Sa’adi Khatatbeh and Maryam Ibrahim have been married for 40 years. He is 62 and she is 59. They have five children and many grandchildren. They were both born in the village of Beit Furik southeast of Nablus in the northern West Bank and belong to the same extended family.
With the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, the Ibrahim family was in Amman.
They remained there in the period following the war and were not included in the West Bank population registry that Israeli authorities created based on a population census carried out during the summer that year. Maryam Ibrahim is therefore a Jordanian citizen, while Khatatbeh, her husband, who was in the West Bank at the time, has permanent resident status there.
Marriage within the same extended family or among residents of the same village is very common in the West Bank and 40 years ago it was even more prevalent. The custom is stronger than the artificial boundaries created by wars, as demonstrated by tens of thousands of other Palestinians who did what Khatatbeh and Ibrahim did, marrying despite the boundary separating the West Bank and Jordan.
And like tens of thousands of other “mixed” families in which either the husband or wife is not a permanent resident of the West Bank, they live in legal, social and psychological limbo. Over the years, and again last year, Haaretz has reviewed the policy towards these families, whose fate is in Israel’s hands because it controls the Palestinian population registry and decides who is included and who isn’t.
Israeli authorities usually do not grant requests for inclusion in the registry and have also made tourist visas — the main way that is left for people who, for family and work-related reasons, live in the West Bank — very difficult to obtain. The circuitous bureaucratic path that Khatatbeh and his wife have taken is not unusual, but in their case, it is particularly long.
Married in 1978
The couple got married in 1978, after which Maryam Ibrahim received a permit to visit Beit Furik, where she was born. She obtained a birth certificate from the offices of the Israeli military governor at the time. The document featured a heading reading: “Judea and Samaria Command Headquarters – Health Services” and shows that she paid 50 Israeli pounds to have it issued. There, at the military headquarters, her visitor’s permit was extended to a period of four months, and no longer.
Since they had no alternative, Khatatbeh and his wife moved to the Jordanian capital, Amman, a city that was unfamiliar to the husband. Before leaving Beit Furik, however, he filed a request for family unification to enable his wife to move back to their West Bank village. They did not know Israeli authorities were turning down all such applications at the time.
From Amman they moved to Kuwait, where Khatatbeh found work as a driver. When their children were born, he made the effort to bring them to the West Bank and registered them in the Palestinian population registry that Israel controlled. But in late 1990, after Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait, they were deported together with hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians. They returned to Jordan, where Khatatbeh continued to work as a driver.
The Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians were signed in 1993 and like many other Palestinians, Khatatbeh and Ibrahim assumed that the population registry would come under Palestinian authority. They were wrong.
New request for family reunification
In 1998, Khatatbeh filed a new family unification application. Failing to get a response, Khatatbeh split his time between Amman and Beit Furik.
On several occasions, Israeli authorities granted his wife a tourist visa to visit the West Bank and her native village. On each occasion, she returned to the Jordanian capital when the visa expired, but the couple’s real hometown remained Beit Furik.
They live in a rented apartment in Amman, where to this day they still feel somewhat foreign and out of their element. Amman is an expensive city and is not welcoming to older people who are not of means. Two of their children and several of their grandchildren live in Beit Furik.
Since 2016, even requests for a tourist visa for Khatatbeh’s wife have gone unanswered. Out of despair, in late 2017 he sought the assistance of an Israeli lawyer from Jerusalem, Adi Lustigman.
Experience has shown that the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Ministry is unable to follow up on an ongoing basis on the permit applications that it has filed with Israeli authorities. Therefore, Lustigman wrote to the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank seeking information about the status of the family unification request that Khatatbeh filed in 1998 and also asked that Maryam Ibrahim be allowed to visit her home village from time to time in the interim.
The Civil Administration responded that she should apply to the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which she then did, but COGAT said she needed to apply to the Civil Administration. She wrote to both agencies seeking to have them sort it out.
