The Obstacle Course to School

He began first grade even before turning five. In ninth grade, he began attending a school for gifted students. He loved physics, and thought of pursuing the subject at the university level, but his mother thought he would be better off learning a more “social” profession, one in which he would have contact with people. In 1999, when he was 17, he decided to enroll in the faculty of medicine at Al Quds University at Abu Dis for three reasons, he says: He was awarded an academic scholarship, the studies are held in English, and the campus is close to home–an hour or an hour and a half by car.

Ahmed al-Najjar, soon to be 24, and in his last year of medical school, smiles bashfully as he says “close to home.” He does not elaborate, allowing the listener to imagine the meaning of “close to home” to someone who for the past five years has not seen his family or frien! ds. Al-Najjar, who was born in Jabalya, the refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, also allows the listener to imagine how it was to be caught that same morning, Saturday, January 7, by a Border Policeman.

He tells the story: “As I do every day, I jumped off the wall to the roof of one house, and from there to the roof of a second house, then I made my way through the alleys, heading for the bus that would take me to Al-Hilal [the women’s hospital operated by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem]. But today a soldier got on the bus and checked ID cards. Luckily, he knows me. `This is the second time that I’ve caught you,’ he said. `What can I do?’ I answered. `I have to get to work at the hospital.'”

No safe passage

Even during his first year of medical school, when the “safe passage” between Gaza and the West Bank was still open, he made only three or f! our visits home: It was possible to take the safe passage only on Mond ays and Wednesdays, meaning not on weekends, when there are no classes. Registration was required a week in advance, and the trip–including the long wait at the checkpoints–took hours.

In October 2000, even the safe passage option was cancelled. Since then, he has seen his widowed mother twice. She developed skin cancer, and on two occasions, and with a great deal of effort, she was issued a permit to go to the West Bank for treatment.

Israeli authorities consider Al-Najjar an illegal sojourner in the West Bank: when he sits in class, when he walks in the street, when he leans over the desk in his rented apartment in Abu Dis, reading. He applied twice to the Palestinian interior ministry to request that his address be changed on his Palestinian ID card from Jabalya to Abu Dis, but the request was denied. He says the Palestinian officials contended that there was no reason to carry out the ch! ange, because Israel would refuse to change its own records.

There are always a lot of Israeli soldiers and policemen in Abu Dis, and each one has the authority to expel him to Gaza–in other words, to end his studies–at any given moment. The problem grew worse in 2003, when Al-Najjar began clinical studies in a hospital in the West Bank. Every bus ride was a gamble. In 2004, Al-Najjar spent six weeks at the psychiatric hospital in Bethlehem. Every day, he had to pass through a checkpoint at the end of the only access road that links the northern and southern halves of the West Bank.

One day, in March or April, he doesn’t remember exactly, on his way back from the hospital, the soldie! rs at the checkpoint who saw the incriminating Gaza address ordered him to get out of the taxi and wait on the side of the road. He waited a few hours, and then they gave him back his ID card and let him go. The following day, he attempted to pass through the checkpoint again, was again told to get out of the car, and the soldier handed him a cell phone. Al-Najjar understood that the voice on the other end of the line was that of a Shin Bet agent. The voice explained to him that he could at any time be transferred to Gaza against his will. He was held there for two or three hours, and was then allowed to continue on his way.

Ever since then, he has done everything within his power to avoid manned checkpoints and reduce his movement within the West Bank.

But the moment arrived when he had to work, as part of his studies, at the Al-Muqassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. In November 2004, Al-Najjar applied for a magnetic card, a sort of “certificate of honesty,” with which he would be able to get to the hospital, a 15-minute drive from Abu Dis.

He was informed that he would have to travel to Gaza and apply for the card from there. In January 2005, the hospital asked the Civil Administration to authorize his entry to Jerusalem. The Administration responded that he would not be granted an entry permit to Israel because his address was in the Gaza Strip. In April 2005, Physicians for Human Rights tried to procure an entry permit to Jerusalem for him. Army authorities once again said that he would have to travel to Gaza, and request an entry permit from there.

Arrested, released, arrested

The organization requested a commitment that he would be allowed to return to Abu Dis. The army refused. Al-Najjar continued to sneak his way to the hospital.

On August 23, 2005, Al-Najjar was arrested on his way to the hospital. The police brought him to the Russian compound and held him, but he was released the following day after NIS 5,000 in bail was deposited on his behalf.

In October 2005, he turned to attorneys Kenneth Mann and Sari Bashi of Gisha–Center for the Legal Protection of Freedom of Movement for legal assistance. On October 20, 2005, he was again arrested, this time by Border Policemen. The attorneys intervened, seeking to prevent his deportation. Al-Najjar was briefly interrogated by the Shin Bet, and was released. On November 27, he was again arrested by the Border Police and detained for a ! few tense hours before being released.

Since October 20, 2005, attorneys Mann and Bashi have been waging a written and oral campaign with IDF authorities to enable Al-Najjar to continue his practical studies in East Jerusalem hospitals. He must file an application with the DCO/liaison and coordination office in Gaza, the army wrote. Orally, the army said that the request for a permit was rejected for “security reasons.” The IDF also suggested that Al-Najjar apply to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza in order to express his reservations regarding the Israeli authorities’ rejection.

Mann and Bashi asked for greater detail of what constituted “security reasons.” The army wrote the lawyers, “So long as the individual resides in the Judea and Samaria region without the permit of the military commander, his resid ence in the region is unlawful, and he must return to the Gaza Strip immediately.”

Afterward, the attorneys sent another series of memoranda, to which they did not receive any answer. On December 15, they appealed to the High Court of Justice, asking it to request that the IDF explain why the petitioner was not granted an entry permit to Israel for the purpose of his studies, and why he would not be recognized as a resident of Abu Dis. They also asked the court to issue an interim order to prevent his deportation to Gaza.

The interim order was issued the following day, on December 16. It instructs the IDF and the police not to “transfer the petitioner to Gaza” until another decision on the appeal is handed down. Al-Najjar keeps a copy of the interim ord! er in his backpack at all times. It enables him to walk down his street without fear, and even go to Ramallah or Bethlehem. But he must still sneak into East Jerusalem, because the hospitals affiliated with his medical school are situated there, and he does not have an entry permit to Jerusalem.

The faculty of medicine in Abu Dis, the only one in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, opened in 1994, and has produced five graduating classes since then. The number of Gazan graduates has shrunk over the years due to the unrelenting tension of studying “unlawfully.” Al-Najjar used to have a young female classmate who was also from Jabalya. Like him, she used to hop over the fence to get to work in the hospital in Jerusalem. She suffered from a heart defect.

In early 2004, as she was hopping over the wall (when it was still low), soldiers were trying to disperse people nearby with tear gas. She suffocated and died. Al-Najjar is now the only Gazan studying medicine in Abu Dis.

AMIRA HASS writes for Ha’aretz. She is the author of Drinking the Sea at Gaza.