For 14 years, Ayman Ghanam, a 43-year-old from the Gaza Strip, has sought to obtain the document that, like an American social security number, governs every aspect of daily life: a Palestinian ID card.
But like 23,500 other Palestinians, he has been refused this basic document by the Israeli government because of a rigid refusal to bend the rules.
Ghanam’s father had travelled to Egypt when the 1967 six-day war broke out, resulting in the Israeli occupation of Gaza.
The Israeli government assumed authority for issuing IDs to its new “subjects,” but since the elder Ghanam was out of Gaza, he (and many others like him) wasn’t assigned one. That means his children, including Ayman, don’t have IDs either.
Even though Israel insists it stopped occupying the Gaza Strip when it withdrew its 8,000 settlers in 2005, it continues to retain control over who receives Palestinian IDs – along with many other aspects of daily life, such as travel. Without an ID card, Palestinians cannot qualify for a passport.
That means Ayman Ghanam only has Egyptian travel documents (via his father). In 1994, Ayman travelled to Jordan to study, where he married and had a son, Abdullah. His ex-wife (they later divorced) has a Jordanian passport. However, because in Jordan the father determines the status of the son, Abdullah – like Ayman – has no status at all.
It was a situation prone to disaster, and that’s just what happened in 2005, when Ayman decided to return to Gaza.
“I could no longer extend my residence permit in Jordan and I was always being thrown into custody,” Ayman recalls. “So, I used my Egyptian documents to travel from Jordan to Egypt, where I was seized and held for 45 days before I was allowed to enter Gaza through Rafah crossing,” he tells The New Arab.
What he didn’t realise is that he’d never be able to return to Jordan to see his son, and thus his son would be stuck in the same limbo.
As it turned out, Ayman’s repeated applications for a Palestinian ID have been ignored and in 2017, the Egyptian government ruled that without one, Gazans can’t cross into its country.
“I was told the Palestinian Authority (which governs the West Bank), supposedly my own government, who directed Egypt to do that. It’s another way to punish Gaza.”
As a result, Ayman and Abdullah have been separated for 14 years and the boy cannot obtain legal standing even in Jordan. National law dictates that a minor’s father must be present to start the lengthy process of obtaining a Jordanian ID. It’s the classic catch-22: Ayman can’t visit and Abdullah needs him to visit to achieve his own status.
With each generation, the problem multiplies. Ayman now lives in Gaza with his second wife, and because she doesn’t have a Palestinian ID for the same reasons, their eight children are disenfranchised as well.
“I am afraid for my family. Without Palestinian identification cards, they cannot receive medical treatment outside,” he says. “The situation in Gaza is so bad because of the blockade that serious conditions must be treated elsewhere. They also cannot travel abroad because they do not hold passports.”
According to the Ministry of Interior in Gaza, an estimated 23,500 residents now lack Palestinian IDs. Before the Hamas movement assumed governance of Gaza in 2006 and a feud between them and the PA (which is controlled by Fatah) broke out, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said it had received 5,000 applications asking for help in obtaining IDs; however, since the political split, no more have been accepted. And the 5,000 existing applications have gone nowhere.
Maha al-Naga, 33, is another “undocumented” person in Gaza. Her father was studying in Egypt in 1967 and later moved to Libya. When the revolution erupted there in 2011, the family decided to return Gaza.
They have been unable to obtain IDs, but the Palestinian embassy in Libya gave them what is called “zero passports” – the name for travel documents given without proper substantiation.
About 2,000 such documents have been issued to Palestinians without IDs. However, zero passports are useless to get out of Gaza, since the PA asked Egypt to stop recognising them.
“The Egyptians stopped accepted zero passports upon a request from the Palestinian Authority,” confirms Ahed Hamada, assistant undersecretary in Gaza’s Ministry of Interior. Attempts to reach officials in the Palestinian Authority for comment were not successful.
Today, Maha runs an embroidery store in northern Gaza City. For the last three years, she has been invited to promote her goods in an exhibition organised by the US consulate in Jerusalem. However, she has been unable to travel due to her status.
“Many organisations and other customers attended this exhibition that would have helped me expand my work,” al-Naga mourns. The same fate awaited an invitation for al-Naga to attend a businesswomen’s forum in Turkey.
For others, the consequences of this inability to travel is more serious. Ayman Ghanam’s father suffered from heart disease. He was referred to a hospital in Jordan for necessary treatment. However, he was unable to leave due to his lack of ID and in 2017, he died.
“If one of my family members gets sick, I am afraid he will suffer the fate of my father,” says Ghanam. “Even though we live on our homeland, it is as though we are not Palestinians.”