Over 12,000 Palestinians Living in Limbo, 15 Years After 'Temporary' Israeli Status

Emergency order creates impenetrable bureaucratic barrier between Palestinians of East Jerusalem and Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

A Palestinian man and child standing inside a West Bank building cut off from Jerusalem by the West Bank separation barrier.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

The 1-year-old son of Taysir al-Asmar, who lives in Jerusalem’s Old City, was born with a serious brain defect. He is hospitalized in Jerusalem’s Herzog Hospital, at the western end of the city, but Asmar is not allowed to drive there to visit him. In fact, Asmar is not allowed to have a driver’s license – and if he takes the bus, he could end up being detained by the police.

Asmar is just one of the more than 12,000 people living in fear and uncertainty due to the law prohibiting family unification when the family members in question are Palestinian.

Next month will mark 15 years since the initial government decision (later replaced by an “emergency order” – the Citizenship and Entry into Israel law that is renewed annually) that has built an almost impenetrable bureaucratic barrier between the Palestinians of East Jerusalem and Israel in general and Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The law has been legally justified citing security needs, but demographic goals have also been mentioned – in other words, limiting the Arab population within Israel.

Thousands of people living in the territories who are married to Israeli citizens or permanent residents, and their children, have found themselves trapped in an impossible bureaucratic limbo by this law, with no change in sight.

Last week, both the Knesset and High Court of Justice held hearings on the law. As expected, it was left in place. The Knesset will discuss the matter in another six months, while Supreme Court President Miriam Naor hinted to the petitioners that they withdraw their petition to the High Court.

Of the 12,500 people in the process of family unification, 10,000 are currently without status. This means, among other things, that they cannot go to school or work; until only a few years ago, they could not even obtain health insurance.

Occasionally, thanks to the intervention of the High Court, the law is set aside for humanitarian reasons. For example, residents of the territories who are not considered a security risk and are at least 25 years old (for women; 35 for men) and married to Israelis, can now receive a temporary resident’s permit (like those issued to Palestinian workers).

Renewing these permits every year or two is a complicated process, though, which requires the meticulous collection of various papers (utility bills, school certificates and salary slips, to name just a few).

The law has a far-reaching impact on society in East Jerusalem, its links to the West Bank and even on urban geography. The law has helped create the poor neighborhoods by the West Bank separation barrier – places that have become “refuge cities” for thousands of couples, one of whom is a resident of the territories and the other of Israel.

Mohammad Mahmid, an Israeli Arab, and his wife Siham, who has a temporary status for over 15 years.
Gil Eliyahu

The emergency regulation banning family unification was issued in late March 2002 by then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai. That was the worst month of the second intifada – a few days after the attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya and the beginning of Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank.

The day after the suicide-bombing attack on the Matza Restaurant in Haifa, where 16 people were killed, Yishai ordered all population registries in Israel to stop family unifications. The reason: the attacker in Haifa, Shadi Tobassi, lived in Jenin but had an Israeli identity card because his mother was an Israeli citizen.

The demographic justification for the law emerged in a presentation by the Interior Ministry, uncovered by Hamoked – the Center for the Defense of the Individual, during government discussions on the bill 15 years ago. The presentation stated: “This wave of immigration holds within it a risk to Israel’s security – a security, criminal and political risk, an economic and mainly demographic burden on the future of Israel.”

‘National suicide’

In 2012, a hearing took place before a special extended High Court panel for petitions against the law. The 232-page ruling rejected the petitions by a single vote. Then-Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, who supported the majority opinion, wrote, “Human rights are not a prescription for national suicide.” The late Justice Edmond Levy, who had the sole minority opinion, wrote, “The loss of Israel’s democratic image will be one of the greatest achievements of those who seek to destroy it.”

Justices on that panel, and since, have emphasized that the citizenship law is a temporary, emergency regulation that must be reapproved annually by the Knesset. Supreme Court justices have repeatedly instructed the state to scrutinize the need for the regulation.

About six months ago, for the first time in a decade, a discussion was held on the matter in a joint panel of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Interior and Environment Committee. A Shin Bet security service representative known only as G. said the agency supported extending the law, due to a continued “threat from that same population.” But he had difficulty backing up the claim with numbers. He cited 104 cases of suspects from among the “[Palestinian] population receiving [legal] status in Israel as a result of family reunification.”

That figure includes all suspects from 2002 to 2016. However, it was later clarified that most of those “connected to terror” were not residents of the territories who entered Israel as a result of family unification, but relatives of those people – mainly their children. In fact, only 17 out of the 104 were in Israel as a result of family reunification and were involved in terror.

Lawyer Adi Lustigman, who represents people without legal status in Israel, questioned the meaning of term “connected to terror.” It was unclear, she said, whether that meant the person had been indicted, convicted or was a relative of someone who had thrown a stone. “These figures pull the rug from under the law, and show that the Knesset has been asleep on the job,” she said.

At the end of the Knesset meeting at which G. testified, committee Chairman Avi Dichter (Likud) scheduled another meeting for six months’ time – a meeting that was held this week. The Shin Bet and police did not attend to provide updated figures. “It was clear from the last meeting that they have no security problem. The question is, why not reduce the harm if it is possible,” the Shin Bet’s legal adviser was asked. The adviser replied that examinations were being made by age group and the Shin Bet’s position had yet to be formulated. When it was, the agency would inform the committee, he said.

Asmar, 36, was born in Jerusalem – in the same Old City home where his father was born – and has lived here all his life. Yet he has no legal status in Israel because after the Six Day War in 1967, a rumor spread in Jerusalem that the Israel Defense Forces had taken over empty houses in the West Bank. Asmar’s grandfather had been building a house in the village of Al Azariya, east of Jerusalem. He therefore sent his three youngest children to live there. As a result, when the first census was taken, they were registered as living in Al Azariya, not Jerusalem. And because of the emergency regulation, they are still considered residents of the territories.

This didn’t really matter that much for most of their lives. But since the construction of the separation barrier and the temporary law, they have become illegal residents in their own homes. Some of his brothers were able to get a “permit” – the Civil Administration’s document allowing them to enter Israel, but not Asmar.

“I want to take my children to see the sea, but I can’t,” he says. “But the worst thing is that I can’t see my child,” referring to his infant son in Herzog Hospital. “I love my child and would love to see him, but I can’t.”