This American-Palestinian Endangers Israeli Public Security

Elaine Zoughbi is married to a Bethlehem native and has lived in the city for 30 years. Two weeks ago she landed in Israel and was sent back to the U.S. ‘because you married a Palestinian’

The Zoughbis with their children Tariq, Marcelle, Lucas and Rafiq in Bethlehem, West Bank.

Sandra Elaine Zoughbi, an American citizen, was deported from Israel due to “considerations of public security and safety, considerations relating to a disruption of public order.” This is what the form of the border control administration at the Interior Ministry claimed, a form handed to her on the night of April 3 at Ben-Gurion Airport. Another consideration was also written on that form: “prevention of illegal immigration.”

Zoughbi, who is 59, was detained for 12 hours at the airport, under surveillance. She was passed from room to room, along with other detainees who were refused entry into Israel.

Shortly before midnight, on April 3, she was put on a plane to the United States, which she had left the day before. She got her passport back only after landing. She had spent 60 hours traveling, returning on April 4 to the place where she started: South Bend, Indiana. At that point, dazed by a lack of sleep, all she could think about was a shower and a place to lay her head.

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The two considerations mentioned on the form, officially called a “denial of entry form,” seem strange. It’s hard to imagine the 59-year-old woman endangering anybody’s safety or disrupting any public order. And illegal immigration? Her home is in Bethlehem, near the Church of the Nativity. That is where she and her husband Zoughbi Zoughbi raised a daughter and three sons. They met in 1986, she lived in Jerusalem for two years, and they got married five years later.

Less than a week after his wife’s deportation, Zoughbi Zoughbi told Haaretz: “I returned from my studies in the U.S. to Bethlehem, to my parents’ house. I’m the kind of Palestinian who doesn’t like to move around much.” He fondly added that his wife calls him a caveman because under their house is a cave where his ancestors lived hundreds of years ago.

The family is part of a veteran community affiliated with the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. The stone house they live in now was built in the second half of the 19th century. Twenty years ago, another floor was added to the house. “Elaine supervised the construction and made sure all the modern appliances were included,” her husband said.

In other words, Elaine Zoughbi has been living in Bethlehem for almost 30 years, excluding long stays in the United States for medical reasons, when she supported her four children during their university studies and when she herself worked on a master’s in nonprofit administration. That is, in her own home she has been living under the same uncertainty that afflicts thousands of other people in her situation: foreign nationals who are married to Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza, and depend on tourist visas from Israel, because Israel ignores their right and applications for permanent resident status (a process called “family unification”).

Facebook post published by Elaine Zoughbi

Orally, the border controller, dressed in black over his white shirt, gave Elaine Zoughbi two further reasons for her deportation. The first was that she had overstayed her previous visa. She tried to explain that she had handed in her passport on time, in October 2018, for extending her visa, but it had been returned late by the Interior Ministry without a visa and with a demand that she leave the country. A few days went by before she found a suitable flight.

The second reason was given after she told the border controller, as he was accompanying her to the plane. “I must be a special American because, unlike every other American who can enter and automatically get a 3-month tourist visa, I can no longer do that,” she told him, as she related on Facebook. His reply to her: “Because you married a Palestinian.”

At first, she was shocked upon hearing that, but “ultimately, that’s probably the truth,” she told Haaretz in an email.

A ruined Easter

It was hard for her to unpack her suitcases, she says, with the presents she had bought for two of her sons and her husband, who were waiting for her at home in Bethlehem. “We tidied up the house in her honor,” says her son Tareq, hinting at the mess during the five months she was away.

They had planned to spend the last two weeks of Lent together, as well as Easter itself on Sunday. Then they would prepare for the wedding of the older brother, Lukas, who is finishing his doctoral degree in psychology in the United States.

זוגבי זוגבי במרכז ויאם בבית לחם

The wedding was set for May 26. She told the border controller about the wedding too, to no avail. They’re now worried that Israel will prevent her from being present at her son’s wedding. In the 12 hours she spent at the airport, shuffled like a prisoner from room to room, her husband got senior church authorities involved in the hope they could talk to some Israeli official, but that didn’t work.

The detention and deportation from the airport, with her family waiting a mere 40 miles away, was “an awful experience, which I hope none of you ever have to experience,” Elaine Zoughbi wrote in a Facebook post that made its way around the world.

