The Faces of Non-existent People: Palestinians Living Without an Official ID

Mohammed al-Jorf doesn’t have an official ID card of any kind. Hana Sha’aban is living in 'a big prison.' Hind al-Masri cannot sign a work contract. Life without status

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A woman hold a sign that reads 'I have a right to be with my children' at a demonstration for Palestinian reunification rights in El Bireh, on Sunday.
A woman hold a sign that reads 'I have the right to be with my children,' at a demonstration for Palestinian reunification rights in El Bireh, on Sunday.Credit: Emil Salman
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Once every two to three weeks, they come together for regular ongoing protest vigils, demanding a resolution of their Kafkaesque situations. Most are Palestinians who were born and lived in Jordan and are now living with their families in the West Bank, but they lack resident status of any kind in the West Bank and therefore have no Israeli-authorized and Palestinian Authority-issued ID card. Therefore Israel regards them as illegal residents.

The initiators and members of the protest movement ”Family Reunification – my Right” have been demonstrating on a regular basis for the past seven months opposite the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry in the West Bank town of El Bireh (adjacent to Ramallah). Even though it is only Israel that has the authority to issue them a Palestinian ID card, the members of the group, expect the Palestinian Authority to work to obtain permission for them to remain in the West Bank and to exercise their right to live there with the other members of their families.

“The police officer in the jeep searched in his computer and found no identity number assigned to me. ‘You don’t exist,’ he told me, bewildered, and released me”

Mohammed al-Jorf.Credit: Emil Salman

Mohammed al-Jorf, Nablus

Mohammedal-Jorf was caught in Jerusalem once by the Israeli Border Police. “Yes, I used to work in Israel,” he said, seeing this reporter’s puzzled look. He explained: “What choice does someone have who wants to live and raise a family? I used to enter Israel, like other laborers, without a permit. It’s just that I also don’t have an identity card either.”

Like all of Al- al-Jorf’s colleagues in Family Reunification – My Right who have been living for many years in the West Bank, he doesn’t have a Palestinian identity card. But in Al- al-Jorf’s case, he doesn’t have an official ID card of any kind.

He was born 40 years ago in Amman to parents who were residents of the Askar refugee camp east of Nablus and whose family originated from the destroyed Palestinian village of al-Khayriyyehin what is now Israel. To make a living, his family would go back and forth between Jordan and the West Bank. When he was 5, they returned to the refugee camp withhim and his siblings, and that’s where he grew up.

For a number of reasons, however, his father never registered him with an officer from the interior office of the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank who represented Israeli Interior Ministry. Registering the boy retroactively would have cost his father 21 Jordanian dinars, a sum that, Al- al-Jorf said, his father simply didn’t have and therefore deferred dealing with the issue.

“I remember my mother begging him to register us and he would answer ‘soon,’” Al- al-Jorf said. Then the first intifada erupted in late 1987, disrupting access to all kinds of bureaucratic procedures.

A demonstration for Palestinian reunification rights in El Bireh, on Sunday.Credit: Emil Salman

When he was 16 and the Palestinian Authority had by then been established, Al- al-Jorfwent to register at the Palestinian Interior Ministry to get an ID card. But he was told it was too late: If he had come before age 16, he would have been registered as his parents’ child. Now, it was explained to him, his parents would have to come and apply for “family reunification” with their son, even though they had always lived together. The application would then be sent for approval to the Israeli Civil Administration, which retained the authority to grant Palestinian residency status.

The application was submitted in 1998, but since then, no action has been taken on it. In 2000, with the outbreak of the second intifada, Israel put a halt to the family reunification process that it had committed to under the Oslo Accords. In 2008, Israel made a one-time gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to approve residency status for 32,000 people who had had long-pending family reunification applications.

Al-Jorfwas not among those granted resident status, however. When he investigated why, he discovered to his surprise that his application for family reunification had never been transferred by the Palestinian office in Nablus, as required, to the Israeli Civil Administration.

He had to tell this long and complicated story to the officer from the Israeli Border Police who apprehended him in Jerusalem. “The police officer in the jeep searched in his computer and found no identity number assigned to me. ‘You don’t exist,’ he told me, bewildered, and released me,” al-Jorf recounted.

Children take part in a demonstration for Palestinian reunification rights in El Bireh, on Sunday.Credit: Emil Salman

In 2004, a clerk at the Palestinian Department of Motor Vehicles told him the exact same thing (“You don’t exist”) when he sought a driver’s license for a motorcycle. But by that time, al-Jorf had a lot of experience convincing clerks to do the bureaucratically impossible. He had used all of his persuasive skills to register as a university student without an ID number. He ultimately quit school because he couldn’t afford the tuition and returned to doing renovation and electrical work, which he had learned as a teenager while accompanying his electrician father on jobs in Israel.

