Gaza ID Keeps Palestinian Woman From West Bank

This Christmas Israel says it will allow hundreds of Gazan Christians, who want to worship at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to travel to the West Bank. Among those who hope to go is a young Christian woman, who was forcibly returned to Gaza from Bethlehem by Israeli authorities. A human rights group says there are 25,000 Palestinians like her living in fear in the West Bank because they have a Gaza ID.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This Christmas, Palestinian Christians in Gaza will continue their tradition of traveling to Bethlehem. There, in the town where Jesus was born, they celebrate mass at the Church of the Nativity. One of those hoping to make the trip is a young Christian student who was going to school in Bethlehem until she was picked up by Israel authorities and forced to return to Gaza. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has her story.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Berlanty Azzam's Christmas wish is to get back to Bethlehem, where she's only two months away from receiving her degree in business administration.

Ms. BERLANTY AZZAM: I leave Gaza to study there, to have a self-confidence there. And also the situation in Gaza starts to be hard, so I pray for it to go out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She spent months trying to obtain an Israel permit to study in the West Bank, but she was repeatedly denied. Finally she got a temporary pass that allowed her to go through Israel into the West Bank for religious purposes. She enrolled in University and made her life in Bethlehem until a few months ago when she was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint inside the West Bank.

Ms. AZZAM: They stopped me. They asked me about my ID. They saw it. It was issued in Gaza. They told me, get down from the bus. This was at 1:00 p.m. I just waited from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. without knowing anything. I didn't know what would happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Without interrogating her and without any legal review, she was hustled into an army vehicle.

Ms. AZZAM: I was handcuffed, blindfolded, and put me in the Jeep.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she didn't know where she was going.

Ms. AZZAM: Was scared because I don't know - I don't know where I am. It was really - I was really scared.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the end of the journey, she found herself at the crossing between Israel and Gaza. She was being deported. This month, an Israeli court upheld her expulsion from the West Bank, saying she had been staying there illegally.

Sari Bashi is the executive director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, which has been fighting Berlanty's case. She says Israel has stepped up the deportation of people with Gaza IDs.

Ms. SARI BASHI (Executive Director, Gisha): Where Israel has been carrying out an aggressive policy of checking ID cards and just removing people by force. And certainly in the case of Berlanty, we're concerned that this is being done with no procedure whatsoever. People are just being picked up and removed at the drop of a hat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: According to the Palestinian Authority, there are at least 25,000 Palestinians with Gaza IDs who reside in the West Bank.

Ms. BASHI: Israel has a policy to separate Gaza from the West Bank. So for example, we have clients who were removed from the West Bank by force and brought to Gaza. Israel will not let them return to their families in the West Bank. And the only way that they can be together with their loved ones is if their loved ones also leave the West Bank and move to Gaza. It's a policy that is tearing apart the fabric of Palestinian society, with no security rationale whatsoever.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a statement to NPR, referring to Berlanty's case, the Israeli defense forces said that, quote, "it should be noted that students from Gaza residing in the West Bank illegally have, on more than one occasion, engaged in terror activities, thus constituting a significant security threat." There are no security concerns regarding Berlanty, however, according to the Israeli court that reviewed her case. Back in Gaza, Berlanty says she feels like an outsider there now.

Ms. AZZAM: I'm not comfortable, actually, because I used - I used to live at Bethlehem, study, continue my daily life. Here I feel stranger and I feel -even if I'm from Gaza, but Gaza's changed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she's hoping for a miracle this Christmas.

Ms. AZZAM: To go back to continue my study. This is my aim now and my, really, dream to go back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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