Analysis |

Israel’s Demographic Warfare Rages on Both Sides of Green Line. With One Difference

Palestinian negotiators in the 1990s thought it would be purely a technical matter to facilitate family reunifications and the return of people to the territories

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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A protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah in support of family reunifications.
A protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah in support of family reunifications.Credit: Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Former Meretz party chairwoman Zehava Galon was one of the petitioners who filed a legal challenge with the High Court of Justice against the sweeping emergency regulation passed in 2003 that prohibits residents of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and four specified enemy states from moving to Israel, including East Jerusalem, after marrying a citizen or permanent resident of Israel. That fact alone is enough to demonstrate the political and moral trap that Galon’s Meretz colleagues and successors now face.

They are being asked to approve the extension of the “emergency regulation,” which discriminates against Palestinian citizens and residents of Israel, for the sake of the new government coalition.

Galon filed three petitions against the law, all of them drafted by attorney Dafna Holz-Lechner. The first was in 2003, and the second and third, based on the first, were filed in 2007. In 2012, an expanded High Court panel again heard arguments on all of the petitions against the law, including Galon’s. The justices, by a margin of one, denied the petitions.

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Since then, the Knesset has extended this temporary law every year, almost automatically. As Galon’s petition warned back in 2003, “There is major suspicion that the purpose on which the law is based isn’t primarily security-related. Instead its purpose is to influence demography in Israel, to discriminate against Israel’s Arab citizens simply because they are Arabs and subject them to collective punishment, while riding roughshod over their fundamental rights, expelling them from their country and destroying their families.”

Nearly 20 years after this temporary law was passed, there is no disputing that it is a weapon in the demographic war Israel is waging to limit population growth among its Palestinian citizens and East Jerusalem residents. But the demographic war and its bureaucratic weapons, do not recognize the Green Line, Israel’s 1967 borders. It’s also being waged against Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip enclaves.

To this day, Israel controls the Palestinian population registry and decides who will receive a Palestinian ID card. Since it controls the borders, it also decides who will enter the West Bank or Gaza Strip, and for how long.

Zehava Galon Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

This double control allows it to interfere in the family life of tens of thousands of people, and potentially even more, by refusing to grant permanent status to foreign nationals who are the spouses, parents or even children of residents of the territories – a process known as family reunification.

There are three main groups of Palestinian families that have been waiting many years for Israel to approve their applications for residency in the territories it occupied in 1967. One consists of people born in the West Bank or Gaza whom Israel stripped of residency status prior to 1994 (when implementation of the Oslo Accords began), either because they were abroad in 1967 or because they later went abroad for long periods of time.

Many of these people have elderly parents in the territories, as well as other relatives and property. Some have arrived on tourist visas and have remained without extending their visas. Others have had their requests to visit denied.

The second group consists of foreign nationals who are married to Palestinians and are living in the territories occupied in 1967 on Israeli tourist visas. Sometimes Israel renews them; sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes its policy on extending the visas and the duration of the extension changes without explanation.

Sometimes a spouse must either leave for an unknown length of time to renew a visa, or remain – even though the visa has expired – and become an illegal resident. Sometimes spouses are required to deposit a sizeable financial guarantee – tens of thousands of shekels – at the border crossing on entering to ensure that they leave when their visa expires.

The third group, and apparently the largest, consists of residents of Arab countries – mostly Palestinians, and mostly from Jordan – who are married to West Bank residents. Some belong to the same extended family; others met at universities in Jordan.

Jordan has diplomatic relations with Israel, but its citizens are only allowed to enter on a visitor’s permit of limited duration and it cannot be continuously renewed. Consequently, these spouses are forced to violate the terms of their permits and wind up living for years in their own homes as “illegal residents.”

They live in constant fear of being deported, and therefore their movements within the West Bank are limited. They are also completely cut off from their families abroad.

The negotiators of the Oslo Accords recognized that it was necessary to create a mechanism for restoring residency status in the West Bank and Gaza to people stripped of it beginning in 1967, as well as recognizing marriage as grounds for approving family reunification requests and granting Palestinian identity cards to foreign spouses.

Purely a technical matter

The Palestinians thought it was purely a technical matter and that the two sides had no disagreements over its substance – that people born in the occupied territories had a right to return, families had a right to reunite and spouses had a right to live with their families. And indeed, since 1994, several hundred thousand people (the exact number isn’t clear) did receive residency status, either based on family reunification or based on a quota allotted to members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who constituted the political backbone of the Oslo Accords.

But the second half of the 1990s was wasted in endless discussions over how to implement and interpret the agreements’ provisions. Then, in late 2000, Israel froze the family reunification process entirely, citing the eruption of the second intifada and the deterioration of its relations with the Palestinian Authority.

In 2007 and 2008, following a public fight waged by families and High Court petitions filed by the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, Israel permitted the reunification of another 32,000 families, but only as a “political gesture” to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, other than in highly exceptional circumstances, family reunifications in Gaza and the West Bank have once again been suspended.

Precisely as with the temporary law passed in 2003, in this case, too, a step meant to be temporary has become permanent policy. But there is one difference: In the occupied territories, the policy is conducted with a lack of transparency and without the cloak of legislation or debate in the Knesset or the media.

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