Wedding Crushers

Does Israel Hassle non-Jewish Spouses?

Israelis with non-Jewish partners are all too familiar with the Interior Ministry and its red tape.

The narrow corridor of the visa department, in the back of the Interior Ministry office in Tel Aviv, is full of people and decorated with Israeli flags. On a recent Sunday morning, a clerk is sitting behind a window, answering questions and making appointments for people undergoing citizenship- and visa-related processes.

In front of the window, in a disorderly line, stand men and women, whites and blacks, Israelis and foreigners. Along the walls, on two rows of chairs, sit more people, and even a few babies.

Along the walls, on two rows of chairs, sit more people, and even a few babies. Everyone is waiting. The wait to reach the window takes an average of three to four hours, but one can easily get stuck there for seven. At 9 A.M., the person with the number 390 is being received. An hour and a half later, the line has advanced by a mere seven numbers.

Despite the crowded conditions, the line is for the most part quiet. This is a quiet of frustrated fatigue, of helpless waiting.

One person, an older man, suddenly begins to shout at the clerk: “Can you explain to me why they don’t give my wife a visa, when all the people at the escort agencies get visas without any problem?”

“Sir,” says the clerk, “I’m not familiar with those agencies.”

“I am!” shouts the man. “And everyone there gets visas!”

A., a middle-aged man who refuses to identify himself by name, nods in agreement when he hears the shouting, but remains in his seat quietly. He is an Israeli resident with a Ukrainian wife. They met in Israel and married in Ukraine. Today they have two children; the oldest is 9 years old. Nine is also the number of years that his wife has been trying to get citizenship.

A. hopes that, this morning, the clerk will finally give him a blue Israeli ID card for his wife, that she will become a normal citizen and so can begin the religious conversion process.

“It’s a rather long process, and I think it’s over the top − after all, we already have two children,” he says calmly. But when I try to understand why the citizenship process − which is supposed to take a maximum of five years for such a married couple − takes nine years, he loses his cool.

A.: “When my son, who is now 5 years old, was two months old, he was hospitalized for a long period. It was just when we were supposed to come here for our annual appointment, and we called to say that we couldn’t come. So they punished us and added another four years to the whole process. Now I sit here for no reason, year after year.”

What do you mean they “punished” you? What exactly did they say to you?

“I called to say that our son was in the hospital. So they postponed the appointment and said everything was all right, but that the [citizenship] process would be delayed by another four years.”

Did you try to argue?

“Yes, but I didn’t want to be too hostile. I don’t want to let my anger out here; that could be dangerous. There are people here who shout, but I think we have to be accommodating to them [the ministry staff]. And they should be accommodating to married Israelis who already have children. Now I’ve been waiting here for two hours to request the ID card, because my wife’s visa expires in two months.”

Why do you have to sit here? Can’t you call to make an appointment?

“I’ve been calling for several days but they don’t answer. They don’t have time to answer the phone. You see what’s going on here.”

“I don’t know anyone who came without a lawyer whose request was not rejected,” says Juan, who is sitting in the corridor with his Colombian partner. “Then you come back with a lawyer and suddenly they say, ‘All right.’”

Juan and his partner tried to deal with the Interior Ministry without legal representation, but the ministry didn’t accept their request and ordered that Juan’s partner be expelled from the country. The attorney they eventually engaged managed to prevent the expulsion. Now, a year and a half after they began the process, Juan’s partner still doesn’t have a work visa.

“The first time I came here, I felt like I was in a train station in Delhi,” says Gili Harpaz, referring to the hallways in the visa department. Harpaz, 33, lives in Tel Aviv with her French partner and their daughter. “People on top of one another, crying children, Filipinos, Africans − all with a glazed, frustrated and uncomprehending expression.

“I was shocked to discover that the clerk who received us didn’t know English and conducted the interview in Hebrew, while I translated and spoke on behalf of my partner,” Harpaz adds. “The main message conveyed by this place, where Israeli flags are hanging, is: ‘We don’t want you here. We will make things as difficult as possible for you,’” she says.

