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February 1, 2010

Separation, Siege and Justice

Berlanty Azzam Speaks to Boston College Students

SeparationBerlanty Azzam might not be able to return to Bethlehem, but her mother has. On 5 January 2010, Evette Azzam and her daughter, Berlanty (participating via video conference), gave a kind of guest lecture to a group of Boston College students visiting Bethlehem University. Even without the Azzams’ stories of siege and separation, their blend of virtual and physical presence prompted a quick introduction to the complicated system of Israeli-issued travel permits for Palestinians.

Asked if permits were issued to all who apply for them, Berlanty’s mother explained that of the approximately 750 Christians in Gaza who applied for permission to visit holy sites under Israeli control only some 400 actually received them. Age is a major factor, she continued, with people between sixteen and thirty-five automatically rejected.

“My mother is lucky she’s older than thirty-five,” joked Berlanty.

Even someone as young as twenty-two year-old Berlanty has had time to witness a major transition in Gazan life since she left for Bethlehem in 2005. “For me the difference between 2005 and now is huge,” she said in reply to a question about the current situation in Gaza. “We are in a large siege. We cannot go out. We cannot move.”

Besides the movement restrictions Gazans face, the ingredients of daily life have become either costly or scarce. Though food is available, Berlanty said, it is around three to five times more expensive than it used to be, causing real hardship for Gaza’s poor. Also, the infrastructure for water and electricity has been damaged, and Gaza residents now lose power for eight hours per day. “Before we used to have water every other day,” Berlanty continued, but “now we have water every five days only.”

The other major problem Gazans face is separation. With uncertain access in and out of Gaza, family members who leave may remain unseen for years. Berlanty has not seen her oldest brother, who lives in the United Arab Emirates for six years now.

Distance is also felt between Palestinians in Gaza and their compatriots in the West Bank. “We started to learn about the oppression and stress of Palestinians as a whole, but it sounds to me like there are lots of tensions between Palestinians in Gaza and Palestinians in the West Bank,” commented one Boston College student.

Gazans feel frustrated by the relative freedom of movement enjoyed by Palestinians in the West Bank, explained Berlanty. While West Bank Palestinians also face very real restrictions, there are opportunities to travel to Jordan and sometimes within Israel. Very few Gazans have either of those options, so they tend to view their West Bank peers as a “free people,” she said. “They are people who are living.”

At the same time, the lack of contact between people in Gaza and those in the West Bank has led West Bank Palestinians to have skewed perceptions about people from Gaza.  “At the beginning,” Berlanty remembered, “when I came to Bethlehem, Palestinians in the West Bank said, ‘Oh, you are from Gaza!’ I said, ‘Yes, what is the problem?’ They answered, ‘Gazans are scary and tough people.’ I was shocked.” But her time in Bethlehem led to lasting friendships with classmates that Berlanty still emails regularly. “I am still in contact with them,” she said. “I call them on the phone day after day.”

Asked about the other students in Gaza who have been trying to gain permission to study at BU in Bethlehem, Berlanty replied that she had only met some of them. While some of them are pursuing other opportunities in the meantime, they still hope to attend classes in Bethlehem. One student, she said, has lost an entire academic year while waiting for the Israeli military authorities to grant him a travel permit.

Getting a permit is not just about passing some security clearance, Berlanty explained. Even though her record is clean, and none of her family members have been under suspicion by Israeli authorities, Berlanty’s Gaza-issued identity card kept her from getting a permit to study in Bethlehem. When a student asked Berlanty if her permit had been rejected because she was from Gaza, Berlanty replied, “[The Israelis] said, ‘You are from Gaza. You are not allowed to stay in the West Bank.’”

“You had a very distressing story,” another student commented. “For you, what would it mean to have justice in your life?” With tears in her eyes, Berlanty explained that justice would mean “the right to go to Bethlehem, the right to move.”

As the session closed, BU Vice Chancellor Brother Peter Bray thanked Berlanty for her participation. “You are a model of what we want students of Bethlehem University to be – to be resilient, strong, opinionated, and to have this sense of wanting to be alive,” he said. “We are proud of you, and we hope at some point we will be able to get you back here.”

“I am praying for that,” Berlanty replied.

The visiting students have been taking a sociology class on Palestine and Israel taught by Dr. Eve Spangler. Dr. Spangler, who explores issues of inequality in both her academic and personal lives, led the students’ West Bank trip along with Birthright Unplugged co-founder Dunya Alwan. Read more about their West Bank trip here.

Read more about Bethlehem University’s Gaza Student Initiative here.


Bethlehem University Foundation
Phone: +1-240-241-4381
Fax: +1-240-553-7691
Beltsville, MD USA
Bethlehem University in the Holy Land
Phone: +972-2-274-1241
Fax: +972-2-274-4440
Bethlehem, Palestine