From Gaza to EU: one man's journey
The efforts of one Palestinian man to get to his scholarship at a European university show how cut off Gaza is from the normal world.
Twenty-four-year-old Maysara al-Arabeed left Gaza for the first time in his life on 30 October 2012.
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He was going to the nearest Czech consulate, in Cairo, to apply for an EU visa in order to go to Charles University in Prague, where he had won an NGO-funded scholarship for a master's in international relations and security studies.
He told EUobserver that doing the degree is his "dream."
But the journey to Cairo is not easy.
Israel bombed Gaza's airport 10 years ago and is currently blockading the coast, as well as its north, east and south land perimeter.
The only legal way for any of its 1.7 million people to get out is to drive to the Rafah crossing point on the Egyptian border.
Here, they wait a few hours or a few days to get, maybe, an Egyptian visa.
Then they drive for six hours through the Sinai desert, where Bedouin bandits prey on trucks and coaches, before getting to the Egyptian capital, where Palestinians are not welcome.
Al-Arabeed had made detailed preparations for his EU visa interview.
With Israel also blocking day-to-day postal deliveries to Gaza, he got his Czech sponsor to DHL him the original acceptance letter which Czech officials had asked for.
He emailed them scanned copies of all the other documents they wanted to make sure everything was in order.
But in the end, the bureaucratic journey was harder than the physical one.
At the consulate, officials told him they want a certificate of good conduct from the Palestinian police in the West Bank, not the one from Gaza which they had approved by email.
"I told them: 'I live in Gaza, so the police in the West Bank knows nothing about me.' But they didn't care ... They treated me like a second class person. The man at the desk said: 'You are Palestinian. So what the hell are you doing here?'," Al-Arabeed recalled.
He rented a flat in Cairo while he arranged the West Bank papers.
But when he got them, the officials said he must go in person to a Czech office in the West Bank so that it can certify them - an impossibility due to Israeli restrictions.
So he went back to Gaza empty handed.
A Czech diplomat later helped him to make special arrangements.
He tried to go back to Egypt on 27 December, but this time border guards said No.
"An [Egyptian] intelligence officer told me to make a 'special co-ordination' to let me go to Cairo. A special co-ordination means to pay money, a bribe ... Eventually, I found someone who knows Egyptian intelligence officers working in Rafah. He told me he could help if I pay $200. I had no choice but to accept," al-Arabeed said.
On 29 December, he got into Egypt and on New Year's eve the Czech consulate accepted his visa application.
But with the masters course in Prague already under way, he is still waiting to see if he gets the EU visa or not.
"They seem to think that all Palestinians want to go to Europe to escape there. I love Gaza. I want to do this degree so that I can come back here and help people. But nobody believes me," he said.
He added that his experience is typical, but there is no way to check how the EU respects Palestinian travel rights.
The Czech interior ministry told EUobserver only that his initial application was "ineligible."
The European Commission said there are no figures on how many Palestinians apply for EU visas or how many get permits.
This is because they are treated as if they are Israeli or as if they belong to wherever they lodge the application.
"We can't actually say how many Palestinians applied for/received a Schengen visa. Many applications by Palestinians are recorded under 'Israel' and not under 'Palestine' because the EU consulates are located in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Moreover, there are many Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Syria, Egypt and so on. And they may obtain their Schengen visas in those countries," commission spokesman Michele Cercone said, referring to the EU's so-called Schengen visa zone.
Al-Arabeed's EU gambit has so far cost him more than $1,200 in administrative fees and other costs.
He earns $300 a month working in the al-Aqsa University in Gaza.
By Gaza standards, he is doing well - according to a UN official, 70 percent of young people do not have a job and spend their time "sitting around." One hundred and fifty thousand families live on $20 a month and bags of UN flour.
But the visa costs have eaten up al-Arabeed's savings.
He had another $700 at the Islamic National Bank in Gaza City, but it was destroyed by an Israeli air strike on 20 November. "I don't know what will happen to this money," he said.
In a setback to other people trying to get out, Israeli strikes in November also demolished two Gaza buildings which issued ID and travel documents.
In a psychological blow, they destroyed a bridge on the road to Rafah, forcing drivers to use a dirt track.
The lack of proper work sees people in Gaza earn the $20 a month by doing odd jobs, such as moving rubble in carts pulled by hungry-looking donkeys.
With the trendy bars of Tel Aviv, in Israel, less than 100km up the coast, donkey skeletons lie on the Gaza beach.