Still-unsolved problems

Anyone who falls in love with a foreigner and wants to obtain permanent residency status for him or her, will soon discover that the State of Israel does not welcome non-Jews.

While a French Jew will, upon his arrival here, receive an ID card, full rights and a generous “absorption basket” of assistance, his non-Jewish neighbor, if he falls in love with an Israeli woman and decides to move here, will undergo years of harassment until he receives permanent residency status, not to mention citizenship.

The civil marriage legislation under discussion, if it passes the Knesset, will enable the couple to marry in Israel − but won’t solve the problem.

Immigration is no easy matter in any country. In the case of Israel, however, a unique combination of complicated immigration policies, an overload of cases, inefficiency, exaggerated suspicion, a lack of uniformity among offices all over the country, and what looks like an
attempt on the part of the Interior Ministry to buy as much time as possible − all this leads so-called “mixed” couples down a long and twisted labyrinth of bureaucracy.

Anyone who embarks on these processes has to be willing to prove the seriousness of his relationship repeatedly, to obtain any document that is demanded, even if it is impossible to obtain, to lose many days of work to wait in fluorescent-flooded corridors, and to pray that he won’t end up with a particularly strict or suspicious clerk.

It’s better to be educated and well-to-do, to use a lawyer and to fall in love with an American or Western European, which saves ministerial harassment and usually guarantees better treatment. Many of those interviewed for this article requested anonymity, for fear of being marked as “troublemakers,” and being examined more strictly than usual the next time they come to extend their visas, for example. Why risk months or even years of effort?

Aside from the Law of Return, the entire arena of immigration in this
country is mostly a matter of regulations rather than laws, and the regulations change constantly, and differ from one office to the next. If a foreign-born Jew has immigrated to Israel with his non-Jewish wife and their children,
everyone will receive citizenship automatically. But when an Israeli citizen who lives here asks the state to grant a status to a non-Jewish partner, he cannot do so on the basis of the Law of Return and must undergo a procedure known as “family reunification.”

“For years, granting permanent residency to non-Jews was seen as a humanitarian exception, and we had to fight to change the approach,” says attorney Oded Feller of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, whose expertise includes human rights infringements on the part of the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, and cases involving immigration, citizenship and residency status.

“In recent years, after many petitions to the court, the interior minister has declared that, ‘there is no question that the right to a family life is important,’ but there is no other reference [to this concept]. At the start of the millennium there was a comprehensive amendment to the Entry into Israel Law (1952). They devoted entire chapters to detention and expulsion, and established the Immigration Police. But when it comes to status requests, nothing has changed for years. All the law says is that the Interior Ministry is allowed, while exercising its judgment, to grant entry visas and residency permits, and to make them conditional [on various criteria].”

A comparison to the U.S. procedure for Israelis who are married to Americans and want to receive a green card (permanent residency status) and immigrate to the United States does not put the Israeli chaos in a good light, to put it mildly. It’s true that the American process includes requirements that don’t exist in Israel − for example, proof of the ability to make a living − but for anyone who meets the minimum conditions, the process is short, reasonable and
efficient. It takes an average of six months to receive the green card, and after three years and submission of an application, another six months to receive citizenship. All requests for a green card are sent to a central office that applies criteria uniformly.

Attorney Tamar Klarfeld, who specializes in green card procedures and belongs to a firm that specializes in immigration in the United States, says that, as opposed to that country, “in Israel there is no uniformity [in the way cases are dealt with] at the Interior Ministry’s various branches. In some of them, even if you have obtained all the papers, the officials will demand another one. It’s unpredictable.”

Israeli courts have often had to rule on cases involving mixed couples who
appealed the state’s refusal to grant them a certain status; sometimes such cases even reach the High Court of Justice. A brief search reveals a large number of rulings in which the population authority was reprimanded for problematic behavior, violation of regulations, protocol irregularities, and mainly a tendency toward extremely strict interpretation of the regulations, usually to the detriment of the couples.

“Of course, I could think of improvements to the existing procedures, but as a first step I’d be happy if the Interior Ministry or the population authority would follow the procedures that they themselves determined,” says attorney Yadin Elam, who specializes in assisting couples in which one partner is Israeli and the other is non-Jewish.

