Questions for the Palestinian Minister of Civil Affairs

I asked to meet with the spokesperson of the Palestinian ministry that mediates between Palestinians and the institutions of the occupation, regarding family reunification. He refused because I’m an Israeli journalist and because ‘Now it’s right after the war’

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Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh
Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh. Tweets an announcement using the jargon of the occupation. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Twice this year I reached the spokesperson of the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry by phone. In late February and late May. The first time I didn’t even manage to tell him why I wanted to meet with him; the spokesperson said he was busy and would contact me later. He didn’t.

At the time I was already keeping track of the Family Reunification-My Right protest movement and met with several of its activists, who overcame their reluctance to talk to an Israeli journalist but still refused to be identified in the interview by their full name. I wanted to clarify several issues with the spokesperson before publishing the article. I called a few more times, until I gave up.

The second time I called was on May 30. He answered, and I immediately told him that I wanted to meet to talk about the issue of family reunification. His reply was that he couldn’t meet because I write for an Israeli newspaper. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry (metaphorically). The Civil Affairs Ministry is the official intermediary between the Israeli occupation authorities and the institutions and citizens of the Palestinian Authority. Regular meetings with senior Israeli military and civilian officials and government ministers are part of its mandate.

When it comes to anything related to civilian life under the occupation, employees of this ministry and the district liaison committees subordinate to it are involved as connecting links. An Israeli denial of a request for a permit to access one's own land on the other side of the separation barrier? A denial of a request to leave the Gaza Strip for the funeral of your father in Israel? It’s this Palestinian ministry that conveys the negative Israeli reply to the Palestinian resident on WhatsApp.

Did the Israeli permit arrive? It’s waiting in the office of the Palestinian liaison committee. What about a special entry permit that Israel grants to Palestinian VIPs (businessmen and senior politicians)? The Civil Affairs Ministry makes sure that it will reach its destination. Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Fatah member and one of those closest to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, even tweets an announcement when Israel eases its restrictions on Palestinians' movement. He uses the typical jargon of occupation and writes the word “leniencies.”

I told the spokesperson that he probably meets and talks with many Israeli journalists. The spokesperson replied that yes, of course, he speaks to Israeli journalists. “But now it’s right after the war,” he said (referring to the last war in the Gaza Strip in May), and suggested: “Call me a few days from now and we’ll see.” I wanted to hope that this wasn’t yet another evasive tactic. In early June I called about a dozen times, until I was forced to accept the fact that he simply had decided not to answer me. Or that this was the directive he had received from above.

Following are the questions I prepared in advance, which were supposed to be the basis for the briefing I hoped for:

• In 2000 Israel unilaterally discontinued the family reunification process, which was supposed to take place by means of coordination between the two sides. In 2008, as a favor and a gesture to Abbas, Israel granted Palestinian residency status in the context of family reunification to 32,000 people – and that was after petitions by Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual, as well as public and media activity by families who were negatively impacted. On what occasions since then did your ministry demand a resumption of the process?

• Did you submit a written demand to the Israeli side for a resumption of the family reunification process, or was it only conveyed orally?

• In response to attorney Adi Lustigman, to a request based on the Freedom of Information Law, the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said in December 2020 that since 2000 the Palestinian side has not demanded a resumption of the work of the joint committee to restore residency status to those who had it revoked by Israel from 1967 on. Is that true? And if so – why? If not – when did you demand the resumption of this committee’s work? Was this demand made in writing or orally? Did the Israelis answer in writing or orally?

• Why are Palestinians who have been living in the West Bank for 20 or 30 years without residency status forced to receive assistance from Israeli lawyers (Palestinians and Jews) and to pay out of pocket – rather than being entitled to legal representation by the Civil Affairs Ministry?

• How many unanswered requests for family reunification can be found in your ministry?

• When did your ministry receive the first still-unanswered request, and when did you receive the most recent one?

• Is it true that you have stopped transmitting requests for family reunification to the Israeli side, because those were your instructions from your Israeli counterpart (the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories), and therefore you also stopped accepting them?

• If that is not true – when was the last time you transmitted requests for family reunification to the Israeli side, and how many were there?

Replies would be welcome even now – orally or in writing.

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