Passports for all in Gaza?

Some 30,000 Gazans have been denied passports in rift between Hamas and Fatah.

Mohammed Omer | 19 Jun 2011 | AlJazeera | Opinion

30,000 Palestinians in Gaza are on a ‘blacklist’ that prevents them from having passports. This prohibits them from traveling abroad for medical treatment when necessary [GALLO/GETTY]

In Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority recently decided to remove 141 Palestinians from the passport blacklist of 30,000 names.

The move sparked a protest held by scores of Gazans who had been denied a Palestinian passport – and consequently had their mobility in or out of the Gaza Strip prohibited.

Prior to June 2007, when Hamas routed Fatah from the Gaza Strip following internecine fighting, the majority of Palestinian passports were printed, and issued by, the Ministry of Interior in Gaza City. However, since then, the Fatah-backed government – based in the West Bank – has demanded that Palestinians who wish to renew their passports send their documents to Ramallah, where the passport administration is located.

Some believe this was a bid to undermine Hamas – regardless of the fact that it was ordinary Gazans who would suffer, not Fatah’s political rival. The decision to ban many Gazans – who have documented Palestinian nationality – has included Hamas activists and officials of the de-facto government in Gaza, as well Fatah activists and other citizens who have no known affiliations to any political parties.

The national unity deal signed in Cairo in May was expected to end the crisis, by granting a Palestinian passport to all those previously denied.

On June 14, protesters in front of United Nations office in Gaza demanded the UN take immediate action and intervention to end the impasse, especially the crisis of hospital patients and those who were chronically sick denied the passports which would allow them to travel abroad for potentially life-saving treatment.

To un-ban the banned

Those denied passports have joined together to form a lobbying committee, with the aim of providing passports to all Palestinians, regardless of their political affiliations.

They accused the passport policy of being “racist, and the granting of passports to those who are only loyalists”. It described the banning of passports as “arbitrary decisions … in violation of the law and the Constitution”, referring to Articles 28 and 111 of the Palestinian basic law (an interim constitution).

The spokesman of the committee, Saleem Shurrab said: “For the past four years, we are suffering this denial for alleged security reasons. Although we are made to feel self-doubt, none of us have any particular affiliations to any party which would qualify as a danger to security. Of that there is no doubt.” Shurrab is appealing to both the international community and the Arab League to pressure the General Palestinian Intelligence department to grant passports “for all humanitarian cases”.

In 2006, the government in Gaza sent 10,000 blank passports to the West Bank office. When Gaza ran out of passports a year later, the Ramallah based Palestinian Authority received 300,000 blank passports from France, where they were printed. According to Ahed Hamada, the Ministry of Interior in Ramallah sent only 2,000 of these to Gaza, with 1,000 of these not arriving until mid-2008.

Since then, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has refused to include Gaza in its quota of blank passports.

Since 2007, the Hamas-backed Ministry of Interior in Gaza has given passport renewal stamps to many expired passports. Egypt occasionally allows in urgent health cases with officially expired passports. However, passengers to Schengen areas in Europe, or to Arab states other than Egypt, have been denied visas on expired passports.

Previously, Gazans in need of urgent passports would have to wait a few days. However, this is no longer the case, as the issuing process takes longer – pending the approval of the Palestinian Intelligence department.

Aiding and abetting Israel?

Ahiad Hamada, Gaza’s ministry of interior official and passport office head, has accused the Ramallah-based Fatah government of aiding and abetting Israel’s siege on Gaza. He estimates around 30,000 Palestinians are currently being denied passports.

Observers in Gaza see the denial of a passport as punishment for party affiliation, ie for being affiliated with Hamas members or their families. Whether true or not, it is a fact that relatives of Hamas activists are among those denied passports.

Dr Nabil Shaath, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, said that there has been an agreement reached to grant 141 of 400 submitted applications for passport renewal to the Ramallah-based government.

Shaath emphasised that the applications “will be processed shortly”, and President Mahmoud Abbas has “instructed the Ramallah government to end the crisis”.

Abbas emphasised that there would be “no Palestinian citizen who does not hold a passport”. However, Gaza officials state that these promises do not translate into much on the ground, solving the problems of only a quarter of applicants.

Shawan Jabareen, director of the al-Haq human rights center in Ramallah, said: “Continuing to prevent the issuance of passports to Gaza residents means a disclaimer of the Interior Ministry and the General Intelligence in Ramallah from their promises to solve this problem.”

On June 8, President Mahmoud Abbas awarded former Norwegian Prime Minister Kare Willoch an honorary Palestinian passport, during a visit to the presidential headquarters in Ramallah. The passport was given to Willoch “for his longstanding commitment to the Palestinian cause”, said the office of President Abbas.

This attracted the attention of Gazan media. Majeda al Zebda, columnist for the Felesteen Daily, questioned the award. “Gaza citizens are in dire need of a Palestinian passport, more than a Norwegian,” wrote al Zebda. “The Norwegian who got this passport will put it in a gift cupboard for many years, while a Palestinian would use it for medicine or education.”

Zabda hopes that President Abbas “will award some of these passports to his own nationals who are on the edge of dying.” The columnist then referred to a 30-year-old neighbour denied medical treatment for a brain tumour, despite having all other necessary documentation. He cannot cross the border due to not having a passport.

Passports for all

At the demonstration, one of the protesters held a banner that read: “A passport means a cure, pilgrimage, education, Umrah.

Other protesters chanted for the right to their national passports with a banner reading: “Enough of factionalism, we are all Palestinians,” and “President Abu Mazen, passports for all”.

Osama Abu Askar, a 37-year-old from Jabalia refugee camp is wheel-chair bound and has been denied a Palestinian passport. In 2004, he was injured during an Israeli bombing, but managed to travel abroad for medical treatment. Upon his return in 2008, he applied for a renewal of his Palestinian passport through a travel agency in Gaza. He was denied, due to “security reasons”, he says.

Abu Askar used to work as a tailor before he was injured, and he was promised $90,000 US in funding, in order to have prosthetic limbs fitted in Germany: “But without a valid passport to travel there, my funding was revoked. Who is responsible for this?”

He still has follow up treatments for injuries sustained to his abdomen and kidney. Abu Askar says he has no political affiliations and has no idea why he is denied the dream of being able to walk again, even on artificial legs.

For many protesters, the PA agreement to release 141 names from the banned list, and grant them passports is undeserving of “public opinion”. As one protester says: “Those people, who it was agreed to be granted passports, had connections through their networks.”

The protesters vowed to continue their protest until all Palestinians get their Palestinian passports issued, though many of them do not know how many more years this will take.

Mohammed Omer is a Palestinian journalist and photographer based in Rafah refugee camp.


Universal Declaration Human Rights:

UDHR Art 13 (1) : “Everyone has the right 2 freedom of movement & residence within the borders of each state”

UDHR Art 13 (2) : “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

UDHR Art 15 (1) “Everyone has the right to a nationality.”

Most nations regard Palestinians as “Stateless” and their “Passport” as a “Travel Document.” That is, if they have one.

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