“If you deport me, where will I go? I’m not a citizen of any country, no country wants me.” The raspy, smoker’s voice on Tamam al-Kharouf’s cell phone is that of her husband, Mustafa, a 31-year-old news photographer.
On January 22 at 1 A.M. the Israeli police arrested him at his East Jerusalem home and jailed him at Givon prison in advance of his deportation from the country. He has access to a public telephone at the prison, which is currently his only means of contact with his wife and of information about their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, apart from their weekly 45-minute visits, when a thick pane of glass separates them.
Al-Kharouf’s wife, Tamam, 26, and their daughter, Asia, were born in Jerusalem and are permanent residents of Israel. Musafa’s parents, who also live in Jerusalem, also have permanent resident status, but Mutafa has no status anywhere in the world. The Israeli Interior Ministry is demanding nevertheless that he be expelled (“removed”) to Jordan, where he also has no status.
Al-Kharouf was born in Algeria to a Palestinian father born in East Jerusalem and to an Algerian mother. Al-Kharouf's father was a teacher in Algeria. In 1999, he returned to Jerusalem, and his wife and children followed.
Mustafa was 12 at the time. Due to a backlog and the notorious slowness in processing requests at the Interior Ministry’s East Jerusalem offices, several years elapsed before the father could renew his Israeli identity card as a Jerusalem resident and to submit a request for family unification with his wife and children.
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Mustafa and one of his sisters were already adults, over 18 years of age, at that point. They were not included in the family unification request and instead remained in Jerusalem on an Israeli visa that was granted on “humanitarian grounds” and renewed periodically. As a member of an East Jerusalem Palestinian family, he has a Jordanian transit document that doesn’t entitle him to Jordanian citizenship or residency, but at most to a short stay in Jordan as a tourist en route to another Arab country.
“When we got engaged in 2015, he still had a visa valid for a year,” Tamam al-Kharouf said earlier this month at her parents’ house, to which she moved after her husband’s arrest. A psychology graduate from Jerusalem’s Al-Quds University, she said she hadn’t expected that her husband’s lack of resident status would pose a problem. They were planning to submit a request for family unification, as his elder sister, who is married to a Jerusalem resident, had done.
At the end of 2015, the family was hit with a bombshell: The committee that grants visas on humanitarian grounds was considering rejecting the request for another extension of Mustafa’s visa, as a result of information from Israeli security officials. Pictures that Mustafa had posted on Facebook had raised concerns. There was also information that he had engaged in rioting and a case was pending against him on allegations that he had assaulted a policeman, the family was told.
Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, which deals with problems Palestinians encounter regarding their residency status, appealed the committee’s intention to refuse to renew Al-Kharouf’s visa. It said that the photos that raised concern over his presence at demonstrations and other incidents were taken as part of Al-Kharouf’s work as a photographer. He was not, the appeal stated, taking part in rioting.
“It was during a period of demonstrations in Jerusalem, and what do newspapers and news agencies in the world want? Pictures of the demonstrations,” Al-Kharouf told Haaretz by phone. “I can’t be a construction worker. I’m not built for it. I wanted to study at Bezalel,” a reference to the Israeli school of art and design in Jerusalem, “but I couldn’t afford the tuition. I studied photography on the Internet and learned through experience.”
Several months ago, he was hired as a photographer for the Turkish news agency Anadolu.
Assaulting a policeman
As for allegations that he had assaulted a policeman, Activestills photographer Oren Ziv, who was the first to report on Al-Kharouf’s arrest and impending deportation, wrote on the Hebrew-language Siha Mekomit website, and its English-language sister website, +972 Magazine, that Al-Kharouf claimed that he was the one who was attacked in the incident. In an unusual move, the police admitted that he was telling the truth.
The case against him was closed and the policeman was found at fault in disciplinary proceedings before the Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit. The alleged assault, which had been included in the security information about him, has been dropped from the pending allegations against Al-Kharouf.
