Family with American children stranded in Gaza

Israel Materials 29 June 2009 12:02 (UTC +04:00)

In blockaded Gaza, even an American passport isn't a sure ticket to freedom, reported AP.

Two boys, ages 5 and 6, are stranded because one has a U.S. passport that expired and the other's is about to.

The U.S. offers no consular services in Gaza, but Israel's border closure of the Hamas-ruled territory prevents the children from reaching the nearest U.S. diplomatic mission in Israel.

The bureaucratic limbo means the boys' Palestinian parents can't leave Gaza, either. Their father, Kaman Elkafarna, stands the risk of losing out on doctoral studies in Russia.

"It's an absurd situation," said Keren Tamir of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, which has appealed to Israel's Supreme Court on behalf of the family. "They can't get new passports since they can't leave Gaza, and they can't leave Gaza since they don't have new passports."

The predicament of the Elkafarna family highlights the growing hardship suffered by Gazans, two years after the territory was seized by the Islamic militant Hamas and its borders slammed shut.

The closure is enforced by both Israel and Egypt, which only let out a trickle of Gazans. Egypt opens the gates periodically for Palestinians with foreign residency or medical patients. Israel enables Gazans suffering serious illness to reach Israeli hospitals for treatment.

Israel says the travel restrictions are a result of Hamas' hostility to the Jewish state.

However, the blockade has been widely criticize. The Quartet of Mideast mediators - the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia - demanded over the weekend that Gaza's borders be opened. Human rights groups say locking in Gazans, especially students like Elkafarna, has backfired because the closure limits development while fueling frustration and militancy.

Elkafarna, 37, holds a Master's degree in systems engineering from George Washington University. His two sons, 5-year-old Elias and 6-year-old Qasem, were born in the United States while he obtained his degree.

Elkafarna, his wife and two sons returned to Gaza in 2004. He said that at the time, he didn't want to overstay his student visa in the U.S. and that he had no other place to go except Gaza.

He now hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in project management at Voronezh State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering in Voronezh, Russia. However, Russia won't give the boys visas in expired passports, and renewing the passports has proven impossible.

Elkafarna could apply for Palestinian travel documents for the boys, but argues he shouldn't have to since they are American citizens.

In Jerusalem, U.S. Consulate spokeswoman Christina Higgins said she can't comment on individual cases, but that the U.S. State Department has been up front about its limited ability to provide services to Americans in Gaza.

The U.S. has banned government employees from the territory since Palestinian militants blew up an American diplomatic convoy there in 2003, killing three guards.

"We're in regular contact with American citizens there and we do monitor their welfare," she said. "In the past, we've done regular evacuations when groups of Americans want to leave. That said, our advice holds; we really think Americans should avoid all travel to Gaza because we do have a very limited capability there."

Higgins said she believes several hundred American citizens - presumably most of Palestinian origin - are currently in Gaza. She said exact figures are hard to come by because U.S. nationals don't register with the consulate.

Some face problems similar to those of the Elkafarnas.

Almaz Hijji, 43, gave birth to two of her children, Bader, 12, and Aya, 8, during the last two of her five visits to her siblings in Virginia, she said.

Both of her American children's passports are expired, meaning Egyptian border authorities won't let them leave Gaza, she said.

She said she has called the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem many times to find a solution, she said, but leaves messages in Arabic without getting a response.

Gazans with European passports seem to bee better off.

The United Kingdom and France have permanent offices in Gaza that provide consular services, and Germany regularly sends consular staff to set up a temporary office. Sweden, Norway and Denmark share a liaison who works with their consulates to deliver visas and provisional passports in Gaza.

Israel says Hamas is to blame for Gaza's troubles. The Gaza militants have attacked Israeli border crossings with Gaza numerous since Hamas took power, though the number of attacks has dropped following an Israeli military offensive in January.

"With its belligerent stance against Israel, Hamas has made impossible the free movement of people through the border crossings," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.