On February 20 of last year, three weeks after the letter was filed, the officer in charge of public inquiries at COGAT, Capt. Ozel Nissim, said his office had no application on file from the Khatatbeh family. He suggested that he file a new application and said if the Palestinian Authority refers it to COGAT, it would be considered.
“It should be noted, however, that in keeping with current policy, which is the product of the security and diplomatic situation, requests of this type are only approved by Israel in rare instances, under extraordinary humanitarian circumstances,” added Nissim, who consistently referred to Maryam Ibrahim, who was born in Beit Furik, as “the foreigner.”
Although Khatatbeh had Palestinian confirmation that he had filed a family unification request on December 26, 1998, he filed a new request with the Palestinian Authority on May 3 of last year. And as is required of West Bank Palestinians “hosting” Jordanians, a few days later, he also filed a new request with the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry for a visitor’s permit for his wife, on the understanding that the Palestinian Authority would then pass it along to Israeli authorities.
Procedure requires that the Israeli Civil Administration’s District Coordination and Liaison Administration respond in principle – either granting or denying the application – within a week from the date it is received. If the request is approved in principle, the documents are transferred for processing to the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Ministry, which then passes them along to the Israeli Civil Administration. They are then in turn transferred to the representative of the Israeli Interior Ministry’s population registry at the Civil Administration.
Days stretched into weeks, and then months without any kind of response from the Civil Administration. Lustigman decided to drop her pursuit of the family unification application but sent COGAT a reminder regarding the request for a visitor’s visa for Ibrahim that had been filed six months earlier. Just four days later, COGAT replied by email: “Your request has been received. A response takes from 7 to 45 days and will be sent by email as soon as possible.”
On December 5 of last year, 1st Lt. Bar Yehuda, the public inquiries officer of the Civil Administration, replied that Khatatbeh should apply for a visitor’s permit for his wife in accordance with the procedure described on the COGAT website, as if that was not what he had done seven months earlier.
In a rather strongly worded letter, Lustigman responded: “Despite the clear evidence that my client acted in accordance with the visitor permit procedure and has already filed an application for his wife’s admission, and despite the fact that I asked where the matter stood after the request was filed, you referred me to the procedure. I thank you for this reference, but as noted, because my client has already filed it, I would appreciate a relevant response to my request.” To this, Capt. Nissim of COGAT quickly mailed Lustigman the following: “As of December 12, a request from the Palestinian Authority on the matter of Maryam Ibrahim is being processed. When a decision is made, we will inform you.”
It’s now 2019, yet no word has been sent on a decision.
On February 12, Lustigman sent a reminder to COGAT's office of public inquiries. “As is apparent from the correspondence below, we have been waiting for your response on this matter for a long time. My client and his wife are elderly people, and it is inconceivable for your response to take so long.”
On February 13, an email from COGAT confirmed: “Your request has been received.”
On February 20, in an email with the subject line “Request for Visitor’s Permit,” Nissim reiterated that foreigners such as Maryam Ibrahim need to file their requests through the Palestinian Authority. In the sixth paragraph of the response, he wrote that he had checked that same day and found that “a request had been received from the Palestinian Authority on the matter, but necessary forms are missing and the relevant officials have been informed.” And he added: ”After the [additional information] is received, the matter will be reviewed accordingly. When the forms are received, the request will be processed accordingly.”
Capt. Nissim did not note when the PA transferred to the Civil Administration the application that Khatatbeh had filed in May last year or which forms were missing.
On March 14, Lustigman sent an email to COGAT stating: “In light of your notice of missing documents, Khatatbeh has again submitted new forms to the PA. He was told that everything is in order.” Lustigman asked COGAT to confirm that the request was being processed.
On March 17: COGAT responded: “Your request will be checked with the Palestinian Authority.”
On March 24, in a letter dated March 18, whose subject line was "Family Unification request for Khatatbe", Captain Nissim wrote, “The PA is sovereign to decide” whether to transfer family unification applications to the Israelis, adding that forms were missing and that requests for family unification are “approved by the Israeli side in rare instances.”
