Karimah Shahin (‘Odeh) from the village of Rantis in Ramallah District married ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ‘Odeh, a resident of the Gaza Strip, in 1987. The couple made their home in the Gaza Strip. Two of Karimah’s sisters also married Gazans and moved there. In the early years, Karimah had no difficulty visiting her family in the West Bank. As of 1994, when the Palestinian Authority was established, Israel started restricting passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, until finally shutting down the crossings altogether.
In 2000, Karimah’s mother died of cancer. Karimah could not be by her side while she was ill or on her deathbed. She says, “the day she died was one of the hardest days of my life.” Karimah finally managed to get out of Gaza in 2012, along with her daughter and two sisters, to attend her brother’s wedding. She described what happened:
Until 2012, I communicated with my family by phone only. During those years, three of my sisters and two of my brothers got married and I couldn’t take part in their celebrations. Every time, I applied for a permit at least a month before the event, but Israel denied my request. I cried during every one of my sibling’s weddings. Those were very sad days for me. We didn’t celebrate or prepare together, and I felt like I was in exile.
In June 2012, my brother Ahmad got married. I applied for a permit to attend the wedding but was denied five days later. I applied for another permit along with my two sisters and for some reason, we got the permit. We all went to Ramallah with my daughter Afnan, who was five at the time.
It was the first time I’d seen my father and my brothers and sisters in 12 years. I can’t describe how it felt to reach our home in the village and finally see my family. It was so joyous, a day of celebration, because of the wedding and because we were all together. My father was thrilled to meet Afnan, my only daughter. She was given special treatment the whole time we were there. My father took care of her, pampered her, walked around the village with her and bought her anything she wanted. We stayed for two days and went back to Gaza. Saying goodbye to the family was one of the hardest moments I’ve ever been through, because I didn’t know when I would see them again.
Karimah’s sister, Lina Shahin (54), lives in Bir Nabala in Ramallah District. In a testimony she gave B’Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad, she described the excitement of meeting, along with the difficulty of saying goodbye:
The meeting was very moving. We couldn’t believe we were actually meeting face to face. We didn’t know whether to cry or be happy. The feelings were very mixed, especially when my sisters went to my mother’s grave. They couldn’t visit her when she was dying, didn’t say goodbye to her and didn’t attend her funeral.
We hadn’t seen their children since 2000 and only knew them through social media, because until then we hadn’t been able to see them. We didn’t know them as children, we only met them as adults, and some were already married with children. They sent us invitations to the boys’ and girls’ weddings so we could apply for permits, but all the requests were denied with no explanation.
The family has not gathered again since. In 2015, Karimah’s father passed away, followed soon after by her husband. A few years later, Rima, one of her two sisters who lived in Gaza, died. In her testimony, Karimah recounted:
In 2015, my father was hospitalized at the Arab Hospital in Ramallah. I applied for a permit to be with him, even for a day, but the request was denied. My father died in hospital four days later. That day, I couldn’t stop crying. It was awful and brought back the day my mother died.
The same year, my husband’s health deteriorated and he was hospitalized with viral hepatitis at Kamal ‘Odwan Hospital in Beit Lahiya. My siblings in the West Bank tried to get a permit to come and be by my side during these difficult days, but nothing helped. My husband passed away a few months later. In 2018, my eldest sister Rima, who was like a mother to me, also passed away. In 2019, Dina’s husband passed away and again, no one in the family could get a permit to come and comfort her.
Lina described the difficulty of being apart during that time:
In 2015, Karimah’s husband passed away and we weren’t allowed to take part in the mourning or be by her side to comfort and support her. We started losing our loved ones one after the other without a chance to meet and say goodbye. In 2018, my sister Rima passed away. She had a stroke and died suddenly. We applied for permits to say goodbye to her, attend the funeral and console her husband and daughters, but were denied. We mourned from afar. Her youngest daughter was born about 20 years ago, and we only know her from pictures.
Late last year, my sister Dina’s husband, Khaled, fell ill and was treated at al-Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem. Dina wasn’t allowed to go with him, and only his sister received permission. I was able to visit him at al-Makassed, but he passed away shortly afterwards and was sent back to Gaza for burial. None of us could get permits to travel to Gaza and attend the funeral and the mourning ceremonies.
Karimah described the loneliness Israel has imposed on her:
I stay in touch with my brothers and their children via the Internet, and we have a WhatsApp group together. It makes it easier for me, because they send pictures of themselves and of our old home. Afnan asks me almost every day when we’re going to her grandfather’s house. She tells me she misses her uncles and their children and really wants to meet them. When I hear her talking about them, I start crying and become terribly sad. I only have one daughter, my husband died, and I need the connection and the support of my family. Talking on the phone doesn’t solve everything. There are things you can’t talk about in depth on the phone. It’s a basic human need that’s being denied me — to meet my brothers and sisters, sit with them, talk with them and hear how they’re doing.
Lina summed up the reality that Israel imposes on the family:
I can’t even begin to count the events we weren’t allowed to celebrate together, all my nieces and nephews’ weddings in the West Bank and in Gaza. I have 16 brothers and sisters and so far, there have been 10 weddings in Gaza and six in the West Bank. An entire generation in the family got married and had children without knowing each other; without feeling for one moment that we live like ordinary people who can attend each other’s celebrations and comfort each other in times of sadness. Comforting and blessing each other are simple, symbolic family obligations that Israel doesn’t allow us to fulfill. It’s easier to visit people in America or in other countries than to visit our family here, in the same country. We’re denied the possibility of maintain the most barest of family ties.
I really miss simple things, like sitting together as sisters do, talking, and reminiscing about our childhood. I miss their hugs and getting to know their children. I didn’t get to be called an aunt, attend their university graduation ceremonies or go to their weddings.