Palestinian families kept apart by Israeli ‘rules’ mourn loved ones in Gaza

On October 8, Eman Radwan called her parents from the West Bank and spoke to them for the last time. They were in Gaza where Israel had launched a relentless bombardment following Hamas’s deadly attack on Israeli villages and military outposts the day before.

For years, Radwan had been unable to visit her parents regularly because Israel restricted Palestinians from moving between the West Bank and Gaza, with rare exceptions.

Israel was ordering all Palestinians in Gaza to flee south, but Radwan’s parents could not leave their home. They were living in Gaza City, near the Islamic University which Israel targeted with air raids on October 11.

Her father was caring for her mother, who was suffering from heart disease and needed oxygen to breathe – it was impossible for them to leave. The next day, a bomb hit their villa and killed them both, along with her youngest brother and a young man who used to come to help them with chores.

“My relatives found my brother, Hassan, and my mother first.

“My mother was missing her hand and limbs and head,” Radwan told Al Jazeera, trying to hold back her tears over the phone. “Two days later, [they] used a tractor to look for my father under the rubble and we found his [corpse], too.”

Radwan is one of thousands of Palestinians living in the West Bank whose families are in Gaza. The movement restrictions Israel imposes on Palestinians within and between both territories, which it occupies, meant she had seen her parents and siblings just a handful of times in the past 20 years.

She says she still can’t believe that she’ll never see her mother, father or brother again.

“Many of the family friends and relatives who helped us bury my family were later killed [by Israeli bombardment], too,” Radwan told Al Jazeera.

Eman Radwan's family home destroyed [courtesy of Eman Radwan]
Eman Radwan’s family home in Gaza after it was hit by an Israeli air strike, killing her father, mother and brother [Courtesy of Eman Radwan]

Misplaced hope

Many Palestinians who have been separated from loved ones in Gaza as a result of Israel’s occupation are terrified that their relatives will die.

Fatima Abdallah* and her husband – both from Gaza and whose family name has been changed as they fear reprisals – moved to the West Bank in 1997, four years after the Oslo Accords were signed and offered hope that there would be a Palestinian state.

They had just finished studying in the United Kingdom and had high hopes that a Palestinian state would be established in the following two years, as promised in the peace deal.

But Abdallah’s mother was herself a refugee already, uprooted to Gaza during the Nakba when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were violently expelled to make way for the creation of Israel in 1948, and she warned her daughter that Israel would not let them see each other if they lived in different territories.

“She told me that she would have a better chance at seeing me if I emigrated to Canada than if I moved to the West Bank,” Abdallah recalls.

Her mother did not believe Israel would allow Palestinians to have a state.

Under the Oslo Accords, the West Bank and Gaza were to be treated as a single territorial unit. In practice, Israel doubled down on its illegal settlements and required Palestinians from the West Bank to obtain permits to visit Gaza.

A Palestinian Intifada – which derives from the word “shaking off” in Arabic – erupted in response to Israel’s expanding occupation on September 28, 2000. In the first five days, 47 Palestinians and five Israelis were killed.

Israeli restrictions got worse until it was nearly impossible for Palestinians in the West Bank to visit relatives and loved ones in Gaza and vice-versa.

In exceptional cases, Palestinians could obtain a permit to visit a dying family member or to attend an event or activity as an employee of an international non-government organisation.

Restrictions were tightened even further after Hamas won an election in Gaza in 2006 and retained control of the Strip despite being attacked by dominant Palestinian political party Fatah. The following year, Israel imposed a suffocating land, air and sea blockade on Gaza, with the help of Egypt which controls the Rafah crossing into the enclave.

Rights groups describe Gaza as an “open-air prison” since hardly anyone is allowed in or out of the territory. Abdallah said that she couldn’t see her family in Gaza between 2006 and 2018.

“A whole generation of my family – nephews and nieces – grew into teenagers and university graduates without us having much face-to-face interaction. I missed an entire part of their lives and my children don’t know who their own cousins are in Gaza,” she told Al Jazeera.

Dying to see family

Until October 7, Palestinians could typically only see relatives from Gaza if they were granted permission to seek medical treatment in the West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem or Israel, according to Munir Nuseibeh, a Palestinian human rights lawyer and civil society activist.

In the past decade, he has only seen his relatives from Gaza if they needed urgent surgery.

“Basically, the only chance for me to see any of them is if they have cancer,” he told Al Jazeera.

In August 2023, the World Health Organization said 1,492 people were granted a medical permit to leave Gaza for treatment out of 1,851 applications that month.

In 2022, Abdallah saw her sister and mother because the former had a tumour, which doctors were concerned may have been cancerous (they later discovered it was benign). The only person who was allowed to accompany Abdallah’s sister to be tested in the West Bank was their elderly mother.

Both Nuseibeh and Abdallah now fear that their ill or elderly relatives will die under Israel’s bombardment or from its chokehold-like siege over Gaza. Since October 7, Israel has tightened the blockade by cutting off food, water and electricity to Gaza’s 2.3 million people, most of whom are now crammed into the south of the enclave.

UN experts and hundreds of legal and conflict scholars have warned that Israel’s campaign in Gaza amounts to collective punishment and could qualify as genocide.

“My understanding of this genocide is that it actually targets civilians and civilian life in so many different ways. We have had [in our extended family] several casualties.

“Our closer family, they’ve managed to survive the situation until now. But they have all been displaced from Gaza City to the south,” Nuseibeh told Al Jazeera.

Abdallah’s 80-year-old mother also left her home to head south, which Israel is bombing despite telling Palestinians that the region would be safe at the beginning of the war.

After Israel resumed bombing to break a seven-day ceasefire on December 1, the director-general of the government media office in Gaza said that more than 700 Palestinians had been killed in 24 hours.

“My mother was just four years old when the Nakba happened and she can’t take it any more,” Abdallah said. “It’s not even the bombardment or the war, but the fact that she left her home again.

“She feels as if her life is ending in the same way it started.”

*Name changed to protect identity

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