Months later, she is still stuck in a hostel in Prato, waiting to return to her hometown, Hebron, in the West Bank. She has watched the departures of nearly all the other foreign students in her program, often with the help of their governments. In recent days, more than three months later, the Palestinian Authority has finally attained the right authorizations for a series of repatriation flights as international travel picks up. At last, her tentative flight date is set for next week.
“It’s really hard to see that everyone had a country and everyone knows what their country is doing for them, but for me I don’t,” said Bader, speaking by phone before the arrangement for her flight. “You feel like you’re not treated like everyone else in the world.”
The semiautonomous Palestinian government in the Israeli-occupied West Bank does not control any airport or border. It must coordinate travel with Israel, usually via neighboring Egypt or Jordan, which closed crossings and restricted borders in March and prioritized seats on flights for their own citizens.
Coronavirus-related travel restrictions have stranded people around the world. Many residents of African countries have struggled to get home, with flights to their countries still cut off. But as a Palestinian traveling on documents issued by an entity that’s not officially a state, Bader is in a predicament, as are others in similar situations, that sits at a particular nexus of international politics and the pandemic.
For decades, Israelis and Palestinians have been locked in conflict over efforts to create a Palestinian state. Israel’s government, emboldened by support from the Trump administration, has said it would soon move ahead with plans to formally annex more disputed land in the West Bank, which the Palestinian leadership says would be the final blow to its aspirations of statehood.
Bader was born in the early 1990s, when Israelis and Palestinians first signed the Oslo accords that created the Palestinian Authority as an interim government, on the road to a two-state solution. Nearly three decades later, the pandemic has served to illustrate how little power the Palestinian Authority holds, said Tareq Baconi, an analyst for the London-based International Crisis Group.
“It demonstrates the facade of what the PA is,” Baconi said. “It has all the symbols of statehood. But it’s not a state. It’s under occupation. … In the covid-19 era, it very starkly shows that we are living in a one-state reality.”
Saad Amira, 31, a doctoral student in South Africa, is stuck in a limbo similar to Bader’s. Like other Palestinian Authority passport holders, he would ordinarily travel home to the West Bank city of Ramallah by flying to Jordan and crossing an Israeli-controlled border checkpoint. But the pandemic barred that route. Still, he criticized the Palestinian Authority for moving slowly to provide a solution as situations worsened.
“We really understand the whole complex situation, where they don’t have sovereignty over borders and so on,” he said. “But then I think that shouldn’t be an excuse for them.”
Amira helped organize a student-led campaign, “Bring us back home,” publicizing cases and pressing for repatriation. Rather than saying their hands were tied, he said he wished the embattled Palestinian leadership had made cases like his a political priority and showed support for the next generation. Instead, in one case, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs threatened legal action against a student stranded in Ireland who criticized it online.
Ahmed Deek, a senior Foreign Ministry official in the Palestinian Authority, said he sympathized with those stranded and invited the campaign organizers to talk. But he denied that the ministry was the source of the problem. Instead, he blamed the need to coordinate evacuations with neighboring countries because of life under Israeli restrictions.
“We don’t have airports or control over the borders or crossings because we are under the Israeli occupation,” he said.
Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories declined to comment.
Students stuck abroad are far from the only problems for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority. It is facing a deep malaise at home after decades of corruption allegations, repression and a stalemated peace process that has been its basis for power. In recent months, though, it has gained goodwill among the public, Baconi said. Many Palestinians have been impressed with its decisive handling of the pandemic at home (carried out in coordination with Israel). Support also remains widespread over its standoff with Israel and the United States over Israeli annexation plans and the Trump administration’s aid cut and peace proposal, which the Palestinian leadership has rejected as in Israel’s favor.
Nearly four months into the pandemic, the Palestinian Authority has lined up a round of flights from Egypt, Russia, India, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Saudi Arabia to Amman, Jordan, where a bus will take the Palestinian passengers straight to the border. A Palestinian Authority-organized flight from Canada and Egypt already made the same trip. With more international travel resuming, Amira had hoped to catch a commercial flight to Amman on Wednesday, but it was canceled at the last minute.
Earlier in the crisis, Deek estimated that about 6,000 Palestinians were still stranded. During the shutdowns, the crossings with Jordan and Egypt were specially opened a few times to let thousands of Palestinians back in — although that didn’t help those farther afield.
These latest flights will also not assist everyone stranded. Deek said the Palestinian Authority is still trying to coordinate the return of some Gaza Strip residents, who face an even harder time getting home via Israel or Egypt. Gaza is controlled by the Palestinian Authority’s rival, the Hamas militant group, and under an Israeli-led land and sea blockade. Travel for Gazans is extremely difficult, even under ordinarily restricted circumstances.
Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who have Israeli residency but are not Israeli citizens, also fall outside the Palestinian Authority’s official purview. Unlike most West Bank and Gazan Palestinians, East Jerusalemites with the right paperwork can travel via Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. Others travel through Jordan using a limited Jordanian passport. During the shutdown, around 150 East Jerusalemites were able to fly back to Israel through the coordination of a Palestinian Arab member of Israel’s parliament.
Navigating all of these considerations was a huge headache for Diya Hasheem, a 23-year-old international trade and business student from East Jerusalem. He was stuck in Northern Cyprus along with around 40 other Jerusalemites and over 2,000 West Bankers, feeling “like an orphan.”
“To whom do we belong exactly?” Hasheem said. “When we have a problem, who do we go to?”
Israel bars the Palestinian Authority from operating in East Jerusalem, which Israel claims and Palestinians see as a future capital. While Hasheem wants Palestinian rule, he said he’s also frustrated with the Palestinian Authority after decades without much progress.
Hasheem has both Israeli and Jordanian travel documents, so he contacted Jordanian authorities about getting on a plane and crossing back. Jordan told him that its citizens were the priority, he said, and that the Palestinian Authority was working on a plan.
Any “logistics from abroad to reach Jordan are the responsibility of the Palestinian authorities,” said Jordan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ambassador Dhaifallah al-Fayez. If stranded Palestinians do make it to Jordan, “we do all that’s required for us to facilitate their travel into the West Bank,” he said.
In the meantime, Hasheem burned through his remaining cash and stayed with a friend to avoid renewing his rent.
On Thursday, after weeks of uncertainty, Hasheem was finally able to board a commercial Turkish Airlines flight and use his Israeli documents fly to Tel Aviv, an hour’s drive from East Jerusalem.
He was just happy to be home.