Al-Jorfhad also worked hard to convince the clerks at the Islamic religious court to marry him and his wife, Hibaand register them as a married couple. At the school that his three children attend, al-Jorf’s wife has had to inform the school administration that they have to make do with her ID identity number alone because her husband doesn’t have one. And al-Jorf needs her help on the road as well. His driver’s license is only valid in Area A – the West Banktiny areas where the Palestinian police is allowed to operate. When the couple leaves the Nablus enclave of Area A to attend the regular protests in El Bireh, al-Jorf’s wife has to take the wheel.

Not long ago, the family moved to a home that they had bought in Nablus’ Rafidiya neighborhood. But, without an identity card, the municipality refuses to register the flat in al-Jorf’s name, which particularly annoys him.

“I’ve been paying on this apartment for about seven years,” he fumed. “You’ve accepted the money that I’ve earned holding down two jobs for years, but you’re not prepared to register me as the homeowner?”

“I did leave once, when our youngest daughter got sick and we took her to the hospital in Nablus by ambulance”

Hana Sha’aban.Credit: Emil Salman

Hana Sha’aban, Jalameh

On Sunday of this week, Hana Sha’aban visited the West Bank city of Ramallah for the first time in her life, even though she lives in Jalameh, a village in the northern West Bank, two hours drive away. It was only the prospect of attendinga protest vigil in front of the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry that made Hana and her husband, Mohana, overcome their fear of passing through checkpoints to travel together to El Bireh.

The couple met in Jordan, where Mohana studied fashion design and Hana studied to become a pharmaceutical assistant. Her parents had left Jalameh prior to the 1967 Six-Day War and therefore Israel deprived them of their residency rights there. In 1999, after the couple married, Mohana applied for family reunification. They thought it would take a few months to complete, or at most a year, until their application would be approved, after which she would move from Amman to Jenin in the West Bank. As a West-Banker, Mohana was not allowed to stay in Jordan for more than a month at a time.

In the interim, however, he was disappointed to discover that sewing workshops in Jenin were making do with copying clothing designs rather than using original ones. That convinced him to switch careers. He was hired by the investigation department of the Palestinian police. The months that followed turned into years while his wife and two older children continued living in Amman, and he kept visiting them on weekends.

Following the outbreak of the second intifada not only did Israel suspend the processing of applications for family reunification but it also banned visitors from Jordan from entering the West Bank (which usually required an application for a permit to visit filed by a West Bank resident). At the age of 31, in 2011, Hana finally obtained a permit to visit the West Bank.

Since her arrival, she hadn’t dared leave the Jenin era – until last Sunday, that is. “In fact, I did leave once, when our youngest daughter got sick and we took her to the hospital in Nablus by ambulance,” she acknowledged.

Without an ID number, Hana can’t find work in the public sector in the West Bank. “I might be able to work at a private business,” but then she would not be likely to have an assured source of income, she said. During the 12 years that she lived with her parents in Amman, as a married woman with children, she hesitated to make any plans, look for a job or continue her studies, in case the West Bank visitor’s permit was issued or the family’s reunification application was approved.

“Now, I’m in a big prison. I know I made a mistake not making better use of the time,” she remarked sorrowfully. “But how could I have known?”

“My children are imprisoned together with me because neither they nor my husband want to go anywhere, to travel, without me”

Hind al-Masri.Credit: Emil Salman

Hind al-Masri, Nablus

Hind al-Masri, 46, is a chef who earns her living giving cooking classes to children and adults. “When I have to sign a contract, someone else signs for me, gets the check in his name and then cashes it out for me,” she explained. “Or they write me a check without a name, or we make do without a written contract,” she added.

In short, people in al-Masri’s line of business are flexible and willing to adapt to her unusual circumstances in not having an identity card. “We aren’t asking for anything material, just a simple document that will enable us to see our family in Amman and not live with the fear of never being able to see our parents while they’re still alive,” she said.

She was living in Jordan when she met her husband in the late 1990s. He too applied for family reunification. After the wedding, she visited her husband in the West Bank twice with a visitor’s permit – each time for three months, after which she returned to Jordan. “Then everything shut down – the borders, the opportunity to visit, the family reunification process,” she said summarizing the events that shaped her path in life. “I remained with my family in Amman for 13 years, as if I wasn’t married.”

In 2012, she heard about a travel agency in Amman that arranged tours to the West Bank. She paid $14,000 for a tourist visa that was valid for just one week. This was the type of ruse that many like al Masri resorted to, spending major portions of their savings to reunite with their husbands in the West Bank. al Masri has remained in the West Bank ever since.

Her eldest daughter is already studying at university; another child that she had later in life is in 2nd grade. “I can’t go anywhere with them. They are imprisoned together with me because neither they nor my husband want to go anywhere, to travel, without me,” she said.

