The frequent claims by Gaza's 1.5 million residents that they live in a "big prison" have become a cliché. But they have been given fresh force by new Israeli procedures that make it virtually impossible for Palestinians to leave Gaza even to reunite with their spouses and children in the West Bank.
The Israeli government has recently eased movement within the West Bank for Palestinians. But a new and classified Israeli government document reveals that already heavy restrictions on Palestinian movement from Gaza to the West Bank have been tightened further. The document came to light after a Supreme Court challenge by the Israeli human rights organisation HaMoked.
It says the Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai "established that in every case involving the settlement of Gaza residents in the Judaea and Samaria area [West Bank] one should adopt the most restrictive policy... [and he] clarified that a family relationship in and of itself does not qualify as a humanitarian reason that would justify settlement by Gaza residents [in the West Bank]".
HaMoked and another human rights organisation, Gisha, are convinced that security has nothing to do with a policy which they say undermines a two-state solution by "deepening and formalising" the separation between the two territories. While the military say the Gazans are among thousands living "illegally" in the West Bank, Gisha and HaMoked say the policy directly violates provisions in the 16-year-old Oslo accords to treat the West Bank and Gaza as a "single territorial unit" and ignores the "basic" rights of Palestinian civilians to live in either.
The criteria impose an – unspecified – quota on Gazans allowed to leave and mean that even a child with one dead parent cannot join the other in the West Bank if he has another relative in Gaza to look after him. Joel Greenberg, spokesman for HaMoked, calls it "a one-way ticket to an area Israel is well rid of, unlike the West Bank, where it has territorial claims".
A request for comment to Mr Vilnai's spokeswoman was eventually passed on to the Office for Co-ordination of Government Activities in the Territories. While declining to comment on the policy, it said that Samir Abu Yusef along with Kawkab and Nisrin Jilo [see right] had been barred from leaving Gaza for "security reasons". But Gisha said that no security allegations had ever been made against the three in their dealings with the military on their behalf. Sari Bashi, Gisha's director, added: "Where there are security allegations, that is the first, second, and only thing they mention."
Jamal Bardawil: 'I've never seen my son'
Jamal Bardawil supports his wife Hadil and their two children, Sami, almost two, and Isra, almost three, by working as an electrician from his sister's house in the West Bank. But he has never seen Sami, who, his mother says, calls the telephone "Baba"– daddy.
Mr Bardawil has signed a document undertaking not to return to the West Bank, so he can go back to Gaza. But yesterday he said he had reconsidered and is seeking instead a permit to allow him to visit his family and return to his job in the West Bank.
The Israeli human rights group HaMoked is looking into petitioning the Supreme Court for a ruling that he can do so, having failed to secure one to relocate his family. Unlike those who have been deported to Gaza, Mr Bardawil can at least stay in his mother's house, where his wife is living. But it is small consolation.
"There is no opportunity to work in Gaza," he says. "It's like a prison. I'll have nothing to do there. I'll get coupons and support from the UN [refugee agency] until they open the crossings." He claims the Israeli stance is that "we will pressure him until we defeat him psychologically and he will decide to go to Gaza."
Samir abu Yusef: 'If I became an informer, I'd be allowed to go back'
Until his world fell apart two years ago, Samir abu Yusef was doing well. Having left Gaza in 1994 amid the optimism generated by the Oslo accords to spend three years at an industrial training centre in Jericho, he had settled in Qalqilya, was married to a local woman, Kawther, and had four children, his own carpentry business and a house of his own.
It was coming home on 10 February 2007, after slipping into Israel on a job, that it all ended. Passing through the Jajuliya checkpoint on his way back to the city, he was told by border police to produce his ID card. A few hours later he was in the back of a military jeep speeding to the Erez crossing into Gaza. He has not seen his family – or had a day's work – since.
Arrested, Mr Abu Yusef begged to be allowed to go home. He says an intelligence agent told him that if he collaborated with Israeli security forces he could rejoin his family.
"He said: 'I don't want big things, just little ones like who's thieving and so on.'. But I knew this would only be the beginning. I refused." Even after he returned to his brothers' crowded home in Nusseirat refugee camp, Shin Bet kept calling him, inviting him to be an informer. "If I said yes I would be able to go back," he says.
His brother Qassem, 40, a member of the Fatah-dominated PA security forces who are still being paid from Ramallah, is – humiliatingly – his sole source of support. He says of Samir, his younger brother: "Sometimes we hear him crying at night." Describing how he took a call from his nine-year old son Bassem's school after the Gaza war started in January, Samir Abu Yusef says: "The head said the students should pray for the martyrs in Gaza. Bassem started crying and saying that his father was a martyr." The school asked Mr Abu Yusef to reassure him by telephone that he was still alive.
Meanwhile, his wife Kawther, 32, with two elderly parents to look after, depends on donations from neighbours and is facing unpaid bills and a debt of more than £1,500 at the couple's Qaliqilya home. Pointing out that he was fully supporting his family when he was still in the West Bank, Mr Abu Yusef says: "I want to appeal personally to [Middle East Quartet envoy] Tony Blair to help me get back home. I am not trying to live in Tel Aviv or Haifa. I just want to go back to Qalqilya."
Kawther Abu Yusef adds: "The Israelis don't want people in the West Bank; they want them in Gaza. They are using Gaza as a dumping place.!
Nisrin Jilo: 'They only know my voice'
Recently Nisrin Jilo dreamt that "I was playing with my children and they were sitting on my lap. I woke up but I wanted to get back to sleep so I could go back to the dream."
In reality Nisrin, 27, hasn't seen her children Wadi'ya, now four, and Rouand, 12, since she was summarily deported two years to Gaza after being stopped at an Israeli checkpoint outside the West Bank city of Qalqilya two years ago. Her offence: carrying a Palestinian ID showing her as a Gaza resident. Very poor, and having moved from house to house to lodge with various relatives in Gaza over the past two years, she can only afford to telephone the children twice a week. "They only know me from the phone," says Nisrin. "They don't know my face, only my voice."
Nisrin has no idea if or when she will ever see her children again. Although her family is originally from Gaza, her parents moved to the West Bank 14 years ago. Separated from her husband but happy amidst her extended family, Nisrin, along with her mother, Kawkab, and a young sister Fide, 15, travelled back that fateful day by taxi from a visit to a sick married sister in the East Jerusalem suburb of Aram.
On the return journey they arrived at the Jajuliya checkpoint. They were told they were going back to Gaza. "I said: 'We live in Qalqilya. My family own a house there. My mother and I pay our bills to the municipality.' I was crying because they were deporting me from my children. But they said they had orders from high. They put us in a jeep and took us to [the] Erez [crossing into Gaza]."
For Kawkab Jilo, 45, the deportation was equally traumatic. For while she is a grandmother, her three youngest children are all under 16. Mrs Jilo wept as she described a recent conversation with her youngest daughter, Sabrin, 11, who after good progress in school, has now failed her year-end exams. "She told me 'don't be angry I failed. I always think of you. When you get back I will pass'."
Back in Qalqilya, Sabrin's sister Suha, 15, explains that even when her mother phones from Gaza, "If we have a problem at a school I will not tell my mother because she is in Gaza and she will just worry. We don't have a person who tells what is right and what is wrong."
Could Nisrin bring the family, including her sick father, to a poverty-stricken and war-ravaged Gaza? She is incredulous. "We are 25 in Qalqilya and just three women here. Shall we bring the whole family because of three? We have nothing here."
* Ben Lynfield reported from the West Bank.