“Most of the problems we encounter do not concern people who didn’t meet the criteria,” says Elam, “but are caused by the fact that the ministry rejected them with baseless claims, or put additional difficulties in their way that are not written in the regulations, or made draconian and unjustified demands regarding certain requisite documents.

“Couples come to me before beginning the process in the Interior Ministry, and ask whether they need a lawyer or whether it’s possible to do it themselves, and the honest answer is that I have no idea,” adds Elam. “There were couples that I thought had no chance without one, and everything went smoothly. And there were some cases where I thought there was no need for legal representation, and things began to get complicated.”

Years-long ordeal

Attaining permanent residency status in Israel takes seven years for a foreign-born, non-Jewish person who is in a nonmarital relationship with an Israeli citizen, and four-and-a-half years for those who are married. Until a late stage in the process, the foreign partner is not entitled to National Insurance or membership in a health maintenance organization. The years-long ordeal begins with procuring a list of documents required by the Interior Ministry − which include a certificate of good conduct, proof of one’s single status prior to marriage, a birth certificate and more, which must be obtained from the authorities in the foreigner’s homeland. But getting the list itself is sometimes a challenge.

“Getting the list in an organized manner is almost mission impossible,” says Ilana, who lives in Tel Aviv. Ilana met Davide, an Italian, through mutual friends. Three years ago, a romance developed between them and Davide came to live in Israel (full disclosure: Ilana is my neighbor, and I once wrote her a letters of recommendation for the Interior Ministry).

Ilana: “I have three different lists − one from the Internet, one from the Information Desk in the Interior Ministry, one from the population authority. Each one is slightly different. We prepared the documents asked for on the longest list, and then we came for an appointment and found that we were missing a declaration that we have no children. Why isn’t it on the list? Some of the documents cost hundreds of shekels, with the certification of a notary, etc.”

The Interior Ministry now operates a center for information and registration by phone for mixed couples, through which, in principle, it is possible to make appointments or ask questions. I called the number. After about half an hour, during which my call was mysteriously disconnected, I was answered by a polite service representative who wrote down my details and promised they would get back to me in a day or two to make an appointment. Over a month has passed, and I’m still waiting. Registration on the website resulted in a similar result (or absence of one). Anyone who wants to get the process moving should come to the office in person, sit down and wait his turn.

Sometimes, obtaining the documents themselves puts the entire process at risk. “Is it possible that the Interior Ministry demands a document that is nonexistent?” asked an Israeli surfer on the Tapuz forum for mixed couples. He explained that, two months earlier, he brought his wife and daughter to Israel from Germany. They had all the papers, except for a certificate of previous single status. This certificate does not exist in Germany; there is only a marriage certificate.

“Even if she goes back to Germany for it, they won’t give her such a document,” he writes. “A month from now the tourist visa of my wife and daughter expires, and I don’t know what to do.”

Well, the answer to the surfer’s question is “yes”: The Interior Ministry definitely tends to request and insist on receiving documents that are very difficult or impossible to obtain in the foreign citizen’s country of origin.

“It begins with certificates of good conduct [i.e., no police record], a birth certificate and personal status: documents that are required not only by the ministry, but that have to be verified and certified. Here’s where the complicated story begins,” says Feller. “What is verification? If the country is a signatory to the Apostille Convention [an international form of certification that normally supplements local notarization of a given document], it’s quite simple: You obtain the document and get an apostille stamp that is recognized in Israel. If not, the relevant ministry abroad will issue the certificate, the country’s foreign ministry will confirm the signature and the Israeli consulate will confirm the two signatures.

“But let’s take a case of the kind that we get repeatedly: a citizen whose partner is non-Jewish Moroccan. What does he have to do to get a certificate of good conduct from Morocco? His relatives there, if he has any, have to get a certificate of good conduct, have it signed by the proper official and send it to the Moroccan foreign ministry, which will confirm it, send it on to the Moroccan consulate in Paris for confirmation − and then the Israeli consulate in France will confirm that it’s from Morocco, and then it will be sent to Israel. It’s complicated and expensive. A certificate of single status? There are countries, mainly in Eastern Europe, where there simply is no such document. The Interior Ministry will send you to a court in the country of origin, which will issue a declaration that you are unmarried. That’s how people get stuck without a visa. The Interior Ministry itself creates illegal residents all on its own.”

