Gaza: A love that knows no boundaries

The marriage between a Palestinian and an Israeli has survived war, poverty and family ostracism. Donald Macintyre reports

When Nicole Hamdan, a Jewish Israeli citizen, failed to report for compulsory army service a couple years ago, the military police came knocking at the doors of her uncles in the Tel Aviv suburbs of Holon and Bat Yam. It is only possible to imagine the officers' surprise at learning the following: that Ms Hamdan was now living with her parents and three younger brothers and sister in a two-room house in Gaza – "Hamastan" in popular Israeli politician-speak; that she speaks Arabic as well as she speaks Hebrew; and that she dresses in the conservative ensemble of abaya and hijab favoured by most women in the territory.

The military closed the file on their lost recruit. For Nicole, 21, who also uses the name Yasmin these days, is the oldest daughter in one of the more unusual family units in the besieged territory of 1.5 million people – that of Imad Hamdan, a Palestinian from a refugee family in Gaza, and his wife, Dalia, the Israeli Jew who married 22 years ago after finishing her own army service.

Nicole's parents' life together would not have been easy in the best of circumstances. But for Imad, who speaks good Hebrew, and Dalia, a somewhat less-fluent Arabic speaker, their marriage has had to be particularly strong to withstand war, unemployment, poverty, family ostracism and cultural differences.

Luckily, it shows every sign of being just that. They met back in the late Eighties in what Imad, now 50, clearly regards as the good – and now unimaginably far-off – old days. That was a time before Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, when Gaza's borders were porous and it was as easy for Israelis to go there as it was for Palestinians from Gaza, like Imad, to travel into Israel for work.

He was a construction contractor in Tel Aviv, and the pair were introduced by Imad's business partner and his wife, who had brought the young Jewish woman to a restaurant for dinner. Although she had grown up in the ethnically mixed city of Jaffa, Imad's date for the evening came from a rightwing family. "She hated Arabs then," he says, joking. But the couple hit it off over the hamburgers and spent most of the night talking on the beach.

It was not long before the couple married, to the consternation of the Dalia's family. As permitted in Islam, Dalia was Imad's second wife – though his first subsequently died of cancer. For the first five years, with Imad working regularly in Israel, the couple nevertheless lived with Dalia's mother, which was not always easy.

"My mother used to tell him: 'I love you a lot but your problem is you're an Arab'," Dalia says. Imad agrees: "Every Jewish mother wants her daughter to marry a Jew."

For fear of upsetting her mother, Dalia had an abortion when she became pregnant. But it appears to have been her brothers – who even one time offered Imad money to leave their sister – who over the years have been the main opposition to the marriage, up to and including this year.

"Three months ago my brother called and asked me to go to Erez," Dalia says, referring to the main passenger crossing between Gaza and Israel. "He said everything will be all right and I should go with him back to Israel."

But she sums up her reaction to such overtures like this: "Of course I want to have good relations with my family. But I will not leave my husband."

Ten years ago, shortly before the start of the second Intifada, the marriage took an even more unusual turn. While Imad stayed in Tel Aviv for his work, Dalia's relations with her own family were increasingly strained. By now she had three children, all born in Israel. In poor health, she came to Gaza to be cared for by Imad's mother. "I loved her a lot," Dalia says. "She was really very good to me, like a mother to me."

Although Imad came back to join his wife, he continued to work in Israel; despite the conflict the family was relatively well off, with a Peugeot 504 parked in the yard of their house in the Sheikh Radwan district of Gaza City.

Their youngest son, Rami, now seven, was born in Gaza, the only one to have a Palestinian rather than an Israeli ID. Now the closure means there is no work in Israel for the tens of thousands who once crossed from Gaza every day, and precious little inside the territory itself. Life is much more difficult now, with Imad's only source of income selling roasted nuts in the street. "Sometimes I make only 10 shekels (£1.75) a day," he explains. "I don't have real work and it means that I can't afford for Yasmin to go to university."

Yet none of these privations have tempted Dalia to leave her husband and return to Israel. Although Imad says his own family has always been "loving and open" to his wife, he acknowledges that – especially since the beginning of the second Intifada – "when you are married there are always problems on both sides".

While he insists that the couple has faced a "lot less" opposition in Gaza that Dalia did from her family, he adds: "When you are in the street some people will say – oh she's Jewish." Dalia converted to Islam in the Nineties – though, referring to her ID and official status back home, Imad points out: "In Israel she's still a Jew."

Dalia says: "I don't like all Arabs. I like the ones that are good to me. But life is good, I'm happy here."

For purely economic reasons, Imad would like to emigrate. He is currently pursuing a dream of resettling in Canada. He is not the only Palestinian in Gaza to touch on the paradox that life was, in his words, "a million times" better – at least, financially – before 1994, which brought the creation of the Palestinian Authority and the withdrawal of Israeli occupying forces.

Imad, who sees himself as politically "independent" and supports neither Fatah nor Hamas , says he blames the Oslo Accords – "not a real peace agreement" – for beginning the erosion of the freedom with which Gazans used to be able to travel in and out of the territory for work. He would rather the family lived in Israel.

Inter-marriages in Israel

* Data on Jewish-Arab marriages in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is sketchy and the International Crisis Group in 2004 said that inter-marriage was "highly unusual" in Israel and "frowned upon by vast majorities" in both communities.

Estimates have ranged from a few hundred to over 1,000, and a UN High Commission on Refugees report on the issue in the same year cited anecdotal evidence that – unlike the Hamdans – many couples eventually separate, divorce or leave the country, especially when they have children.

The report cited the Israeli organisation New Family, which campaigns on behalf of families of every type, as pointing out that only marriages between coreligionists are recognised. Marriages are only legally sanctioned when carried out by the religious authorities of each community. And in cases of different religions, one spouse must convert to that of the other.

donald macintyre

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