“Can I come with you?” the boy asked us, his eyes pleading. Until then, he’d been sitting between us, his face frozen and embittered, but now he suddenly sprang to life. We had just told his father that we planned to go from their home to the Al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah, to meet with the boy’s mother.
Three weeks ago, early in the morning, Border Police troops arrived at the home of the Abid family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah, woke up the occupants and took the mother, Ibtisam, and the father, Vasim, to a police station. A few hours later, the police brought Ibtisam to one of the checkpoints that separate Jerusalem from the West Bank and expelled her to the territories.
That marked the end of almost 17 years in which Ibtisam lived in East Jerusalem together in a home with Jerusalem-born Vasim and their three children, Nayef, 14, Mohammed, 13, and Emira, 12. Her husband and children all have Israeli ID numbers, having been born in Jerusalem (the children are listed on their father’s blue ID card), and they legally reside in Israel, but Israel never agreed to grant Ibtisam residency status, because she was born in the West Bank. Following unsuccessful attempts by the Shin Bet security service to recruit her husband as an informant, the authorities decided to deport the wife and mother to the West Bank, leaving her husband and three children stunned and at a complete loss. This week the two boys didn’t go to school, because their mother didn’t wake them up as usual. Emira, who is in the refugee camp with her mother, also missed school, because her school is in Isawiyah.
Isawiyah looked like a war zone when we visited on Monday. Dozens of Border Police troops, armored from head to foot and armed and accompanied by dogs, raided the neighborhood and strode through its alleys with their typical authoritarian airs. Some wore vests with pockets stuffed with dozens of tear-gas grenades; they looked like suicide bombers with explosive belts on the way to perpetrating an attack. The dogs heightened the aura of terror projected by their masters.
The atmosphere in the East Jerusalem neighborhood was tense and highly charged. Not accustomed to such sights, we too became fearful, along with the locals, who nevertheless went about their business routinely. It was clear that the slightest mistake could ignite a conflagration. Young people occasionally shouted at the troops. The police barked at us when we pulled our car over to the side for a moment, to ask someone about an address. The troops were apparently on their way to the local high school, to what end wasn’t clear. With them was a police photographer in civilian attire, although she wore a helmet, and some other ununiformed helmeted individuals.
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Amid the tumult, the Abid family live on the third floor of an apartment building. Their home has a kitschy feel, with blue and red lights glittering in the living room. The refrigerator is empty – Mom hasn’t been around to do the shopping.
Vasim is 40 years old, muscular, tattooed and unemployed. He spent five years in an Israeli prison for “security offenses,” as they’re called. He married Ibtisam, who is 37, in 2001. They are cousins who fell in love when she visited him in jail. She had lived here, in this Isawiyah apartment, since their wedding. Only when she turned 25 could she submit a request for residency. Her application was turned down for “security reasons,” without an explanation, of course. Besides the fact that her husband served time, a few of Ibtisam’s distant relatives are Hamas activists. In the wake of a petition to the High Court of Justice in 2015, Israeli ID numbers were issued to the three children – but not to Ibtisam. Until the children received the numbers, they didn’t have medical insurance; their father would ask his doctors to make out prescriptions for them in his name. Life in unified Jerusalem.
Life went on. Ibtisam lived in her home illegally for 17 years, never leaving Isawiyah except to attend Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City when times were quiet. Every three months she submitted a request to visit Jerusalem, and usually received a permit for a week’s stay. She would then go to Al-Amari to see her mother and her family, who are barred from visiting Jerusalem, and then return home using the temporary permit. The cycle went on for years.
It was years ago, when Vasim was in prison, that the Shin Bet tried to recruit him, but he spurned the offer, he tells us. He was summoned several times to speak to agents of the organization, who offered him an ID card for Ibtisam in return for his cooperation.
