For Gazan Workers Stranded in Israel, Being Apart from Family Is Agony

Photo for The Washington Post by Lorenzo Tugnoli
Palestinian workers from Gaza sleep in a room inside an university building in Jericho.

JERICHO, West Bank – For the first four days of the war, Adly Saleem kept working at a construction site near Tel Aviv, trying not to panic. Like thousands of other Palestinian workers from Gaza, he found himself suddenly stranded in Israel and separated from his family.

Saleem frantically tried to stay in touch with his wife and seven children back in the besieged enclave amid relentless Israeli airstrikes. Israel soon canceled all permits for Gazan workers and erased them from the phone application that they use to prove their legal status.

“Israel brought me here legally,” Saleem said. Police beat and detained him, he said, before he finally made his way to Ramallah, and then to Jericho. “Now I just want to go home.”

Thousands of Gazan workers have sought refuge in the West Bank, where they’ve been taken in by Palestinian communities, uniting across political and geographic divides. The men interviewed by The Washington Post said they had lost touch with friends and family members working in the country and assumed they were in Israeli detention.

The confusion over the whereabouts of Gazan workers is indicative of the chaos that has gripped Israel since Oct. 7, when Hamas gunmen rampaged through the south and killed at least 1,400 people. Retaliatory Israeli strikes have killed more than 2,700 Palestinians in Gaza and a ground invasion looms.

An unspecified number of Palestinians from Gaza are being kept in an Israeli “holding facility” in the West Bank, according to a statement from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, an arm of Israel’s Ministry of Defense.

“The matter of continuing to hold them and moving others to the facility is being looked into by the political echelon,” the statement said.

Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, Israel has blockaded the coastal enclave to contain the militant group, all while maintaining an unofficial economic peace. Israel’s giving – and taking – of worker permits was a key of part of its strategy to influence Hamas and improve conditions for some of Gaza’s 2 million residents.

Israel had approved 18,500 permits for Gazan workers; it’s unclear how many were in the country at the time of the attack.

Getting a permit involved extensive security checks. Workers traveled through the Erez crossing, where Israel allowed them to carry only a small bag without electronics or toiletries. They typically spent a week or two at a time in the country and returned home on weekends.

Hamas, in turn, had appeared increasingly interested in governing in recent years, leading some analysts to credit the group with a more pragmatic turn.

Now, Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and workers from Gaza are caught in legal purgatory.

Saleem has held one of the coveted work permits for two years, allowing him to escape grinding unemployment in Gaza, where 8 in 10 people live below the poverty line.

On Wednesday, several police officers approached Saleem at his construction site and asked where he was from. When he said Gaza, they beat him on his head and back, tied his hands and feet together, and imprisoned him, he said.

After two days, according to Saleem, police dropped him off at a West Bank checkpoint. The Israeli police did not respond to a request for comment.

On Friday, Saleem arrived in Jericho, where the deputy mayor, Yusra Sweiti, said Palestinian authorities are housing some 1,900 Gazan workers.

Stranded Gazans – no one could say how many – have also gone to Tulkarem, Tubas, Ramallah and other Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank, she said

In Jericho, about 450 Gazans are being housed in a large police training center run by Fatah, Hamas’s bitter rival, the party that dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

“You might be sitting, and suddenly someone comes pulling off his hair and screaming ‘I lost my house, my children were martyred,'” said Daoud Abdullah Borgol, 60, an administrative official at the facility.

The men sleep in rooms packed with long cushions and mismatched sheets and blankets. Authorities are providing food, clothes and medicine, Sweiti said.

“They will stay in Jericho until the war is over and they can go back to Gaza,” she said. But desperation is rising.

“Get me back to my children,” pleaded Ibrahim Abu Awad, from the town of Bani Suhaila in south Gaza. His family, like hundreds of thousands of displaced Gazans, had fled to a United Nations school in Khan Younis.

Abu Awad left Gaza on Oct. 5, two days before the attack. He was working in Caesarea on Saturday when he was detained, then released by Israeli police. His Arab landlord told him to hire a taxi with two other workers, which dropped them at a West Bank checkpoint.

“I can’t stay here, eating and drinking while my children are dying,” he said. “There is no electricity or water or anything. Let me die there between my children.”

Thirty miles away, in Al-Ram, just behind Israel’s separation barrier with the West Bank, 35 laborers were staying at a reception hall typically used for celebrations.

On Monday, they gathered for a breakfast of pita, Jerusalem round bread and hummus, served on pink plastic plates. Afterward, they sat around, smoked cigarettes and wearily waited for their families in Gaza to pick up the phone.

Odai Moussa, from the Deir al-Balah refugee camp, has a degree in sports education. For the last eight months he’s worked painting buildings in Israel. His family back home is in “agony,” he said. He is glued to the news on television and social media. “My message,” he said, “is to stop this war. We don’t want conflicts or wars or anything.”

Moussa’s 8-year-old son is sick with a liver disease. He had recently procured an Israeli permit for the boy to leave Gaza and receive treatment at a hospital in Jerusalem, he said. That’s off the table now. In the chaos of war, as Gaza’s health care system collapses, he can’t access the medicine he needs at all, Moussa said.

Raed al-Aklouk is from Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, where Israel ordered some 1.1 million people to evacuate in recent days. He’s proud that his oldest children are engineers and architects – not laborers like him.

In a phone call Monday, his family tried to reassure him that they were all right. “Is electricity back?” he asked. The first cellphone he tried to call had been turned off. “No,” said his youngest, 10-year-old Heba. “How is the water?” he asked. “There is water, don’t worry,” she said. “We have everything, don’t worry.”

But he knew it wasn’t true.