Another common problem is related to expiration of passports. The Interior Ministry requires a non-citizen making a claim for status to carry a passport with a future validity of at least two years. In many countries, a passport cannot be extended if it still has a year or more left until expiration. On the other hand, the ministry’s Tel Aviv office makes its own rules and demands that the passport still have three years left on it before expiry. Why? Because they can.

Ministerial harassment

In the case of couples, the State of Israel demonstrates surprising liberalism. As opposed to the United States − and apparently because mixed couples have difficulties getting married in Israel − even common-law and same-sex couples receive permanent status. But when it comes to the process involved in achieving that status, the Interior Ministry engages in harassment.

In the United States, says attorney Klarfeld, a couple that has been married for over two years will usually be asked to present a marriage license, and that’s it. Only if they have been married for less time, or if there is any suspicion regarding the seriousness and sincerity of their relationship − for example, because of a serious age difference between them − must they undergo another process related to proving their relationship.

In the State of Israel, though, every mixed couple − even if they’re married for a decade, even if they have children − must submit various documents testifying to their partnership. A representative list of documents required of these couples: a marriage license, a rental contract, a detailed letter explaining how they met, electricity and phone bills, photos of them together at various events, letters from friends and relatives proving the existence of a serious relationship, printouts of phone conversations between the couple, bank documentation − and if available, plane tickets and hotel rooms where they stayed together.

Although the Interior Ministry requires so many documents it has been revealed in court cases that the decision to grant visas is based mainly on a personal interview. So, why does the ministry demand so many papers? Only the government knows.

The interview itself often terrifies couples, and apparently luck plays a decisive role here, according to attorney Elam: “There’s a feeling that it all depends to a great extent on whom you end up with. The specific official who interviews the couple has tremendous power, and the population authority seems to have no interest in anything except buying time. Therefore, the process can be totally unpredictable. If that same official decided she doesn’t believe in the sincerity of the relationship, usually the path is blocked. There are means of appealing, but if we’re talking about a couple that had no [legal] representation from the start, they aren’t always familiar with the procedures. And in the past two years, the authorities have also made filing an appeal very complicated.”

The interview figures largely in the appeals of mixed couples against the state. In one ruling, in 2011, a judge ruled in favor of the couple − only because the minutes of their interview with the ministry were partial and abridged, plus even on that incomplete basis the judge maintained that it was obvious there were deliberate omissions of information to the detriment of the couple.

In another ruling, it was noted that the couple in question was asked 104 questions − with contradictory answers found on only nine, which had originally been considered a reason for rejection. In 2009, in a ruling that even made the newspapers, a district court judge sharply reprimanded the Interior Ministry for rejecting a couple who met all the criteria, based only on the fact that the woman, a Filipina, was older than her Israeli partner and the interviewer found that “strange.”

“The High Court has already ruled that there has to be a distinction between fictitious marriages and marriages of convenience,” adds Elam. “But all marriages are marriages of convenience – it’s better to be married than not. That’s why even if the woman is a Filipina and her Israeli partner is 20 years her senior − she married because she prefers to remain in Israel and he knows this is his only chance to have a young wife − the court says that as long as they really are a couple and the marriage is not only for the purpose of attaining status, this is a relationship that must be honored.” In that connection, it should be noted that it’s better not to fall in love with a foreign worker or asylum seeker. The Interior Ministry relates to such a partnership with even more suspicion than usual.

Elam explains that if a couple is rejected, the ministry must explain its decision. Often the reason derives from contradictions in the answers of the two individuals, who are interviewed separately but asked the same questions.

“The courts have told the Interior Ministry several times that not every contradiction is a reason not to believe in the sincerity of the relationship, that you have to see whether the contradiction is on a significant issue, and note the total proportion of discrepancies” says Elam. “If you asked 50 questions and found two insignificant contradictions − that’s not a reason to doubt the relationship’s seriousness.”

