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Late 2004 Miriam Hamada, an Israeli citizen, sent a letter to the minister of the interior pleading for him to resolve the legal status of her husband, and father of her daughters, Uda Eliada. Without legal status, he can work only as a camel herder, and consequently the family lives in wretched poverty.

Hamada says that the Be'er Sheva office of the Interior Ministry will not even agree to begin a family unification process. Why? "An applicant must attach an identification document to any application submitted to the bureau of family unification. Without identification, no action is possible," according to a letter sent to Hamada on February 27, 2005 by Alice Ben Haroush from the Be'er Sheva bureau of the Population Registry.

This paradox faces every Israeli seeking legal status for a family member who has no such status: The Interior Ministry considers applications only from those with some kind of an I.D. A person without legal status cannot identify himself. Unlike those coming from a foreign country or the Palestinian Authority, people with no legal status do not posses any form of identifying document. At most, those like Eliada have a Gaza I.D. number, issued by Israel without their knowledge and without their actually living there.

Not that this is a frowned-upon policy. Here is the Population Registry's response to Haaretz: "A person submitting a request to any official body is required to present an identifying document. This requirement is legitimate and sensible, and its objective is to ensure that the recipient of the service is indeed the person identifying himself by that name. In the absence of an identification document, the applicant must supply any other form of identification."

The requirement repeats throughout the process. In 2001 the Population Registry informed the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), that the request submitted by Uda Sarahin, a resident of Wadi El-Na'am in the Negev, to grant legal status to his wife Salame has been approved. But that did not conclude the affair; in an appeal submitted by the couple to the Be'er Sheva Administrative Court, they told the court that "the Interior Ministry's officials insist that the applicant, a woman devoid of citizenship and documentation, supply an identification document as a condition to further processing her application."

Not for the indigent

How can you escape the paradox? Usually you cannot.

The Population Registry's spokesperson, Sabine Haddad, says that "applicants are given many options for supplying an identification document, including a foreign passport, a verification certified by an official public body and more." In effect, there are two known ways out of the no-legal-status labyrinth, both highly complex and expensive and beyond the reach of most people without legal status.

One route is turning to a court, asking it to legally determine that you are yourself. This peculiar procedure includes testimony from the applicant and also from others who know him from birth (the tribal elders for example) and who can testify that he did not infiltrate from the PA. This is what the Interior Ministry demanded of Salame Sarahin. The District Court, sitting as an Administrative Court, and the Supreme Court ruled it a reasonable request.

In response ACRI attorney Oded Feller argued that "the appellants are Bedouin, living in great poverty in a tin shack in an unrecognized village. They cannot read or write. They are not equipped for court litigation and proof procedure.

Moreover, conducting a court procedure is a lengthy and expensive ordeal, which the appellants, like many other tribe members who do not posses identification documents, will find hard to endure. The procedure requires hiring a lawyer, and it is conditioned by payment of a court fee."

But then president of the Supreme Court, Justice Aharon Barak, was not convinced. He agreed that the appellants' difficulty was real, but he said that "it does not merit the court's granting status to those who fail to establish their identity as required."

Then how did Barak suggest solving the situation? He expressed hope that "the good will of others who wish to help [the couple - S.I] and assist, will bring about a rapid conclusion of the process." In other words, Barak passed the responsibility to ACRI.

"The Association of Civil Rights in Israel cannot deplete its limited resources in conducting proof procedures in the family court - not in the case of the appellant nor in the case of others with no legal status in the tribe," wrote Feller in the appeal. "The significance of the ruling is that the appellant, like many others entitled to status in Israel, has very little chance to conduct a legal procedure and obtain legal status."

ACRI continued to represent Sarahin, last week submitting a request in her name to the Be'er Sheva District Court. "The honorable court is asked to give a ruling, bearing the applicant's photograph, and stating that she: Salame Saliman Salam Sarahin; born in 1973; the daughter of Saliman Salam Saliman Sarahin and of Farija Ouad Uda Sarahin, lives in Wadi El-Na'am (Masoudin El Azazme), wife of Uda Id Sarahin."

Is the torment the applicants are subjected to by the Interior Ministry absolutely necessary? No. In the appeal of Sarahin, Feller lists a considerable number of methods used by the Interior Ministry to identify people whose identities are unknown, without any court intervention. Uda Sarahin, Salame's husband, received from the State of Israel a document identifying him as a Sinai resident at a relatively advanced age.

This was his first document, and it was granted based on his statement that "he is he." In 1990 he achieved permanent residency in Israel.

The identification of refugees in Israel is also not conditional on an identification document, which some of them do not possess, but rather is based on an interview. New immigrants coming to Israel from hard circumstances in their native countries can identify themselves by a verbal statement alone.

And what happens when the person without legal status is the son of an Israeli citizen and not a spouse? Such was the case of Ali Mugrabi, a child from East Jerusalem whose mother, an Israeli resident, could not get him registered, and he reached the age of 25 without an I.D.

In 2001, after lengthy correspondence, appeals by many Knesset members and legal procedures, Mugrabi and his mother underwent a tissue-sampling procedure. This is very expensive for someone unable to work.

A test done at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, proved that they were mother and son. Did the Interior Ministry find this satisfactory? No.

After endless further requests, Eli Veron, then adviser to the minister, asked for a declarative ruling by a court stating that Mugrabi is his mother's son. "He will have to present the court with the tissue test and convince the court that the applicant is indeed the person tested and that there is no doubt about his or his mother's identity."