Flying Abroad Without Knowing if You’ll Be Able to Return Home

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A Palestinian family at the Rafah border crossing in Gaza, February 2016.
A Palestinian family at the Rafah border crossing in Gaza, February 2016.Credit: AP

A letter I received sheds light on yet another dark corner of European collaboration with Jewish-Israeli apartheid. This is what was sent to me by a woman I don’t know: “I’m a German woman who has been living in the West Bank for about 18 years. These days (namely, during the period of the coronavirus) we (wives of Palestinian residents) have been encountering difficulties whenever we have to travel, to return, to renew our visa … and then we discover that we are not allowed to return … I wonder if you could help us, advise us as to how to continue. What’s worth doing, what isn’t? I am writing on behalf of another two German women.”

The three women have to leave the West Bank for short periods of time. The writer of the letter has to leave in March 2022, and is already concerned that she won’t be allowed to return. One of the friends she mentions is supposed to leave in November, the other in January 2022. They all have “children whom we have to leave behind, without knowing when we’ll be allowed to return.”

I asked why they don’t turn to their consulate, and this was her answer. “Whenever we turn to the German representative office in Ramallah and ask them for support or assistance – we’re told that they can’t do anything. It’s very frustrating.”

I hear similar complaints from citizens of other countries, especially U.S. citizens, who are married to Palestinian residents. The truth is that in the past I had the impression that of all the legations of countries with very warm ties to Israel, the Representative Office of Germany in Ramallah, Palestine, actually tends to intervene more on behalf of its citizens living in the West Bank.

But this is the era of COVID-19 restrictions. Every entry into the country, and every exit, is complicated and involves filling out online forms – even for Israeli citizens. The website of the Population and Immigration Authority explains from which countries the entry of foreigners is banned, as of now, and who is excluded from this ban: new immigrants (in other words, Jews) who are still pondering whether to settle in Israel; temporary residents; foreign workers who were vaccinated and have a multiple-entry visa (inter-visa); and those who have entry visas as “part of a shared life process” (in other words, who are in the process of obtaining residency status).

If she were married to an Israeli citizen, the writer of the above letter would long ago have received residency status, or at least a multiple-entry visa. If she were married to a citizen living in, say, the settlement of Ariel (which is relatively close to her home) – she wouldn’t have begun to worry already now about whether she will be allowed to return home to her family after a short trip eight months hence. But because her partner is a Palestinian from the West Bank, Israel makes sure to discriminate against her. This is how it does that:

• Israel, which controls the Palestinian Population Registry, does not recognize the right of Palestinians to have a family life in a place of their choice, and does not grant Palestinian residency status to the spouses and other relatives of residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

• As citizens of Western countries, these spouses must have an Israeli tourist visa, which they have to renew every few weeks or months in order to live in their homes in Palestinian villages or cities. In most cases they receive a single-entry visa, so that if they want to travel abroad before it has expired, they have to pray that their re-entry will be permitted. Especially during the pandemic. After a maximum of 27 months, Israel demands that they leave the West Bank and go abroad (only via the Allenby Bridge crossing, at the border with Jordan) and again they have to pray that Israel will allow them to return to their family.

• Once every few years Israeli policy becomes more rigid: The visa has a shorter expiration date, or when the spouses return from abroad they are told that they have violated its conditions: That they’ve lived in the West Bank for too long (!), worked (in the West Bank!), that they intend to settle there (!), and therefore their entry is being denied. And then once again a legal, media and diplomatic battle begins in order to restore the earlier situation, usually with even more red tape and without transparency and monitoring.

• Spouses who are residents or citizens of Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt – they can forget about a renewed visa. They are forced to live in their homes in the occupied Palestinian territories as illegal residents or to return to their country of origin, and their partner drops in to visit them, when they can.

The German spouse turned to me because she heard that recently I “helped” in cases like hers: In my capacity as a journalist I asked the Israeli authorities why various women, citizens of Western countries (mainly the United States), who filled out the required online entry forms, received no reply. Some were forced to use the services of lawyers and to pay money for their natural right to return home. After my queries (and those of an American journalist) quite a few of these women were allowed to enter and return home. I assume that I accelerated the bureaucracy and shortened the waiting period for the entry permit, and the torture of waiting.

But the fact that the foreign-born spouses are asking for assistance and even just advice from a journalist indicates:

• That Israel is exploiting the coronavirus in order to behave event more arbitrarily and without transparency.

• That there is no point in requesting the intervention of the Palestinian Authority.

• And that our allies – such as the United States, Germany and France – are silent and paralyzed in the face of Israel’s policies, which discriminate between their citizens married to Palestinians and those married to Israelis. In this instance, too, those countries are collaborating with apartheid.

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