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TEL AVIV, Israel – With Valentine’s Day approaching, many Palestinian couples split between Gaza, the West Bank and Israel may end up sending their love by mail, which would be much easier than securing the permission to cross in or out of the occupied territories.
The Bisharats are one such couple. When Ibrahim Bisharat, a human rights advocate from Jerusalem got married to Randa Bisharat, a social worker from Gaza, they thought the distance between where they lived wouldn’t keep them apart.
But as it turned out, the couple has only seen each other twice since they married seven months ago.
"My colleagues, often with an ironic smile, say that I was stupid to marry a girl from Gaza,” Ibrahim said.
“I wonder why a two-hour drive between Jabalia [in Gaza] and Jerusalem represents two separate worlds? As if Gaza is thousands of miles away,” Ibrahim said, instead of just 40 miles.
Israel prohibits all travel between the Gaza Strip and Israel or the West Bank – with the exception of extreme humanitarian cases, like the illness, death or wedding of a direct relative. Even under those conditions, not all requests are granted.
Married couples do not get priority, and still have to jump through bureaucratic hoops like everyone else to see each other, and most of the time they are denied the permits required to travel.
If you are a West Bank resident who wants to relocate to the Gaza Strip to live with your Gazan spouse, you are free to do so – but only if the move is permanent. Once an individual makes that pledge, they are confined to the Gaza Strip – which is ruled by the Islamic Hamas group and where unemployment is approximately 28 percent. If the individual wants to travel back to the West Bank or Israel, they have to meet the same criteria as everyone else.
The Bisharat's are just one couple out of thousands who are separated despite marriage because of Israel's policies, according to a report by "B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories” and “HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual,” two Israeli human rights group.
Ibrahim, 50, says he has been trying desperately to get a permit for Randa, 28, to live with him in Jerusalem, but all of his requests so far have been rejected by the Israeli Army.
Israel’s Ministry of Justice told NBC News’ that safety was at the heart of the strict restrictions on movement.
Since the Gaza Strip is “hostile territory controlled by a murderous terrorist organization,” clearly “permitting the passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would entail a substantial security risk,” the ministry said in a written statement to the human rights groups.
The ministry added that the policy has come to the attention of the Supreme Court, but they have said there are no grounds for interfering in the issue.
Meantime, couples like the Bisharats are left to deal with the status quo.
“I wonder when Ibrahim and I will live under the same roof, like regular couples do all over the world,” Randa said.
Ibrahim got his last permit to visit Gaza in December – it was a one entry permit for six months. Since Ibrahim cannot afford to leave work for six months, he visited his wife for a week only. Now, he will not be able to request a new permit for the next six months.
That has left Ibrahim and Randa with few options, so they are conducting their married life via Skype and phone.
“Apparently, Israeli authorities are proposing that I have an ‘online marriage,’ a virtual family. That I should count on Skype and Facebook to make me happy. In fact, they are making my life miserable,” Ibrahim said.
Being apart from her husband is not the only hardship Randa faces. In traditional Gazan society, she is seen as a woman who is not fulfilling her traditional duties, and who has been neglected and deserted by her husband only one month after they got married.
“I am not leaving my parent’s home anymore. I can’t give answers for people’s questions, I am sad all the time,” said Randa.
Naama Baumgarten-Sharon, who wrote the report on behalf of B’Tselem, says that she believes the goal of the Israeli policy is not to separate families, but rather to separate Gaza from the West Bank and Jerusalem.
But, she pointed out that the residents are really the ones paying the price. Still Ibrahim is determined to make things work.
“In spite of all of my pain as a person who believes in human rights and works to promote respect of rule of law, I will continue to fight to get my wife back, using all legitimate tools, locally and internationally,” Ibrahim said.