Have you considered solving such problems by consulting with an experienced lawyer? You should be aware that couples can even be rejected for being too well prepared for the interview.

Attorney Feller fires off a list of popular questions asked: “How much sugar does he like in his coffee?” “What did you eat last night?” “What did he give you for your birthday?” “What does he smoke?” “Which bus does she take to work? How many stops does it have?” “What color are her eyes?” And the favorite question that many people fail to answer correctly: “When did you meet and when was the moment when you became a couple?”

“One thinks they became a couple when they started dating, and the other when they started living together,” says Feller. “And if your partner is a migrant worker from Nigeria, for example, you’ve never met his family. If they ask you, you won’t know who his mother is, who his father is, where they live, where he went to school, what he studied in high school. Things that you would know about an Israeli partner.”

“The paradox is that this process caused us to be much more formally committed to one another,” says Harpaz, who is PR director of the Geneva Initiative organization and met Frenchman Fabrice six years ago, in a guesthouse in Dharamsala, India. The couple spent a few months in France together, then Harpaz returned to Israel and found work, and Fabrice decided to try living with her in Tel Aviv. Harpaz has a legal education and consulted with a lawyer, who prepared them for the interview.

Harpaz: “He asked us why we didn’t get married. Fabrice said, ‘We’re only starting out, and besides, neither of us is really into weddings.’ But the lawyer said ‘No, no, you can’t such a thing. The answer is that you’re not married, but you consider yourself married to all intents and purposes. Don’t dare say you’re boyfriend and girlfriend. As far as you’re concerned, you’ve found the person you want to live with.’ Now that is actually true, but at the first meeting in the Interior Ministry − after several months of traveling in India and Europe − to say that we’d found the person with whom we want to grow old, well, that’s not exactly the place where we were at that moment.”

Winning over officials

M., a bachelor’s degree student in social sciences, interviewed mixed couples for a seminar paper about experience in the Interior Ministry. “You don’t just come and hand over papers and answer a few questions,” she says. “You come and put on an act to win the affection of the officials. You present a certain kind of ‘couple relationship’ that is not necessarily the real one, but the one they want to see.”

And what is this couple relationship?

“A relationship of romantic love, in sociological terms. [With] pictures in which the couple are having a good time, are photographed together in an embrace, with lots of friends who can attest to the relationship. Most of the couples know which pictures reflect a serious bond, and start embracing and having their picture taken at every family event, preferably with a skullcap.

“I know a couple,” M. continues, “that was rejected because the Indian partner didn’t know English well enough, so [the officials thought] how could there be a relationship? As though a relationship has to be based on intimate discussions deep into the night. That’s a Western approach. A partner from Western Europe and another from India will be treated differently.”

M. tells about a couple she interviewed: a young Filipina and an older Israeli man. “During the interview they said to him in Hebrew, on the assumption she wouldn’t understand: ‘If you’re trying to get rid of her, tell me and I’ll help you, because you seem to be embarrassed.’”

Says Ilana, Davide’s partner: “I have no doubt the government has to ascertain that a person who enters the country isn’t a criminal, but I don’t think that you have to bring letters from friends, from colleagues − every year for seven years. Every month when we get the bills I photocopy them and put copies in a file. Every year, I think: Two years ago I asked for a letter from my neighbors on the first floor, a year ago from those on the second floor, so this year we’ll ask our colleagues at work. Each time you have to fill out the same form, give passport pictures again; they can’t open the file you already have and take them from there.”

Anyone who starts the process had better give up the luxury of “privacy”: He’ll be asked, like Ilana and Davide, to hand over printouts of phone and Skype calls. Maybe, like Kim (not her real name) − an Australian who has been living here with her Israeli husband and their child for five years − you’ll even be asked to submit results of genetic tests undergone by the couple before pregnancy.

“I thought they would return the copies of the tests after the interview, but the official took them. I asked why, and she said: ‘We like to have these documents on file,’” recalls Kim, still upset. “I didn’t object, I didn’t make a fuss, because I couldn’t do a thing about it. But in my opinion it’s really terrible. They know much more about me than I would like them to know, only because I’m not Jewish.”