But he still had to face a long series of obstacles. In June 2016, Hamoked received notice of the Interior Ministry’s final decision not to extend Al-Kharouf’s visa. An appeal was filed and, at a hearing in May 2017, the two sides agreed that Al-Kharouf and his wife would submit an application for family unification and that, until a decision on the request is issued, he would be allowed to stay in Israel – at his home in Jerusalem. But on August 28 of last year, Al-Kharouf was shocked to receive a letter from the Interior Ministry informing him that the ministry intended to refuse that request as well.
Hamoked immediately sent a letter asking the ministry to reconsider and for more detail beyond the sparse allegations against him on security grounds. But on December 25, Hamoked received the final decision, dated December 23 – that the request for family unification had been denied. The refusal was based on the unexplained claim that Al-Kharouf is a Hamas activist and is engaged in illegal activity. “A Hamas activist? So why haven’t I been arrested up to now?” he asked in a conversation with Haaretz from prison. “I am distant from Hamas. I have a problem with their ideology. I have a wife and a daughter and wouldn’t do anything to hurt the family. I haven’t been affiliated to any organization for my entire life. It’s common knowledge that we photographers have to maintain neutrality. Once, when I was still a freelancer, I took a video of an officer from the Jerusalem police, and he spoke on camera. Some people accused me of being a traitor because of that, but that’s my job.”
The legal defeats didn’t daunt him. On the night between the 21st and 22nd of January of this year, before the 30-day appeal period expired, Hamoked sent another detailed appeal by email to the Interior Ministry’s visa tribunal. A few hours later, however, policemen showed up at the young couple’s door.
“They banged on the door,” Tamam al-Kharouf recounted, “saying that they wanted a document. Mustafa brought them his Jordanian travel document. Then they said they were arresting him because he was in the country illegally. One of the policemen told me to pack a suitcase for him, adding ‘make it a big one,’” meaning that he would be away for a long time.
“We asked why. We said our daughter has a birth certificate from Jerusalem, and they told me: ‘If you talk a lot, we’ll arrest you too,” Tamam recalled. “They almost did. The neighbors intervened, the policemen demanded to see my lease. Then they detained the landlord for two hours, and let him go.”
Mustafa al-Kharouf saw his wife and daughter at the hearing at the Interior Ministry tribunal in Jerusalem. But he wasn’t permitted to hug his daughter, to the baby’s apparent distress. At the hearing, Interior Ministry Magistrate Michael Zilberschmid reviewed the confidential material from the Shin Bet security agency and decided to deny the appeal on the grounds that the interior minister has broad discretion on requests for residency status, particularly when the minister believes the applicant poses a threat to state security and public safety.
Zilberschmid also remained unconvinced that Mustafa’s Jordanian travel document was merely a transit pass and that it doesn’t entitle Al-Kharouf to stay permanently in Jordan.
The next step in Al-Kharouf’s bureaucratic obstacle course is a hearing on an urgent appeal that Hamoked lawyer Adi Lustigman has filed on his behalf with the Jerusalem District Court. Lustigman is seeking his immediate release, the revocation of the deportation order against him and reconsideration of his request for family unification.
“Mustafa has no status anywhere in the world,” Lustigman told Haaretz. “There is no place they can deport him to, certainly not Jordan. He is not a citizen there, knows no one there and has never lived there.”
A hearing on the case was initially set for July of this year, but the court agreed to move it up to March 31, at which point Al-Kharouf’ will have been in prison for two months.
“It’s a jail where you’re only meant to be held for a few days – not weeks or months,” Al-Kharouf’ said in a telephone conversation. “It’s for people without documents, not criminals, so the conditions should have been better than a prison for [criminal] offenders. There are foreign nationals [here] who had been previously arrested on petty offenses, and they say the prison for criminal offenders is more humane.”
“Everyone here is a foreigner,” Al-Kharouf remarked. “I have no one to speak Arabic to. We are in our rooms every day for 21 hours, and go out twice [a day] to a small yard. We were 16 people to a room and now it’s nine. People come and go. They hadn’t given me books for nearly a month. Two days ago, they gave me four books. But when I’m in a room for 14 hours straight, I finish a book in two days. I talk a bit to the other people and then get back to reading. In the initial weeks, I managed. Now I know I’m beginning to get stressed, to freak out.”