Mideast Discord Thwarts A Palestinian Love Story

They are engaged — Amani, a Palestinian woman from the Gaza Strip, and Basheer, her fiance who lives in the West Bank. But even though they are both of the same religion and the same nationality, they cannot get married.

The house he has built for her sits in an orchard filled with ripe pomegranates, figs and lemons. It's fully furnished, but everything is too neatly in its place. It's lifeless, a home waiting to be lived in.

Basheer

As he sits in the living room, 30-year-old Basheer Mohammed Nasir recalls how came to know his fiancee, Amani. They met in Gaza, he says, in 2006 during the Palestinian elections. She was a journalism student. He had been sent from the West Bank by the election commission to help work with reporters there.

"We were together three months before we got engaged, and we were expecting all kinds of problems — the normal things — struggling with money, logistics, family issues," he says. "Everything except what actually happened to us."

In 2007, the militant group Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force, kicking out the rival Fatah, which runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Almost overnight, the division between the tiny coastal Gaza Strip and the landlocked West Bank became immutable. They were caught on opposite sides of the divide and blocked by Israel's strict security cordon around both territories.

"We could not have imagined that Gaza and the West Bank would be separated this way," he says. "We Palestinians never thought that we would be unable to see each other, even though we are in the same homeland."

But that's exactly what happened.

Normally, Palestinians who want to move from Gaza to the West Bank need to get permission from the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. It was never easy, but it was possible. Not anymore, Basheer says.

"The Palestinians have received the application from me and have submitted it to the Israeli side. But now it seems both sides seem to have forgotten it," he says.

Basheer says that both the Israelis and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority aren't interested in facilitating relocation from Hamas-dominated Gaza.

"I think the formula is simple — it is lack of interest, consideration, attention on the Palestinian side and procrastination on the Israeli side."

So the two lovers, he says, have become the unwitting victims of politics.

He says he will wait as long as it takes. "I will not relinquish her. It's bad enough that we have been abandoned by everyone. I won't let her go," Basheer insists.

Amani

Some 50 miles away in the Gaza Strip, Amani Kamal Qassab lives on one of the top floors of an apartment bloc. She has a narrow, pretty face and intense brown eyes. On this day, she's dressed in pants and a headscarf.

"When I met him, I saw that he was full of charisma and so good-looking, but when he began to pursue me I wasn't convinced," she says. "I thought, I can't go live so far away from my family in the West Bank."

But she fell in love — even though their courtship was brief and mostly long-distance.

The months of waiting have turned into years now.

"I'm very depressed. If Basheer wasn't so optimistic, I would have collapsed a long time ago. I'm supposed to be married now," she says. "I'm supposed to even have children by now."

She's stopped seeing her friends and stopped working. And it's even put a strain on the relationship. "Before we were so romantic with each other. But ever since this happened, all we talk about is permits and officials. This is our whole world for the moment."

Still, she says, they love each other passionately. She says they lead a virtual marriage.

"I speak to Basheer 10 times a day by phone, so I feel I'm with him all day," she says. "When he leaves the bank or gets home, I'm with him. When I am cooking or about to go to sleep, we know and talk to each other. It's like we are living together."

But they are not. And she worries that they never will.

Even if she gets Israeli permission to leave Gaza, she says Hamas might prevent her from departing. Her brothers all worked for the Fatah security forces before the Hamas takeover. Hamas has prevented many Gaza residents with links to Fatah from leaving the strip since it took over.

Still, she says, "It's worth it to wait 10 years, not just these two years, because he is a wonderful guy. If I search all over the world, I would never find another man like him."

Back in the West Bank, Basheer says he can't stand the waiting anymore. If they can't be together in their homeland, they will go abroad, he says.

"Even though I have spent every penny I have saved on this house, I am thinking seriously of going anywhere where I can be with her," he says. "Leaving here to find a place where we can finally be together."

Though where they will live and how they will survive, he says, he just doesn't know.

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