“This situation is very Judeo-centric,” says Henrik (not his real name). “Maybe it could be called by worse names, such as racist.” A former dancer from Denmark, Henrik met his Israeli partner, also a dancer, when he was living in Tel Aviv about a decade ago, and was dancing with the Batsheva Dance Company: “I was young, I was living in a great place, they took care of my visa and everything. I didn’t have to do anything. I traveled all over the world and met nice people.”

The relationship with his future wife developed, and in the mid-2000s they moved to Denmark and had a child there who is now 9 years old. “The process is Denmark was quite simple,” Henrik says. “We came, we submitted documents, and that’s it.” But when they returned to Israel in 2010, the couple discovered a different approach. “It’s always accompanied by suspicion, and by unpleasant and very personal interrogations. As though we’re trying to deceive them. Another document and another document. Details of phone calls, letters from relatives, photos. It’s too personal,” concludes Henrik.

When the couple had another child, he continues, “the Interior Ministry became very unpleasant. The hospital didn’t want to register me as the father because I’m not Jewish. They said I had to go to the Interior Ministry, and we showed up for our appointment with the baby in a carriage; we provided every document they wanted. We explained that we already had a child together. It wasn’t enough, they wanted to send us for a DNA test. But then my wife started to shout and cry, and suddenly they were able to do things that were impossible beforehand.”

Meital Raveh, 36, a lawyer who lives in Ramat Gan, was also unable to register her Dutch partner Vim as the father of their child, now a year old. Vim Middlevos, 33, and Meital met in India, when their trains were late. They’ve been here for five years, but when their son was born, the authorities would not register Vim as the father for two reasons: because he’s not a member of an HMO (like everyone who has not yet received permanent resident status), and because, according to the regulations, he can only be registered as a “claimant” to fatherhood.

Raveh: “Their attitude is: We decide who the father is. They check whether the couple has a shared file, whether the man was present at the birth, whether the couple has been living together for a certain period of time. Very strict criteria. I always come back from there irritated, but you know how government ministries are − you keep your mouth shut.”

‘We’re sick of it’

Is Henrik right? Could the process of granting status to foreigners in Israel be considered racist? The previous interior minister never concealed his opinion that preserving the Jewish character of the country comes first; we have yet to hear the opinion of his successor, Gideon Sa’ar.

Feller says the answer is complicated. “Israel isn’t the only country whose laws give preference to a specific ethnic group for returning to the country and granting status. Israel is exceptional in that that’s the only policy it has. This leads to a much broader question, namely is the Law of Return racist, and entire books have already written about it.”

At the same time, the lawyer adds, “Clearly the Interior Ministry makes things difficult, it doesn’t want them here. It sees itself as a watchman at the gate that makes sure there will be as few non-Jews here as possible.”

Elam: “I once asked someone who was on the side of the Interior Ministry why the ministry often refuses to compromise, even if the judge has clarified that he will rule against it. He replied that what interests the Interior Ministry is time: ‘If the process is supposed to last seven years and it lasts 10, we’ve gained three years. Maybe the couple will give up.’ I know couples who do. ‘Enough, we’re sick of it,’ they say, ‘there’s no more money.’”

Says A., a former senior official in the population authority who maintains ties to the ministry to this day: “My feeling is that [former Minister] Eli Yishai couldn’t get the policy he wanted: not to accept non-Jews at all. The Justice Ministry wouldn’t have allowed him to do that. So he determined policy by not determining policy. It’s very easy to come to a branch office at the population authority and to tell them what you want, even without determining policy.”

And when there’s no policy, he adds, “the interpretation is very broad. There’s no consistent policy ... and every official asks himself: ‘If I’m lenient, what happens? I’m likely to make a mistake. On the other hand, if I don’t approve it, will it be transferred to a higher authority?’ An employee who earns a minuscule salary sees 20 people a day and is responsible for their fate. Everything goes to the legal office of the population authority, which determines policy, in effect.”

