Analysis |

The Struggle for Palestinian Family Unification Succeeds – Haltingly, Little and Late

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinian women protesting in Beit El demanding an ID card, in July.
Palestinian women protesting in Beit El demanding an ID card, in July.Credit: Emil Salman
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

For 442 adult Palestinians, October 11, 2021 will be remembered as a happy day: They were born to registered Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but for various reasons they were not included in the Palestinian population registry before reaching age 16.

Israel, which to this day controls the Palestinian registry and determines who makes it there, had refused to include the 442 people and issue them an ID card for the territories, even though they applied for “family unification” with their parents or spouses.

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They have no residency or citizenship in any other country. For long years they lived in the West Bank and Gaza without official documents, leading to severe restrictions on their freedom of movement and bureaucratic obstacles with Palestinian institutions such as banks, universities and government agencies. On Monday they were informed that, for the first time in their lives, they would receive ID cards issued by the Palestinian Authority, subject to Israel’s approval.

According to what they were told at the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry in Ramallah, 5,000 more men and women, mostly Palestinian in origin, who are married to residents of the West Bank and Gaza and have been living there for many years, are scheduled to receive residency status and Palestinian ID cards within the next month.

The granting of residency status was one of the promises of “easements” or relief from Defense Minister Benny Gantz to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his civil affairs minister, Hussein al-Sheikh, at their meeting in Ramallah in August. But the term “easement” (hakalot in Hebrew) is an exercise in whitewashing.

Benny Gantz at the Knesset last week.Credit: Alex Kolomyoski

Since 2000 Israel has been in breach of its commitment to the Palestinians in the Oslo Accords to grant residency to 4,000 people per year – people who are married to Palestinian residents – in a process known as “family unification” (not to be confused with the same process for residents of the occupied territories married to Israeli citizens, which is on hold). So when Israel talks about “easements” it means it doesn’t intend to resume the regular coordination process agreed on in the Oslo Accords whereby the PA submits thousands of family unification requests annually and the clerks and officers at Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank and the coordination and liaison offices approve them.

Protesters make progress

The setting of a 5,000-person quota and the term “easement” shows that an unknown but probably high number of other spouses will remain in the same conditions of uncertainty and draconian travel restrictions for many years, until the next “easement.” For this reason, many others will be deterred from marrying whom they want if he or she is not an official resident, or they may decide to move abroad.

And yet, it’s doubtful whether even this “easement” would have been granted if not for the movement Family Unification – My Right, which was launched this year by those affected by the freezing of the process. The movement’s initiators – mostly women of Palestinian origin who are citizens of Arab countries, mostly Jordan – decided to hold regular protests in front of the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry, and sometimes in front of the Israeli Civil Administration a kilometer (0.6 miles) away, demanding that the ministry represent their interests and that Israel fulfill its obligations.

Unlike its policy for Western countries, Israel does not allow citizens of Arab countries – even Jordan and Egypt – to automatically renew their tourist visas or visit permits. So when the women from these countries realized that there was no chance their family unification applications would be granted, they decided to stay in the West Bank with their husbands and small children – even after their visas expired – and so became “illegal aliens,” or “overstayers,” according to Israel’s definition.

The protests, aided by social media, began to attract the attention of the public and the media. Palestinian rights groups also asked questions and made demands of the PA’s agencies, and foreign diplomats (mostly from Europe) expressed interest. Following reports in Haaretz, Meretz legislator Mossi Raz brought the matter before the defense minister and his deputy.

People in a similar status living in Gaza also began protesting. The protesters weren’t shy to complain that the PA’s institutions weren’t working for the people they’re supposed to represent. And indeed, for years the Civil Affairs Ministry refused to even accept family unification requests, arguing that Israel’s Civil Administration and its liaison offices weren’t accepting and processing requests.

But at least twice, rumors circulated about people who had received Palestinian residency from Israel according to lists prepared by Abbas’ office. The numbers aren’t large – 100 or maybe 150 people – but it proved that when Israel and the PA show interest – it gets done.

Mahmoud Abas in Ramallah in May.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/אי־פי

Israel unilaterally halted the family unification process in the West Bank and Gaza at the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. A campaign by the families stung by that decision – under a group called My Right to Enter and appeals by the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual got the Israelis in 2008 and 2009 to grant Palestinian residency to some 32,000 people. But even this was awarded as a “gesture,” not a fulfillment of obligations.

Mixed feelings

At that time, Israel did not include in this number the spouses of Palestinian residents who preferred not to live as “illegal aliens” in their own homes, so they returned to their countries when their tourist visas expired.

The activists of Family Unification – My Right were told that the list of 5,000 new residency recipients does not include those who requested family unification but currently live abroad. The movement says this decision actually punishes the women who chose the “legal” way, abiding by Israel’s laws and not overstaying their visas.

One woman who was informed that she would receive an ID card is D.A., a feminist activist born in Gaza who’s around 50. In the ‘70s, while she was a baby, Israel deported her father for anti-occupation activity. He and his family lived in Egypt under residency permits renewed once every few years.

Twenty-five years ago D.A. visited the Strip, fell in love, got married there and started a family. Like everyone in her situation, she filed for family unification. Her brothers received residency, but she did not, for a reason that was never explained, despite repeated appeals to the authorities.

“I have mixed feelings,” she told Haaretz, adding that she has a hard time understanding why she had to wait so long to be granted such a basic right.

The exact same thing was said by Mohammed al-Jorf, 40, a main activist in Family Unification – My Right. He was born 40 years ago in Amman to parents living in the Askar refugee camp east of Nablus. When he was 5 his parents returned to the camp with him and his siblings.

He too has mixed feelings “because there are thousands more who probably won’t get residency status. The feelings are mixed because we had to work so hard, protest, exhaust ourselves for something so natural.”

On Monday, upon publication of the list, which includes his name, Jorf went from Nablus to the Civil Affairs Ministry in El Bireh and received the certificate attesting to his eligibility for an ID card.

On Tuesday he went to the Palestinian Interior Ministry in Nablus to fill out the forms to receive the ID card issued by the Palestinian Authority, subject to Israel’s approval.

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