In War-Torn Gaza and Israel, a Foreign Passport Is Key to Options

The document can offer escape or the option to flee, though some choose to stay

In War-Torn Gaza and Israel, a Foreign Passport Is Key to Options
Civilians leaving Gaza display their documents as dual-national Palestinians and foreigners prepare to cross the Rafah border point with Egypt on Nov. 2. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images)

The only exit from Gaza is at Rafah, the border crossing that leads into Egypt’s vast Sinai Desert. But for most of the people in the tragic convoy trudging southward in the hot sun, under orders from the Israeli army to evacuate the north, leaving the territory is not an option. Egypt is keeping Rafah closed to all but a small minority of Palestinian dual nationals whose foreign passports are a ticket out. If they can get to the border terminal without being shot by a sniper or hit by an airstrike and, if the passport they hold belongs to a country that has coordinated with the Palestinian and Egyptian border officials, if the names on their passports appear on the list sent by the consulate in Jerusalem to those border officials in Rafah, then, after waiting in the terminal for many hours or even days, they can leave.

And yet some of those fortunate ones who possess the equivalent of a golden ticket have elected not to cash it in. They include physicians who refuse to abandon the wounded and the sick, journalists who are committed to telling the story of the destruction of Gaza and ordinary civilians who have decided they would rather die at home than go into exile, sometimes despite the pleading of terrified relatives who live abroad.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists freedom of movement as a basic human right. It is also one of the rights that governments and armies most frequently withhold or dole out as a privilege, with conditions attached. For some, those conditions — like permanent exile — are unacceptable.

The subject of passports and exile came up frequently during my visit to Israel and Palestine last spring, after an absence of 12 years. I was able to enter and leave the country without renewing my own, long-expired Israeli passport because the ministry of the interior, paralyzed by an epic backlog of applications caused by a combination of corruption, COVID and incompetence, had given dual nationals a reprieve until January 2024. At Ben Gurion Airport the customs official barely glanced at my passport’s expiration date (2013) or the 20-year-old photo. A few clacks on a computer keyboard, a quick rifle through my Canadian passport, and I was waved through. Stamps are not needed in the biometric age.

I was a little taken aback at the extent to which acquiring a foreign passport had become a burning issue for native-born Israelis. This was a new phenomenon. Fifteen years earlier a very stylish friend who owned a boutique in one of south Tel Aviv’s trendy neighborhoods, where she sold her own designs, told me she wanted to apply for a German passport so that she could become an EU resident and study fashion design in France.

“But I don’t dare,” she said. Her grandmother, a Berlin Jew who had survived the Nazi death camps, had threatened to ban her from the Friday night dinner table if she became a German citizen. My friend believed her grandmother would make good on that threat.

Most of the Holocaust survivors who were alive when I left had died during my decade-long absence, and so, it seemed, had the old attitudes. People were pragmatic about movement in the digital nomad age. Applying for a Polish or German passport based on the provenance of one’s grandparents was considered normal and rational; meanwhile, Sephardic Israelis were testing Spain’s promise, made in 2015, that Jews who could prove their ancestors were expelled in 1492 were entitled to restitution in the form of citizenship.

For those who had no European ancestry to show, normalization had brought new options. One friend, whose grandparents were from Rabat and Casablanca, told me she had taken advantage of the 2020 treaty between Morocco and Israel to acquire a Moroccan passport. Another friend said seriously that she believed she was eligible for Iraqi citizenship. Given that people were drowning on flimsy rubber rafts in the Mediterranean because they possessed only an Iraqi passport, one might describe my friend’s desire to acquire one as eccentric or pointless. But I sensed something symbolic in her aspiration to become a citizen of another country in the Middle East. Maybe this was an unexpressed desire to acquire tangible evidence of an identity that went beyond Israeli-ness, even if the alternate passport was neither practical nor useful. Or maybe my friend wanted to exercise an option that was once the privilege of Ashkenazi Jews, who are the country’s traditional elite.

Israel was home, but it was also a country in political crisis, lurching toward authoritarianism.