On March 25: Lustigman corrected the COGAT officer and reminded him that she was writing about permission for Ibrahim to visit after the officer wrote that forms were missing, and now he was responding regarding the family unification request.
On April 1, Capt. Nissim still referred to the family unification in the subject line. He wrote regarding COGAT’s examination: “It transpires that a request had been received from the PA, but necessary forms were missing and the relevant officials at the PA have been informed.”
That was the second time that COGAT had stated that forms were missing without saying which forms. Despite the subject line, Lustigman concluded that Capt. Nissim was referring to the visitor’s permit and not the family unification request.
On April 29: Lustigman responds that Khatatbeh had again contacted the Palestinian Authority, which informed him that no forms were missing. “At the moment, all that is needed is approval of his wife’s visit, just as she has visited in the past and departed on the date [required] without breaking any permit rules. This is an elderly couple. what else is required for a visit permit to be issued for the wife? We are asking that she come for a visit in May. If some document is missing after such a long time, I would like to be told exactly which document is missing and whether it involves the wife’s visit or the request for family unification.”
On April 30, COGAT responds: “Your request has been received and a response will be provided as possible.”
A quick exchange of emails
May 1 at 10 A.M., Lustigman emails COGAT asking why she can’t be informed which documents are missing and argues that Khatatbeh could have been told directly rather being sent back and forth from one office to another. “How can such a simple request for an elderly couple who has never violated the law, and is seeking to exercise their minimal human right, be delayed for so long?”
May 1, 12:48 P.M.: In an email, Capt. Nissim, mentions procedure for visits by foreigners, provides details about it, and in paragraph 6 states: “No request from the PA has been received on the matter.”
May 1: 12:51 P.M.: Lustigman, stupefied, asks: “Until now I understood from you that the request had been transferred, and you even noted that documents were missing. What’s happening?”
May 1, 2:35 P.M.: Lustigman sends another email stating: “My client was specifically told by the PA that his request for a visitor’s permit had been transferred to the Israeli side.”
May 5: COGAT to Lustigman: “Your request has been received. A reply will be provided by email as soon as possible.”
May 12: Lustigman to COGAT: “What’s happening? I would appreciate your decision.”
May 13: COGAT to Lustigman: “Your application is still under review by the relevant officials. An answer will be provided as soon as possible by email.”
May 15: COGAT to Lustigman. The agency apologizes. The application regarding the “foreigner” had indeed been received but “required forms are missing and the relevant officials at the PA have been informed of this. When the documents are received, we will review the matter in accordance with relevant procedures.” For the third time, Capt. Nissim fails to mention which forms are missing.
May 16: Lustigman writes: “If indeed some form or some detail on a form is missing, to avoid my elderly client having to run around, ... please send me a copy of those forms so we can assist my client in filling them out in a timely manner.”
May 19: COGAT to Lustigman: “First of all, we apologize for the mistakes in our previous responses due to a mistake we made in the resident's data and hence once again our apology. As to the matter itself, the request is awaiting completion of a form at the request of the professional officials and, as an exception, we have asked that the matter be expedited.”
Khatatbeh is in Amman. Despairing that his wife would be allowed to visit Beit Furik for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he went to Jordan to be with her. Lustigman again asks what documents are missing because the Palestinian Authority does not know.
May 23: Lustigman writes COGAT after getting no response to her last email. She again asks which forms are missing.
Haaretz posed 19 questions to the COGAT spokesman regarding the bureaucratic obstacle course described above. In response, the COGAT spokesman said: “Since these are matters of privacy, we cannot comment on a specific case.”
The spokesman then detailed the procedure for filing a request for family unification or a visitor permit through the Palestinian Authority. Haaretz’s questions were not answered, including one about why Khatatbeh could not be told which forms were missing. Also unanswered was what was being done to prevent applications in the pipeline from going astray and why requests for family unification and for Ibrahim’s visit were not accepted, and whether this tiring bureaucratic runaround was intentional so that people simply give up.