“Zoughbi and I got married in 1990. As soon as we were married, we should have been granted some legal status which would have allowed me to reside in Bethlehem as his spouse. We did everything we were told to do and applied to the Israeli Civil Administration for ‘family reunification status’ ... but every single application was denied. This, compared to my American friends married to Israelis who receive legal status and rights within the first few months of being married. The government of Israel has set up both systems, but the system set up for Palestinians was set up to fail. Sure, there is an application process, but when no one is approved, what kind of process is it, really?”

A fifth reason for her deportation was received by Haaretz from the Population and Immigration Authority: “This is a traveler who landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on April 3, 2019, coming for a visit to the territories. Upon contacting the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, we were informed that she was required to contact them beforehand, to approve her entrance through the Allenby Bridge crossing. Thus she was refused entry through Ben-Gurion Airport and must now turn to COGAT.”

30,000 more families

The multiplicity of reasons and excuses for Zoughbi’s deportation reflects Israel’s deliberately vague and confusing policy for people in her situation. The criteria for receiving a tourist visa, for living with one’s family in one’s own home, keep changing, with no one knowing when, how and why. The condition for traveling through the Allenby Bridge only, not the airport, doesn’t appear in any published regulation of COGAT.

At one time Elaine, who is an accountant, was permitted to work in Palestinian Authority-controlled enclaves. Now she’s prohibited from doing so, just like everyone else in her situation. At one time her visa allowed her to travel across the Green Line, and Elaine went to pray in Jerusalem and to visit Nazareth. Now she isn’t allowed because in recent years the visa given to Western spouses of Palestinians has been “for Judea and Samaria only” – the West Bank. One time, her visa wasn’t renewed because her husband was abroad, another common pretext used by the Interior Ministry.

Tariq Zoughbi lecturing to a group from Sweden in Wi'am center in Bethlehem, West Bank.

There are more than 30,000 families whose requests have piled up at the Palestinian administration of civil affairs (the counterpart of COGAT). There are thousands of others – their number is unknown – who haven’t bothered to file a request for family unification because they know that Israel refuses even to examine them.

Israel’s policy regarding “mixed” couples, with one partner not being a resident of the West Bank or Gaza, has undergone several changes since 1967, but the main message has always been that Israel opposes the settling in these areas of foreigners who have married Palestinians. If they wish to live together, they must do so abroad.

This was true before the Oslo Accords were signed and afterward as well, with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, as reflected in reports by the rights groups Hamoked and B’Tselem. These were based on copious information that accumulated in hearings of petitions filed by Hamoked’s lawyers since the end of the ‘80s. Thousands of families did remain, despite the difficulties. But many others have given up: They split up or left the country.

Currently, the government says that it’s refusing to approve family unification because the issue is of affairs of state and a new policy is being formulated (in a process underway for several years) by a task force. In the past, the explanations were more honest. In July 1987, Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, in one of his rulings against granting resident status to a spouse of a Palestinian, quoted the explanation given by then-Deputy State Prosecutor Menachem Mazuz (and today a Supreme Court justice).

Shamgar wrote: “The State of Israel is unwilling to accept a situation in which any resident of this area can marry a woman abroad and bring her here. The decision on who enters and settles in one of these areas [the West Bank or Gaza] is one for the authorities to make, and no resident can impose his or her private choice on the authorities. However, one should remember that a refusal to allow entry to a husband or wife does not mean that the couple is doomed to live apart, since there is nothing to prevent (barring security considerations) the local resident from going abroad to reunite with his or her spouse. If family unification is indeed the supreme consideration of the petitioners, this can be met in this fashion as well.”

In the mid-’90s, Zoughbi Zoughbi founded the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center, intended to resolve personal, family and social conflicts through mediation. The center is located in an impressive 19th-century building belonging to his mother’s family, the Sansours, on the road linking Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

The road is cut now by the separation wall. The imposing wall and a scary concrete military watch tower overlook the Wi’am Center and its garden. A week and a half ago, next to the wall, Zoughbi said: “We refuse to hate, refuse to resort to violence and refuse to seek revenge. We harbor no feelings of hatred or resentment, but we want to celebrate life.”