Her husband, she explained, is afraid to leave her alone but also to venture further afield with her and the children, to Jericho for example. “He doesn’t want soldiers to catch me without an ID card and the children to see their mother arrested”. Despite such fears, however, she has attended nearly every one of the El Bireh protest vigils.

What prompted her to join the movement, she said, was the photo of her 85-year-old mother in the hospital, connected to an oxygen machine. All the stories that she had heard about women in her situation whose parents had passed away without their being able to reunite one last time were too much for her.

“She’s two hours away, and I can’t see her. If I go to see her, they won’t let me return hometo my children. If I stay with them, I am not allowed to see my mother” she lamented.

In addition to all the “ordinary” difficulties that women in her situation must contend with, finding the best possible medical care for her sick son overshadows them all

Bayan Safi and her son.Credit: Emil Salman

Bayan Safi, Deir Ammar refugee camp

Israel actually approved the family reunification application that Bayan Safi’s husband filed in the late 1990s. Approval came in 2008 as one of the applications granted in the diplomatic gesture at the time. But because Bayan Safi, now 38, hadn’t actually violated the terms of her visitor’s permit and instead returned to Jordan after a short trip to the West Bank in 2000, she came out the loser.

Among those included in the gesture, only people who were physically present in the West Bank as “illegal residents” actually received the sought-after identity cards. Between the two bureaucracies – Israeli and the Palestinian – there was no one to seek to ensure that she got the resident status that had been officially approved for her.

In 2011, she entered the West Bank on a visitor’s permit and ever since has been living with her husband and three children in the Deir Ammar refugee camp west of Ramallah. Her family originates from the destroyed village of Bayt Nabala, in what is now Israek.

In addition to all the “ordinary” difficulties that women in her situation must contend with, finding the best possible medical care for her sick son overshadows them all. “The best care to be had is in East Jerusalem and in Israel,” Safi said. “Without an identity card, I can’t go with him to the medical center. My husband can’t leave his work [as a laborer in Israel] and be with our son for days and weeks. My mother-in-law went with him to East Jerusalem once for two weeks, but the treatment requires perseverance and continuity that only a mother can give. But they aren’t letting me.”

“At the border, the Israeli border inspector told me that I had violated the terms of my visitor’s permit. What could I say to him? That I am a native of this place?”

Mahmoud Hamdan.Credit: Emil Salman

Mahmoud Hamdan, Beitunia

Mahmoud Hamdan, 55, was born in the village of Midya, west of Ramallah. When he turned 16, like everyone else at that age, he received the identity card issued by Israel to residents of the 1967 occupied territories. In 1983, he went to Jordan to look for work, having no idea that Israel would strip him of his residency status because he hadn’t returned to the West Bank for several years.

In Jordan, he married Ibtisam, a relative whose parents had left Midya before 1967. With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1996, he and his wife and their children returned to the West Bank on the assumption that they would quickly get residency status. When their visitor’s permits expired, they stayed in the West Bank rather than returning to Jordan. In 1997, his mother applied for family reunification with him.

The years passed and his hopes were dashed. After the second intifada erupted in 2000, his wife tired of living in fear of every checkpoint and returned to Jordan with the children. Hamdan remained in Midya until his youngest son became ill in 2003. He rushed back to Amman to be by his side until the boy died about a month later. “At the border, the Israeli border inspector told me that I had violated the terms of my visitor’s permit,” Hamdan recounted. “What could I say to him? That I am a native of this place, that I had already been a resident with an ID card?”

Hamdan remained in Jordan, and then in 2008, he was notified that his request for resident status had been approved. But because he was living in Jordan, he wasn’t permitted to go back to the West Bank and materialize the approved resident status. In 2019, his mother asked him to come to the West Bank on a visit, which he did with a visitor’s permit. Since then, he has stayedas an illegal resident in the village of his birth.

“I’m not allowed to open a bank account. It’s complicated for me to send money to my family. My cellphone is in the name of my brother. I have no health insurance, and if I get sick, I have to go to a private doctor,” he explained as he enumerated the usual complications faced by people without legal status in the West Bank. Then he smiled sadly: “I have grandchildren and I’m a WhatsApp grandfather,” a reference to the popular cellphone messaging app.

During the last two years, he has been working at a small factory west of Ramallah in the Beitunia industrial zone, sleeping there to save on expenses. He knows that because he doesn’t have an identity card, he isn’t receiving all of his employment benefits.

Even though he is on call 24 hours a day and deals with technical problems at the factory after working hours, his pay is docked for every hour that he is away during his regular working hours of 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. Despite the financial impact, however, he has faithfully been attending the protest vigils organized by Family Reunification – My Right. He had learned about them on Facebook.

Families take part in a demonstration for Palestinian reunification rights in El Bireh, on Sunday.Credit: Emil Salman

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