RAMALLAH – Cancer patient Ahmed Abu Fuad needs chemotherapy to survive. Muhammad Subeh needs an eye transplant, while paramedic Alaa Sarhan desperately needs surgery to remove shrapnel from his body. But these Gazans are unable to leave the area to seek the required medical treatment elsewhere, and it is not because of the Israeli siege.
Hundreds of Gazans have fallen victim to the infighting between the Hamas and Fatah – who govern in Gaza and the West Bank respectively – as passports have become the latest weapon in their political conflict. Fiza Za’anin is a member of the Beit Hanoun council in northern Gaza. She is also a midwife who won a U.N. prize for her work with women and children during Israel’s military assault on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009. At least 1,400 Gazans, most of them civilians, were killed in the attack.
The Israelis granted Za’anin a security permit to pass through the Erez crossing into Israel and attend a course in East Jerusalem. But she is unable to travel to the U.S. to receive her U.N. prize as the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah has denied her request for a passport. The reason, the Beit Hanoun council she works for is associated with Hamas.
Before Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007, the Palestinian Population Registry in Gaza was based in the Ministry of the Interior, which was split between Gaza and Ramallah under a unity government.
Following the overthrow of the PA in Gaza, the passport registry office was moved to Ramallah. But before passports are issued, the intelligence services of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas vet applications for “security” purposes, which is a euphemism for political affiliation.
A representative for the Interior Ministry in Gaza, Ihab al-Ghussein, told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that 10,000 new passports are needed every month and that there is a waiting list of 100,000 applicants urgently needing travel documents.
Some years ago the Ramallah authorities received 300,000 blank passports from France where they are printed. According to Hamas officials, the interior ministry sent only 2,000 of these to Gaza with the last 1,000 arriving in the middle of 2008. Since then the PA has refused to include Gaza in its quota of blank passports.
The Ramallah-based Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (associated with the PA) denies this assertion. It said thousands of passports are being sent to Gaza, including its quota for this year.
Whatever the truth may be, the shortage of passports remains. Initially, Gaza’s authorities were able to overcome the problem by extending the dates on old passports. Their counterparts in Ramallah responded by issuing different colored passports, using different paper, and with a printed validity of five, instead of three, years.
Since there are no official means of communication or transport between Gaza and the West Bank, travel agencies have stepped in to provide courier services for passports at hugely inflated prices, which the economically deprived Gazans can ill afford.
Even when Gazans have managed to overcome all the red tape and emerged with a passport, many have had their documents confiscated by Hamas officials at the border crossings into Egypt and Israel.
“The Hamas authorities have prevented dozens of Fatah activists from leaving Gaza by confiscating their passports. In a few cases the passports were returned after we intervened, but most weren’t,” Mahmoud Abu Rahma from the Gaza-based human rights organization al-Mezan told IPS.
Other Fatah members have mistakenly been associated with Hamas by the Interior Ministry. It was only after they found contacts in the PA who convinced the intelligence services of their political affiliation, were the passports issued.
Al-Mezan and other human rights organizations in the Palestinian territories have protested to the authorities in Gaza and the West Bank.
“We wrote to the PA foreign minister, Salaam Fayad, in Ramallah stating that the refusal to provide passports was both illegal and in breach of Palestinian law. We also wrote to Hamas’s Interior Ministry in Gaza demanding that the confiscated passports be returned,” said Abu Rahma.
“Usually we do not receive responses from either side. And they offer no explanations as to why they are confiscating passports on the one hand and refusing to issue them on the other,” he added.
Ha’aretz investigative journalist Amira Hass even wrote to the PA Interior Ministry asking whether the intelligence services determined to whom the passports were issued. But she only received an indirect and noncommittal answer.
“This behavior is clearly politically motivated. While both Palestinian factions
argue that security is the main factor behind passports being denied or
confiscated, it is obvious that both Hamas and Fatah are using passports as a
political weapon against the other side and that ordinary Palestinians are once
again paying the price,” Abu Rahma said.
(Inter Press Service)