From Gaza to Geneva: leaving Palestine for the first time to speak at the UN

In December 2017, Haitham Al Saqqa, MAP’s Programme Assistant in Gaza, joined MAP colleagues in Geneva to brief states and others on the right to health of Palestinians and on the rights of Palestinians with disabilities, ahead of Israel’s Universal Period Review. Below Haitham describes his journey to Geneva.

5 September 2017

I will never forget when Fikr, MAP’s Director of Programmes in Gaza, told me the news that I had been waiting to hear for more than 15 years. I couldn’t believe it. I had the chance to get out to see the world and represent the voices of Palestinians in Gaza at the UN. It was a dream come true.

6 September 2017

I started looking into what I would need to do to get a visa to travel to Switzerland.

As all Palestinians who live in Gaza, there are a lot of steps to go outside. First, you need to request a visa from the country you are traveling to, in my case Switzerland.

November 2017

In mid-November the Swiss Embassy called me to tell me that my visa request had been approved. I couldn’t believe it, for the first time in my life I had a travel visa in my passport. It felt amazing.

The next step was for me to apply for an exit permit, giving me permission from Israel to leave Gaza through Erez crossing. This process usually takes a long time.

After this, I needed to apply for a non-objection letter from the Jordanian authorities. This is because, as a Palestinian, I am not allowed to fly out of Israel, so instead need permission to fly out of Jordan.

I booked my flights and waited for an answer from Israel and Jordan. The plan was to leave Gaza on 7 December.

4 December 2017

I was told by my colleague that, finally, I had permission from Israel to exit Gaza through Erez Crossing. 

6 December 2017

I was very nervous because I didn’t know if I would travel or not, still there was no reply about the Jordanian non-objection letter. I thought I had lost my chance to travel and I would have to stay in Gaza.

At 4pm I got a call from the MAP office in Ramallah to tell me that the Jordanian permission had been approved. I danced with happiness, I couldn’t believe that my dream had come true. 

That night, the US president delivered a speech recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This turned the situation in Palestine upside down. There were a lot of demonstrations. The announcement made me very sad and my family asked me to delay or cancel my travel. I couldn’t sleep that night.

7 December 2017

I left my family, colleagues and friends at 10am. I took a taxi from my home in Khan Younis to Erez crossing. After waiting an hour I was able to leave Gaza. I took another taxi to continue my journey to Jericho. I entered Jordan through Al Karameh/Allenby Bridge. I gave all the required travel documents to the Palestinian side at the crossing and when I arrived on the Israeli side I had to wait for almost an hour and half.

As I got to the Jordanian border I had to go to a window for people from Gaza. I gave them the required travel documents and I sat waiting for almost two hours. When the policeman told me “welcome to Amman”, I realised that now I’m in the safe side and must focus on my trip to Geneva.

In Amman I saw my aunt for the first time since 1999. I had not been able to see her before because of the occupation and Israeli blockade and closure on Gaza. 

9 December 2017

I woke up early in the morning because my flight to Geneva was leaving at 11am. I arrived the airport at 8am and I went to check in and have a quick tour of the airport because I had never seen one before.

I was very excited on the plane. I didn’t know what to do, should I look out the window, or look at everything inside the plane? I was very happy, I couldn’t believe myself. I spoke with the people on the plane. I told them this is my first time outside my country. I told them about the occupation and how Israel is violating our rights. I also told them about the difficulties Palestinians’ face when trying to travel outside of Palestine. 

I will never forget the snow as we landed into Switzerland. My flight had a stopover in Zurich airport and the view of the snow on the mountains and trees was incredible.

Finally, I arrived into Geneva airport and met my colleague Roisin, MAP’s Campaigns Officer. We took the train to our accommodation. What an amazing day! I used four different types of transportation; taxi, plane, train and a bus all in one day.

10 December 2017

In the morning I practiced my speech that I would be delivering to UN Member States with Roisin.

In the afternoon we went on a tour of the old city in Geneva. I can’t describe my feeling when I saw the lake and crossed the bridges. That afternoon I ate a lot of chocolate. We were lucky because there was a historical festival taking place too. As well there was a light festival which was very impressive. It was amazing for me to see something like that.

11 December 2017

Today was an incredible day. There was a training about the UPR session run by UPR-Info.

During the training we talked with some participants about Israel violations of Palestinians’ human rights, especially the right to health, restrictions on the freedom of movement of patient, medical workers and ambulances and the rights of persons with disabilities.

12 December 2017

Today we had met with people who support Palestinian human rights issues in Geneva. Our colleague Neil, MAP’s Director of Advocacy and Campaigns, joined us from the UK. He and I ran through my speech for the last time before the UPR session.

I tried to sleep that night but I couldn't. My colleagues from Gaza, my family and some friends outside of Palestine phoned me to support and encourage me before the session.

I reviewed the speech for the last time and I told myself this is the time to do something for Palestine and the people who were killed during the 2014 Israeli offensive on Gaza.

13 December 2017

We set off early to the UN. My colleagues talked with me to help my fears go away. They encouraged me that I would deliver the statement well.

After we entered the hall, I took some photos of where I would talk. The session began, I was number 5 in the order of the speakers.

During my speech I saw some of the attendees, especially Roisin and Neil who I took the strength and tranquility from.

“Yes, you did it” this is the first thing I heard from another speaker who was sitting next to me when I finished my speech.

Afterwards a representative from the European Union came up to me and asked if it was possible to have a briefing with me and my colleagues. That made me realise that I did a great job. After the session we had a lot of briefings with UN Member States, including Italy, Ireland, Germany and Belgium. We also met with the Office of the Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

During these meetings I noticed that it was snowing outside and this was a unique moment for me. In-between the meetings I went to walk outside tried tasting the snow on my tongue.

I took the greatest photos at the UN, one in the front of the Palace and the other amongst the flags.

That night I felt very proud because I felt that I had achieved something for Palestine and raised awareness of the barriers Palestinians face in accessing healthcare and the barriers Palestinians with disabilities face.

14 December 2017

We went to see the mountains and the snow and to do some skating. It was very quiet and wonderful up there. Everything was white; the mountains, houses, cars, streets and trains. I loved it especially when I filmed myself walking in the snow.

15 December 2017

It was time to leave Geneva and return to Jordan. I had a great tour on the airport before my flight.

I arrived into Amman at 7.30pm. Part of me wished if I could stay there to live in peace but at the same time I wanted to return to Palestine to resist the occupation by peaceful means.

18 December 2017

I returned to Palestine through Al Karameh Bridge. I waited for more than four hours at the Israeli border control. I arrived at the Palestinian side at 5pm. This meant I would not reach Gaza before 7pm and by then Erez Crossing would be closed. So I went to the West Bank and spent the night there. I stayed with my friend and we talked together about my journey.  I told them "it is the first of time I have done and seen a lot of things and I can’t believe I did them". Also, I told them "I'm very proud because I did something for my county.”

19 December 2017 

Finally, I returned to Gaza. On my way to my home I stopped the taxi to look at the sea and I thanked god for being with me during throughout journey. 

Now I’m sure that if I travelled around the world, I would not forget Palestine and I would not want to live outside Khan Younis in Gaza.

I will never forget my time in Geneva, being able to see my aunt in Jordan for the first time in 19 years and the happiness and pride on the faces of my Mum, Dad, wife, aunts and sisters because I represented our country at the UN.

 To find out more about MAP’s time in Geneva click here.

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