Gaza, was a member of Fatah and often organized celebrations for the movement. In 2006, after the Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections, it formed a national unity government with the Fatah. In spite of the Hamas’ electoral win, however, the Fatah remained in power in the Gaza Strip. In June 2007, Hamas fighters overthrew the government, and banned all Fatah activity. Since that time, W’s life became endangered.
I was introduced to W by an American friend who knew that I was interested in making contact with Gazans who worked for peace since I live near the border, on the Israeli side, and spend much of my time working on building connections between our peoples. I ‘met’ W on Facebook in 2008 and we had a few chats and phone calls. Because of our nationalities, we knew that our chances of actually meeting were very slim. Even though it would not have taken more than half an hour to reach one another’s home, face-to-face meetings were impossibilities since our countries are locked in war, Gaza is under siege, we Israelis can’t go in, and they – Gazans – can almost never get permits to come out, unless for dire humanitarian reasons.
We did not stay in close contact, but W sent me messages from time to time and I hoped his life was getting a bit better after marrying and having children. He hinted – he was afraid to be too explicit since he feared that the Hamas police were monitoring his Facebook page – that life in Gaza was extremely dangerous for anyone who was not a Hamas supporter, and that if he were to speak out against the regime, it would cost him dearly.
I am embarrassed that I did not keep up regular contact with W. Perhaps it was my frustration over trying to develop a friendship with someone I knew I would most probably never get to meet, perhaps I felt overwhelmed with guilt that I could do nothing to help better his – and others’ – situation, as they were locked up behind the wall, under Israeli siege, and under the repressive Hamas government. Recently, however, W reached out to me once again on Facebook: “I have great news. I am in Sweden.” Once again I was grateful for this internet platform; it has been crucial in helping keep Israeli-Gazan relationships alive. Extremely curious about what had happened, I asked if we could talk on Skype in the evening. Here is W’s story:
From 2007 until 2012, the Hamas kidnapped him three times, beat and tortured him four different times, and as a result, he needed emergency treatment. He still suffers from shoulder dislocation, a result of the beatings. The interrogators confiscated his phone and saw that he had contact numbers of Israelis (actually I was the only one, since the others live outside of the country). W was branded a traitor and faced growing death threats. The last time that his life was endangered was in late 2012; W was kidnapped and tortured again. In early January of this year, he received a letter from a Fatah official stating that his life was in imminent danger, and that he should not venture outside. W decided that he had to leave Gaza if he wanted to continue to live.
In January, W fled to Rafah and from there was smuggled through a tunnel into Egypt, where he lived for 45 days. He looked for ways to escape to Europe and eventually found a smuggler,who was willing to help him for $6,000. W managed to get the needed sum – enormous for a man on the run who had to leave everything behind – after his wife sold her jewelry and his brother wired him some money. With a fake Austrian passport in hand, he flew from Egypt to Turkey, and from there boarded a plane to Sweden. When W arrived in Sweden, in mid-March, he applied for political asylum. He was interviewed and is waiting to hear if he will be granted refugee status. When/if he gets the coveted Residency Card, he will be able to arrange for his wife and children to join him in his new country.
After W had made it safely to Sweden, his brother told him that yet another letter from Fatah had arrived. This one notified him that his name was on a Hamas assassination list. W took this message seriously as one of his close friends, Jamal Obeid, another Fatah member, had been shot in the legs in a failed assassination attempt. After W had left Gaza, the Hamas police broke into his home, causing destruction and terrorizing his wife and children. They confiscated the family’s computer and ransacked the house.
W speaks to his wife and children on a daily basis, but is terrified for their safety. W told me: “There is no place in Gaza to be safe. All I want is to live in peace and to pursue my post-graduate studies. I will never go back to Gaza. I cannot live there. I pray that the permit will come through and I’ll be able to get my wife and children out of that dangerous place.”
I would like to say that W is the only Gazan that I know whose life has been threatened; however, that is not the case. I have a friend, a human rights activist and journalist, who had to escape from Gaza, without his family, after being branded as a traitor because he participated in a peace conference that my grassroots group – Other Voice – organized at the Sapir College in early 2011. After more than a year of living in Egypt with no money and no job, he managed to get to Morocco where he was granted asylum. Two young men from Gaza, who attended peace seminars that Other Voice organized for Israeli and Gazan students, have resettled in Europe; neither of them plans to return to Gaza. As they often told me: “It is no life…” A number of Gazan women that I know have asked me to help find them scholarships for programs abroad. They tell me that all they can think about is how to get out, as they suffer from internal (Hamas) and external (Israeli) violence.
Last month we Jews celebrated Passover – the holiday that commemorates being freed from slavery in Egypt more than 3300 years ago. Last week we Israelis celebrated our independence, gained 65 years ago. It is now the Palestinians’ turn – those in the West Bank and especially those in Gaza – to gain their freedom. I live 15 minutes away from the Gaza Strip, and while my life is often endangered by rocket attacks, I live a life of freedom. People in Gaza live in a dangerous and oppressive place. It is time for the Hamas to let their people go. It is time for the Israelis to let their people go.