“The very fact that I get this runaround − not because my partner is not Israeli but because of his religion − is intolerable,” sums up Ilana. “After all, if he were Jewish he would make aliyah, receive citizenship, money, rights, and that’s the end of the story. Even if the grandmother of his sister’s aunt was Jewish in the distant past − if you have a paper to prove that, that’s it. Many countries have immigration quotas, but the emphasis on religion here is what makes this process so racist. Racism that is directed at anyone who isn’t Jewish − and at me, too, because I’m the one who brought a non-Jew to the State of Israel.”

The Interior Ministry said in response: “The supreme authority that decides on immigration policy is the Israeli government and the rulings of the court system. At the same time, individual cases are handled by the Population, Immigration  and Border Authority. The graduated process has been in existence for years, even before Minister Yishai took office, and therefore the references to his views are not relevant and stem from personal opinions. The process is designed for ‘non-Israelis’ and has no connection to Jewishness.”

Regarding making an appointment by phone: “Making appointments for interviews is the most important part of our work, and we are constantly improving the procedure for making appointments so that people won’t have to visit our offices to do so. We will examine the claims you mentioned and make improvements where necessary.”

What about a partner of Arab origin?

The “family reunification” process becomes even more complicated when Israeli citizens − Jews and Arabs alike − seek residency status for partners who come from Arab countries: Jordan, Egypt or Morocco. Adi Lustigman, a lawyer who represents human rights organizations and often handles family reunification cases, says that in addition to the usual difficulties imposed by the Interior Ministry on those who apply to it − for example, coming up with a certificate of good conduct or a declaration of single status that is unavailable in the country of origin − candidates from Arab countries also have to undergo a comprehensive security check.

“Security checks are justified,” says Lustigman. “The problem is that they constitute an excuse for extreme and exaggerated foot-dragging of cases, which makes the candidates’ lives miserable.”

As a first step in this process, the candidates fill out a long form in which they are asked to describe in detail not only their places of work, previous stays in Israel, where they have traveled outside Israel, countries they have visited, etc., but also they must provide extensive information about all their family members, including brothers and brothers-in-law, names of father and grandfather, address, ID card or passport number, and phone number. The form is sent from the Interior Ministry to the Shin Bet security service, but the Shin Bet tends to delay such investigations for months and, in some instances, for over a year.

“In a number of court rulings in which we petitioned on behalf of a couple that got stuck in a process, the court ruled that the Interior Ministry rather than the Shin Bet was responsible for providing an answer within a fixed period of time,” says Lustigman.

“When it comes to Arab countries other than Jordan or Egypt, there’s no chance of receiving residency status,” says attorney Hicham Chabaita of the Human Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University. “When it comes to Jordanians, since most of them are of Palestinian origin, if there’s even a distant relative who was arrested by Israel they reject the request. And there we’re talking about very large extended families.”

While the Shin Bet is delaying matters, the candidate is in Israel without social welfare rights, health insurance and a work permit, or is waiting in his country of origin. Occasionally, says Lustigman, married couples are separated for a long period.

In the case of a spouse from the territories, reunification becomes almost impossible. A temporary order from 2003 forbids granting Israeli citizenship or residency to Palestinian residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip who are partners of Israeli citizens. Men are not allowed to begin the process before the age of 35, and women before age 25.

As a result of a legal precedent from 1999, a law was passed to the effect that a foreign citizen who files a request for family reunification cannot be expelled from the country until a final decision is made on his case. However, according to a more recent amendment, this law does not apply to Palestinians in the territories.

This creates a situation in which a partner who lived in Israel before he is granted residency could be subject to expulsion, arrest and even the criminal charges due to illegal residency.

On the other hand, the Interior Ministry requires proof that the couple is living together, and that the center of their life is in Israel. How are they supposed to provide that without being subject to expulsion? Even when the process is successful, Palestinians do not receive permanent residency or an ID card, but rather a military permit to live in Israel, which does not grant social welfare rights or health insurance, or even a driving license.

Ilya Melnikov
Ilya Melnikov

“People live here for 20 years without health insurance and without rights,” Lustigman explains.

The response of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority: “The issue of the security checks is conducted in accordance with the demand of security officials and the temporary order.”