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As Israel forces workers from Gaza back, thousands more remain stuck in the West Bank

Laundry hangs from a fence outside a university campus in the Palestinian city of Jericho, at a makeshift home for more than 400 workers from Gaza. There are thousands more workers throughout the Israeli-occupied West Bank, including in the city of Ramallah.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Laundry hangs from a fence outside a university campus in the Palestinian city of Jericho, at a makeshift home for more than 400 workers from Gaza. There are thousands more workers throughout the Israeli-occupied West Bank, including in the city of Ramallah.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip, and JERICHO, West Bank — News from Gaza comes in conversations in the hallway, over the communal sinks, between bunk beds, and texts and calls with relatives. For thousands of workers from Gaza who are stuck in makeshift shelters and camps in the West Bank, much of their world — including their families — is still 60 miles away.

On Friday, they heard about thousands of other laborers who were forced to return to Gaza on foot from Israel — dropped off several miles from the Israeli border with Gaza, wearing numbered tags on their ankles.

Some of those men, after returning to Gaza, told NPR they had been rounded up across Israel by the country's security forces and detained following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, when militants stormed into Israel, killing around 1,400 people and taking an estimated 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.

Basel Zrain, a worker from northern Gaza, has been separated from his wife and children for about a month.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Basel Zrain, a worker from northern Gaza, has been separated from his wife and children for about a month.

Israel's Security Cabinet said on Thursday, "Israel is severing all contact with Gaza. There will be no more Palestinian workers from Gaza."

Those who are now stuck in the shelters and camps in the West Bank are among many thousands of workers from the Gaza Strip who avoided detention in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack. They were able to make their way to the West Bank, which is under Israeli occupation. For now, their accommodations are provided by the Palestinian Authority, which has some local control in the West Bank.

To return to Gaza, they would have to go through Israel — but they are not allowed to enter. Even if they could, there is no way of knowing how they would get to Gaza.

Mattresses for displaced workers from Gaza line the floor in a room at Al-Istiqlal University in Jericho.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Mattresses for displaced workers from Gaza line the floor in a room at Al-Istiqlal University in Jericho.

One of the workers taking shelter in the West Bank, Basel Zrain, says he's been separated from his wife and children in northern Gaza for about a month. He may be in the West Bank physically, he says, but "My heart, my mind are not here."

Israel's attacks on the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7 have killed more than 9,000 people, 70% of them women and children, according to Palestinian health officials. Nearly 200,000 homes have been destroyed.

Before the war with Hamas, Israel gave out more than 18,000 work permits to people from Gaza. Many were employed in restaurants, retail or construction — living in Israel short-term or coming daily, and sending money back home to their families.

Ibrahim Alfarany gets a shave from a barber at the university. Both are displaced from their homes. With the large number of workers staying at the shelter, they have to sign up on a wait list to get a haircut and shave.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Ibrahim Alfarany gets a shave from a barber at the university. Both are displaced from their homes. With the large number of workers staying at the shelter, they have to sign up on a wait list to get a haircut and shave.

Days after Oct. 7, Israel revoked those temporary work permits and imposed a total blockade of the Gaza Strip. In the following days, thousands of Palestinian laborers from Gaza went missing or were detained by Israeli police, according to HaMoked, a human rights organization in Israel.

At the Al-Istiqlal University campus in the Palestinian city of Jericho, laundry hangs from the windows. There are dorm rooms stacked with bunk beds, and in larger halls, men lounge on mattresses pushed up against the walls, scrolling on their cellphones for news from Gaza. Whatever belongings they have fill plastic bags that dot the floor. There are communal sinks and an impromptu barber shop where you can get a shave and a trim if you join the wait list.

It is a makeshift shelter, home to more than 400 workers from Gaza, one of several accommodations throughout the city. Thousands more laborers are taking shelter throughout the West Bank, including in the city of Ramallah.

A view of the center of the university where the workers are staying in Jericho.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A view of the center of the university where the workers are staying in Jericho.

Here, the men sleep in rooms cramped with bunk beds. "All we want is to go home," they say again and again to NPR.

One of the Palestinian workers, Ibrahim Alfarany, has been staying at Al-Istiqlal University for more than three weeks. He usually works and lives near a store just south of Tel Aviv, where he stocks vegetables for a few weeks at a time, and travels back to Gaza.

While Alfarany was able to take a bus to the West Bank after Oct. 7, his brother was detained by the Israeli military near Nahariya, in northern Israel. After losing contact for more than 20 days, Alfarany finally talked to his brother on Friday, as his brother was walking into Gaza along with thousands of other workers.

Alfarany says he is very happy and relieved to know his brother is alive, though the life he and other family members are experiencing in Gaza is hard to watch from afar.

His wife and kids survived an Israeli airstrike several weeks ago while seeking cover at a playground. There are no buildings left in his neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Gaza City, he says, and his house was among those destroyed.

"I had a video, but it disturbed me too much that I deleted it," he says. "I watched it four or five times, and then said, 'I'm gonna delete it,' and I did."

Alfarany has nearly two dozen nieces and nephews and says he gets overwhelmed thinking about all the children going through the trauma of war right now.

"My mental state of mind is destroyed," he says. "I'm in a very bad place right now."

He scrolls through his phone, looking at photos of his two young daughters, Layan and Razan. Seeing pictures of their smiling faces, before the war, helps him forget all the bad things that have happened, he says.

Alfarany looks at pictures of his two young daughters making faces to the camera.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Alfarany looks at pictures of his two young daughters making faces to the camera.

In the courtyard of the university, another worker from Gaza, Basel Zrain, tells NPR even though he and the other men are safe here, with food and water, being away from their children haunts them.

His wife and five children are staying in Gaza's al-Shifa Hospital, where the United Nations estimates some50,000 people are seeking refuge from Israeli strikes. He relishes every text message and every call, even if the news is chilling.

"My son, when I speak with him, I say, 'How are you?' and he tells me, 'Baba, I write my name on my arm, in case I am killed,'" Zrain says. His son wants people to know who he is when he dies.

It's hard to hear stories like that through the phone while being stuck in the West Bank, says Zrain.

"I want to die with my children," he says. "I am a father and now my children are without a father."

NPR's Gaza producer Anas Baba reported from Rafah. Elissa Nadworny, Samantha Balaban, Sawsan Khalife and Claire Harbage reported from Jericho.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.
Sawsan Khalife
Anas Baba