'Why Did You Have to Marry Her?'

Jawahar hasn't seen her husband in a year, Layla has forgone fertility treatment, and Kifaya fears expulsion at any time. Such are the lives of thousands living under the specter of the law that prevents Palestinians from obtaining legal status in Israel.

Ran Shapira
Nurit Wurgaft
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Ran Shapira
Nurit Wurgaft

Layla and Kifaya, Palestinian women who live in Israel, initially wanted to be photographed for this article and to reveal their full names. If Knesset members want to further entrench the Citizenship Law that is already making our lives miserable, they said, then we have nothing to lose. But then Layla remembered she will soon have to renew her residency permit, which is valid for just one year, and Kifaya realized that she wants to request such a permit, so they changed their minds - because "we don't know what sort of checks they do, and so just to be on the safe side," they said.

The two women belong to a large group of approximately 22,000 families, in which one member of the couple is Palestinian and the other is an Israeli citizen, who are being adversely affected by the amendment to the Citizenship Law that prevents Palestinians from obtaining legal status in Israel. Introduced in 2003, this amendment prevents thousands of people who live in Israel and whose children are Israeli from obtaining basic rights such as national health insurance.

This week, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation was due to discuss a bill to change the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which would bolster the controversial amendment and make it immune to High Court petitions. The new bill, supported by 44 MKs, states that what is written in the 2003 amendment does not contravene the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law.

Says MK Yohanan Plesner, acting chairman of the Kadima faction, and a supporter of the proposal: "The Jewish character of the state is important and the Law of Return is a significant aspect of the efforts to preserve the state's Jewish nature. But Israel has no comprehensive policy on immigration. In this context, the Citizenship Law is aimed at setting criteria and limiting immigration to Israel from enemy states. While the law does harm the family rights of some citizens, it also achieves other purposes, which I believe are justified, proportional and worthy: It serves a security purpose and also the purpose of preserving the state's character and the composition of its population, so as not to permit the massive and automatic entry of citizens from states or territories that question Israel's very legitimacy. It is legitimate for the Knesset to set boundaries within which the law shall be interpreted by the High Court."

Like Layla and Kifaya, Jawahar Nasa, the real name of an Israeli woman from Jatt, isn't sure just what kind of examination was done before the residency permit of her Palestinian husband Jihad was revoked. She only knows that for about a year now, he has not been permitted to live with her. Nasa, 33, married in an arranged match in 1996. She submitted an application for her husband to be granted legal status, but received no response for years. She says that up until the second intifada, it wasn't essential: She and her husband rented an apartment in Jatt, a town in the Wadi Ara region in the north. They had four children, and her husband, a welder, worked with Jewish building contractors in Zichron Yaakov and Hadera.

In 2001, after inquiring at the Interior Ministry for the umpteenth time, Nasa was told to submit a new application at a different branch. In 2003, when the amendment to the Citizenship Law was already in force, they received a negative reply to their request, and her husband had to leave the country. Unlike many other couples, in which one spouse continues to live in Israel illegally, Jihad Nasa left that same day. After a year, following a petition to the High Court, he received a residency permit that he was supposed to renew yearly.

But in October 2008 he was summoned for questioning, and told that his permit would no longer be renewed. His attorney, Zvi Rish, says he was informed just two months ago that his client was suspected of involvement in weapons production. Rish says the real reason is that Nasa refused to work with Israeli authorities as an informant on other Palestinians. The suspicions about him were not proven or elaborated upon, and the claim was only made when Nasa sought to renew his permit. "In fact, the army confirmed that there was no obstacle from a security point of view," adds Rish. His wife, Jawahar, doesn't understand: "He never violated the orders, he never even took part in a demonstration."

'Public atmosphere'

Before the amendment to the Citizenship Law that prevents family unification between mixed Palestinian-Israeli couples was made in May 2002, a procedure was in place for establishing the civil status of an Israeli citizen's non-Israeli spouse. But government decision No. 1813 of May 2002 removed residents of the Palestinian Authority from that process.

In the wake of that decision, a new bill was formulated that stressed security justifications. "Since the outbreak of the armed conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which has led, among other things, to the perpetration of dozens of suicide bombings within Isarel, there appears to be steadily growing involvement on the part of Palestinians ... who hold Israeli ID cards as a result of family unification processes," said the explanatory information for the proposed legislation.

A request from Haaretz to the Interior Ministry to know the number of Palestinians married to Israelis who were involved in security offenses went unanswered. Regardless, the question remains why the amendment is necessary today, after more than two years of quiet on the Palestinian security front.

In July 2003, the bill passed its second and third readings in the Knesset. It was formulated as a contingency measure, valid for one year, and has been extended annually ever since. After the legislation was approved, human rights organizations and citizens hurt by it petitioned the High Court, asking for its annulment.

The High Court rejected the petitions in 2006, even though a majority of the judges on the expanded panel that heard the case accepted the petitioners' arguments that the law violates the right to family life and equality. The balance was tipped by Justice Edmund Levy, who did not declare the legislation void, but called on the government to formulate another arrangement within nine months. The justices who opposed annulment of the law were led by then-deputy Supreme Court president Mishael Cheshin, who said that the value of human dignity "does not [contain] within it a legal right for a citizen of Israel to bring a foreign spouse into Israel."

