Lacking Basic Rights and Living in Fear: The Stories Behind Israel's Family Reunification Ban

Madeline is not permitted to work or enroll in school. Iman, a single mother of three, was denied a residency permit. Israel's law blocking family unification destroys the lives of thousands of Palestinians and Bedouins

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Kaida Abu Zayed, left, Madeline Zigan and Ali Albaz.
Kaida Abu Zayed, left, Madeline Zigan and Ali Albaz. Credit: Moti Milrod, Emil Salman and Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Madeline Zigan, 28, is a native of Jerusalem, just like her mother. She has a B.A. in medical sciences, has started a master’s and has been accepted to medical school. She volunteers for a number of organizations and has been accepted for a job at the National Library.

But when the library sought to issue her an employee ID card, it discovered that she doesn’t have an Israeli ID number, so she couldn’t be employed there. And that’s just one of the obstacles she faces as a victim of the amendment to the Citizenship and Entry to Israel Law, now subject to Knesset deliberations over whether to extend it another year.

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“I have no ID card, I can’t get a driver’s license or open a bank account, and it’s very difficult to travel abroad,” Zigan says. “My dream is to be a research physician, but that won’t be possible without an ID card.”

Zigan is one of thousands of people, mostly Jerusalem Palestinians or Bedouin from the south, whose lives are being torched by this amendment that prevents family unification with residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Zigan’s mother has Israeli residency status, like the overwhelming majority of Palestinians in the city; they're not Israeli citizens but permanent residents. Her father is a resident of the West Bank but has lived for many years abroad.

Before the couple separated, they lived in the West Bank for a few years. When Zigan, her mother and her sisters came back to Jerusalem 11 years ago, they discovered that the amendment prevented her from obtaining any kind of legal residency status in Israel. Her youngest sister was granted residency, but she, who was 17 at the time, has only a District Coordination and Liaison permit, which allows her to live in Israel but with no rights.

Only hope: The humanitarian committee

The consequences of not having residency status are many. Zigan, for example, must buy her own health insurance, which cost her 8,000 shekels ($2,460) for registration and another 285 shekels a month. She can’t get a driver’s license, a credit card or open a bank account, nor can she find work easily.

Moreover, Council of Higher Education regulations state that she cannot register for medical school. Her only hope is that the Interior Ministry’s humanitarian committee will recognize that her case is unique and that her potential contribution to Israeli society is great enough to grant her residency.

Recently, attorney Dana Yaffe of the International Human Rights Clinic at Hebrew University wrote a letter on Zigan’s behalf to then-Interior Minister Arye Dery, and to the committee, asking them to grant Zigan status given her special contribution to Israeli society.

“Her mother and sisters are her only nuclear family and the three of them live in Jerusalem. … Effectively all she has in the world is her nuclear family in Jerusalem,” Yaffe wrote.

“She has been in Jerusalem for more than 10 years without any status in Israel, and the idea that she is decreed to live this way all her life defies every notion of justice or fairness. This is particularly so given her impressive personal achievements.”

Ali Albaz, a resident of the Bedouin community of Tel Sheva in the Negev, married a woman from the Gaza Strip 30 years ago. She died eight years ago. During her illness, her sister Zian came to care for her and help with Albaz’s six children, essentially becoming a second mother to them.

Eventually, Zian and Albaz married and applied for a family reunification permit for humanitarian reasons. The humanitarian committee has yet to respond, and for the past four years Zian has been living in Gaza, separated from her family.

“My little girl has lost her mother twice and nobody cares,” Albaz says. “This is what we’ve been dealing with for four years; we're living on salami and cheese sandwiches because there’s no one to cook. I work as a bus driver and come home every day at seven.

“One day my daughter said to me, ‘Dad, how do you kill yourself?’ I hugged her and asked her what happened, and she said the kids at school told her that if she dies, she'll meet her mother in heaven.”

“Irreparable damage”

Iman, a resident of the West Bank, was married 14 years ago to an Israeli citizen who lives in Jaffa. Because of the law she never received residency status in Israel, and from time to time she must go to the Population Authority office and ask the District Coordination and Liaison Bureau for a permit to remain in Israel.

A year and a half ago her husband was convicted of a crime and sentenced to two and a half years in prison, leaving her with their three children ages 10 to 13. When she arrived to renew her permit at the end of last year, her request was renied.

In theory this means she must move to the territories and leave her children behind. Moreover, her bank account was frozen, she can't work and the housing subsidy she had been receiving from the Construction and Housing Ministry was stopped. Iman fears that her children will be sent to boarding schools and she’ll be expelled to the territories.

“She and her children will suffer irreparable damage,” if this happens, attorney Reut Shaer of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote on her behalf to the Interior Ministry.

“The children, who are used to their mother’s devoted care, will be left with no one to take care of them and will presumably be sent to [institutions]. On the other hand, after 14 years in which the center of her life was in Israel, and because there is no suspicion against her and she isn’t likely to pose any risk, God forbid, no harm will be done if the permit is extended for a few more months.”

Kaida Abu Zayed, a native of the territories who is now 60 and has lived in Israel for 23 years, is the widow of Sheikh Bassam Abu Zayed, who was a leader of the Muslim community in Jaffa and one of the great adjudicators of Islamic law in Israel. After his death in 2008, the Tel Aviv municipality named a square in Jaffa after him.

The two were married in 1998, before the amendment to the law was passed. But they didn’t manage to complete the family unification process, and when the amendment passed it left Kaida without legal status in Israel. In 2016 the Interior Ministry refused to extend her visa and she became eligible for deportation. Her health insurance was stopped and she required assistance from the Physicians for Human Rights clinic.

For years, every time the amendment has come up for extension, attorney Adi Lustigman, who represents many such cases, has tried to get legislators to at least insert an exception for people over 50. If the law's aim is to protect state security, she argues, residents of the territories over 50 will be able to enter Israel without a permit in any case, so applying the law to older, long-time residents makes no sense.

But though many legislators sought to look into the issue, and even though officials from the Shin Bet security service have admitted that people over 50 pose no obvious risk, the Knesset has repeatedly extended the amendment without excluding older people.

Lustigman has filed a petition to the High Court of Justice on Abu Zayed’s behalf; it is scheduled to be heard shortly. In the petition, Lustigman asks the court to order the exclusion from the law people over 50.

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