Among the estimated 60,000 Russian and Ukrainian Jews who found refuge in Israel after Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, I met several who said openly that they were not stopping long. Evgeny (a pseudonym), a 30-something former creative director at a Moscow advertising agency, had fled Russia with his wife, a ceramicist, during the first week of the invasion, wanting to evade economic sanctions and the threat of military conscription. Fluent in English and European in his style of dress and manner, Evgeny said they planned to stay in Israel just long enough to acquire Israeli passports — he used the phrase “clean our citizenship” — before departing for the United States or western Europe. He expressed no sentimental attachment for Israel or his Jewish heritage and did not feel the need or desire to learn Hebrew. Meanwhile, the couple had opened a small ceramics studio; Evgeny managed the business end while his wife gave pottery workshops in Russian and English and sold her own creations. The business card he gave me was entirely in English.

Even as they were putting backup plans in place, few of my friends were making concrete plans to emigrate. The quality of life is high in Israel, families are tight knit, and friendships are intense. Going into exile, with its loneliness and cultural dislocation, was something to be avoided if possible. But with Netanyahu’s far-right coalition firmly in power and the impressively well-organized but ultimately ineffective protest movement having failed to stop legislation that would end the judiciary’s independence, there was an omnipresent sense of dread and deep uncertainty about the future. Nearly everyone I asked cited this uncertainty when they said that having a departure plan was important — just in case. Tom Mehager, a Mizrahi civil society activist, told me that not having that option was a concern: “Of course I am worried about the future. I have a small child. I don’t know what kind of country this will be when she grows up, and I don’t have a foreign passport.” I heard that a newly popular option was to relocate to Athens or Cyprus, where several Israeli tech companies had set up satellite offices. The climate and food were familiar and the flight to Tel Aviv was just an hour.

Among the captives taken to Gaza on Oct. 7 are foreign workers from Tanzania and Thailand, several Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish Israelis who are dual nationals. Distraught at the Netanyahu government’s failure to negotiate the release of the hostages, the families of dual nationals are appealing for help from the countries in which they hold alternate citizenship. Two of the four hostages Hamas released, Judith and Natalie Raanan, are U.S. citizens who were visiting Israel from their home in Chicago. But for the others, an alternate passport has not yielded a ticket to freedom.

Now 160,000 Israelis are internally displaced — some from their homes in the north, where Hezbollah’s rockets are landing, and others from the communities close to Gaza that Hamas attacked on Oct. 7; the entire area is now a closed military zone. Netanyahu and the army generals say the war in Gaza is likely to continue indefinitely. The shekel’s value is declining while the economy will surely take a serious hit with 300,000 reserve soldiers called up for active duty in the war. Freedom of expression is in freefall, with the far-right ministers in Netanyahu’s government implementing emergency legislation that gives police the power to arrest anyone who expresses opposition to the war. If these circumstances continue indefinitely, Israelis with the option to leave and rebuild their lives abroad will probably do so. Who will be left behind? The poor, the unskilled, the marginalized, religious nationalists, the ultra-Orthodox. And Arab citizens of Israel.

Those Arab citizens of Israel are less likely to have access to a foreign passport. They are also a highly educated sector of the population, prominent in health care, law and accounting. According to a survey carried out this month by the Israel Democracy Institute, despite the ongoing government-orchestrated campaign to suppress their right to freedom of expression, 70 percent of Arab citizens said they felt a strong connection to the state, compared with 48 percent in June.

Tareq, the Palestinian from Nablus whom I wrote about in a previous article, saw his best Tel Aviv life end with the beginning of the war. He did not have the option to renew his permission to stay in Israel, let alone apply for an Israeli passport. Within a week of Oct. 7, he had lost his job and was afraid to walk alone on the streets, where police were randomly checking identity cards and arresting Palestinians from the West Bank even if they had permission to be in Israel. When he needed groceries he called a friend to walk with him to the shop. He was afraid to give his obviously Arab name to the barista when he ordered a cappuccino at a cafe. So, he packed up and went back to Nablus, knowing that he would probably never live in Tel Aviv again. “The war set my life back to zero,” he said sadly, adding that he was trying not to feel overwhelmed by emotion at seeing all he had built over more than two years taken away in just a few days. He knew, he said, that his own troubles were nothing compared with what was happening to people in Gaza. He had decided to go ahead with a long-planned trip to Berlin, to visit friends who lived there — Palestinian citizens of Israel and regular Germans whom he had met in Tel Aviv. He would put his superb networking skills to work and see whether he could find an academic program or some other opportunity that would allow him to stay there for a while.

Tareq’s flight to Berlin departed from Amman. Tel Aviv was closer, but Palestinians from the West Bank are not allowed to fly out of Ben Gurion Airport. They don’t have the right passport.

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