Then-Supreme Court president Aharon Barak joined the minority opinion, and wrote: "A citizen has the right to realize his family life with his spouse in Israel. There is his home, his community, his historic, cultural and social roots ... This infringement focuses on the Arab citizens of Israel and in so doing the law consequently infringes upon Arab citizens of Israel's right to equality."

On March 21, 2007, the government passed Amendment No. 2 to the Citizenship and Entry Into Israel Law, expanding it so that it prevented not only Israeli citizens married to residents of the territories from living with their spouses in Israel, but also those married to citizens of enemy states: Iran, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. In May 2007, the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual filed High Court petitions to have the amended law voided; those petitions are still pending.

Adalah and the Musawa Center for Arab Rights in Israel are also fighting the amendment in the international arena. Attorney Sausan Zahar of Adalah says that the UN issued three statements, each calling upon the government to annul the amendment. Ja'afar Farah, director of Musawa, says that his organization is working to get the amendment mentioned in the U.S. administration's report on human rights.

"More worrying than the legislative initiative is the public atmosphere that makes it possible," Farah says.

Forever childless

Today Jawahar Nasa is now her family's only breadwinner. Her wages from temporary jobs she gets through a work agency, combined with an income supplement and a child allowance, is barely enough for her to live on. Almost half of her income goes to pay rent. She is effectively a single mother, but those affected by the Citizenship Law are not entitled to public housing or rent assistance. The Palestinian spouses cannot work because of a small clause in the residency permit that says that only someone who is legally allowed to hire foreign workers can employ them. For the most part, employers don't get as far as this clause, stopping when they get to the part that says: "This [residency] permit is not a work permit." No one's looking for trouble.

Kifaya, 30, who is six months pregnant, decided to forgo routine exams like an ultrasound because she can't afford them. Layla, 37, gave up on fertility treatments for the same reason. She is childless and will remain that way. She and her husband live off of his disability allowance, which is for a single person. The Physicians for Human Rights organization says that the law also harms children, since it sometimes takes a year until they are officially registered on the identity card of the Israeli father, and so for the first year of their lives they have no health insurance.

Kifaya does not have a residency permit for Israel and could be expelled to the other side of the checkpoint at any time. She is from Jenin, and met her husband, an Israeli from Jatt, when they were both still in school. When they married in 1997, they applied to the Interior Ministry to obtain legal status for her, but she says they were given the runaround until they finally gave up. Before the second intifada, she says, "I could live like this, without any legal standing, and still go to visit my parents once in a while."

The situation of women expelled to Gaza is even worse: Because they cannot return to Israel, they lose all contact with their children.

H., a woman from Gaza who married a violent Israeli man who abused and beat her, stayed with him for years out of fear of losing touch with her children. She fled only after she was beaten nearly to death. In this case, the Interior Ministry showed understanding and granted her a residency permit that protects her from expulsion.

According to attorney Shirin Batshon-Khoury, from the Kayan feminist organization, which assists women in H.'s situation, "More than a few women stay in violent relationships in which their life is in danger because they're afraid of being expelled and losing contact with their children."

Abir Ghanaim, coordinator for Shatil-New Israel Fund in the Little Triangle region, agrees. "Even when the husband is from the territories, the woman pays the main price," she says. Last year, Ghanaim organized a support group for women from villages in the Triangle area who have been hurt by the Citizenship Law. Layla, Kifaya and Jawahar Nasa take part in this group.

Also active in the northern part of the country is Families in Waiting, an organization for people who have been negatively affected by the law. The organization was founded by Taysir Khatib, an anthropologist from Acre and member of Musawa, who is married to Lana, a Palestinian woman from Jenin. They married five years ago, after the amendment first went into effect, knowing what that could mean for them. Khatib must go to the Interior Ministry to request a renewal of his wife's residency permit in Israel. The wait for an answer takes two or three months, because it is contingent upon the Shin Bet security service's consent. Once the ministry has given its approval, one must go to the Coordination and Liaison Headquarters to obtain the actual entry permit to Israel.

Khatib: "It's done that way in order to wear us down. At the Interior Ministry, there's no privacy and I sometimes hear them say to people, 'You stupid guy: Why did you have to marry her?' or 'Are you a stupid woman or was it that you just couldn't find someone to marry who's not from the territories?' They publicly humiliate people."

The recent efforts to fully anchor the contingency measure in the law have disheartened Khatib. "We keep going because we believe that this is temporary," he says. "But it's hard for me to see that the state thinks it's doing me a favor by letting my wife live with me. Aside from that, she is forbidden to work and also forbidden to drive. I have to drive the kids where they need to go, do the shopping. But I won't give up. This is my place and the state won't dictate to me whom I can marry and whom I can live with."

Nasa is less resolute. "If I would have known what was in store, I wouldn't have gotten married," she says. Kifaya says she would have acted differently, too, even though she married for love. Says Layla: "The despair is the worst thing."

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