A month or so ago, Border Police turned up at the Abids’ home in the middle of the night and arrested Nayef, the eldest son, on suspicion of stone throwing. Again Vasim was summoned by the Shin Bet to the police station on Salah e-Din Street, across the road from the walls of the Old City, where an agent told him that in return for his cooperation his son would be released and Ibtisam would be issued an ID card. He refused; Nayef was released after 10 days of detention at the Russian Compound police station in the center of Jerusalem.
On March 28, Border Police showed up again, this time at 6 A.M. In a relatively polite manner, they ordered the parents to accompany them. For about five hours the two were held in a room at the police station, but were not allowed to speak to one another. When Vasim was taken in for questioning, interrogator told him, “You refused to work with us, and therefore, under the law, we must expel your wife, who is here illegally.” He was released at 4 P.M. and went home. He had no idea where Ibtisam was. Only later that evening did he learn that she had been expelled and had gone to her mother’s house.
Well versed in life under occupation, 13-year-old Mohammed hurries to get his plastic-wrapped birth certificate. It’s dangerous for him to leave home without it: It says he was born in Jerusalem, which allows him freedom of movement. As he’s not yet 16, he doesn’t have an ID card of his own yet. We take him with us to the Al-Amari camp, through the notorious Qalandiyah checkpoint. The trip takes more than an hour because of the long wait at the crossing point.
Ibtisam’s new-old home is in an alley just wide enough to walk through. Mohammed runs ahead of us to greet her. They’d met the day before as well; Mohammed’s soccer team played a match in nearby Ramallah, and his mother seized the opportunity to see him and his brother, who came along. The children cried upon seeing her and didn’t want to go back to Jerusalem when the time came.
Ibtisam greets us in jeans and a traditional head covering and, unusually, shakes hands. She’s counting the days since coming here – this is the 19th day since her expulsion.
She tells us that the police asked her if she was Hamas or Fatah. “I am not Fatah and not Hamas,” she replied, “I am a regular Palestinian woman.” They informed her that she had been living in Jerusalem illegally, and she told them, “You are to blame for that, not me. I’ve lived here for 17 years. My children and my husband are here. I have to live with my family.”
After half an hour of questioning, Ibtisam was fingerprinted and made to sign a form stating that she promised not to return to her home and to Jerusalem. She was taken away in a police car, which on the way passed by the entrance to Isawiyah; the police did not allow her to take clothes or other items from her home. She was taken to the A-Za’im checkpoint, near the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim outside Jerusalem, and left to her fate.
Her father-in-law, Nayef Abid, who has an Israeli ID card, was waiting for her at the checkpoint. He’d gone to the police station that morning to find out where his son and daughter-in-law were, and was told that Ibtisam would be expelled to A-Za’im in the afternoon. He took her to the house of her mother, Nawal Barash, 58, who was widowed a few years ago. Nayef then went to Isawiyah to pick up clothes and personal items for Ibtisam, and also to bring her daughter, Emira.
The situation in which her two sons don’t get up for school and their sister cannot attend hers cannot continue, Ibtisam tells us: Emira will have to go back to Isawiyah. Moving to a refugee camp is out of the question for the family, as they would lose their residency status and the ID cards/numbers, which ensure relative freedom and social-welfare benefits. Under no circumstances must the children lose their rights in Jerusalem, the parents say. This is a cruel limbo.
Sabine Hadad, director of the spokesman’s and information wing of the Population and Immigration Authority (a branch of the Interior Ministry), offered a curt, laconic reply to a query from Haaretz this week: “The request of the family’s members for family unification was rejected already in 2014 for security reasons.”
Vasim has visited his wife only once since she was expelled. It’s hard for him to deal with the Qalandiyah checkpoint, he says. What is illegal, he declares, is tearing a family apart after 17 years.
“I am a Jerusalemite,” he says. “I was born here. My family and friends are here. My children were born here. The children’s school is here. Their HMO clinic is here. My whole life exists here. It’s like a fish in water: If you take it out of the water, it will die.”
Meanwhile, Ibtisam phones her children every day, but doesn’t always get through to them: She’s connected to an Israeli provider and reception in the refugee camp is poor.