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Israeli group helps blockaded Gazans negotiate path to outside world

Officially, the Gaza Strip's 1.8 million residents cannot exit the territory through Israel. Shadi Bathish, an Israeli Arab paralegal, works with residents to obtain rare exit permits.

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    Working from his cramped Tel Aviv office, Shadi Bathish, a paralegal for the Israeli non-profit Gisha, helps Palestinians from the Gaza Strip obtain the rare permits to exit the blockaded coastal territory.
    Joshua Mitnick
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The phone calls from Gaza start in the morning. There are students trying to get to universities abroad; a daughter trying to see a terminally ill parent in the West Bank; a bride trying to get to her own wedding in Jordan.

On the other end of the line – at a cluttered desk in a cramped Tel Aviv office – sits Shadi Bathish, a 39-year-old paralegal who helps Palestinians navigate the Israeli military’s sometimes Kafkaesque bureaucracy and obtain the rare permits to exit the blockaded coastal territory.

The job makes Mr. Bathish one of the few Israelis with a direct line to the hardships of Gaza residents, many of whose homes and neighborhoods were destroyed by the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel.

The war left Gaza in a catastrophic state: In addition to more than 2,000 deaths, some 7,000 homes were razed, and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. For now, Israel and Hamas have settled back into a state of tense mutual tolerance, but Gaza remains a powder keg waiting to explode in a new conflict.

“We hear a lot of [Palestinian] frustration first hand.… We listen to a lot of painful situations,” says Bathish, an Israeli Arab who works for the legal non-profit Gisha – Hebrew for “access.” The group seeks to roll back restrictions on Palestinians’ movements, particularly the Gaza blockade.

“Once I fielded a call from a person who didn’t meet their parents for a decade. What do I tell him? Wait for the political situation to improve?”

Staying with the 'story'

Though Gaza's 1.8 million residents officially cannot leave the territory through Israel, the Defense Ministry makes exceptions for students studying abroad, merchants, patients admitted to Israeli hospitals, and to reunite immediate family members in the case of marriage or death.

Last month about 30,000 Gazans were allowed to leave; more than three-fourths were either merchants or patients and their families. While that is several times higher than it was six years ago, it's a fraction of the 780,000 monthly exits to Israel in 2000, before the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising.

Along with two other Arabic-speaking case workers, Bathish, a former television news producer originally from Nazareth, explains the Israeli permit policy to Gazans, and helps them follow up on permit requests with representatives of the Israel liaison office that handles civilian affairs in Gaza.

“In journalism, you tell a story of someone and leave it open. In this line of work, I follow it up until the person gets an answer,” he says. 

Because of Gaza’s chronic electricity shortages, clients who lack power during the day often e-mail correspondence to Bathish overnight.

'Just want to live my life'

Because Gisha opposes Israel's military blockade, Bathish says he walks a fine line between advising Gazans on their eligibility to leave and helping to implement the military policy.

“A lot of people call us and say, I just want to visit my parents, but they are well,” he says. “We tell them, your complaint is justified, but unfortunately we can’t help you legally.”

Even though Gisha is staffed by Israelis, politics seldom intrudes on these phone calls.

“They say we don’t have any anger toward any political party and they don’t care that you’re an Israeli,” he says. “Others feel obligated to say: I’m a person without political affiliation. I’m not Fatah or Hamas, I just want to live my life.”

Amid the devastation, Palestinians were hopeful earlier this year of a deal between Israel and Hamas that would ease the blockade. But that didn't happen. Meanwhile, international aid pledged for the rebuilding of Gaza hasn't arrived. There’s a shortage of cement for the effort. The monthly numbers for Palestinians getting permits to exit through the Erez checkpoint has dropped since the summer. And in recent months there’s been an increase in requests to emigrate from Gaza to other countries.

Thank-you notes

In addition to answering the hotline from Gaza, Bathish also spends time on the phone with Israeli military officials, following up on unanswered requests, and occasionally threatening a court petition. Last week, he sought approval for a 2-1/2-week-old request by a Palestinian woman to visit her mother in Gaza who had slipped into a terminal coma.

“[The permit] can’t wait anymore. I’m 90 percent sure the mother will die before the daughter gets to see her,” he says. “That’s the difficulty of this work.”

The case worker says he’s been surprised to receive thank-you notes from Gazans, even when they fail to obtain an exit permit. “They tell us, ‘It was important we could turn to you. We understand you did all you could.’ ”

But there are successes, too. Sometimes those clients make a pit stop at the Gisha office to shake hands and snap a picture with the owner of the voice on the other side of the phone. Many insist on bringing small presents.

Those are the moments, says Bathish, when it’s hardest to hold back one’s emotions.

“That’s when you realize that you made a difference,” he says. “We can’t solve the political situation, but there are people living and suffering from this situation, and we need to sustain them to help them lead a decent life.”

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