The Magic Word That Eases Israelis' Conscience

The issue of family reunification in Gaza and the West Bank is not included in Israeli military briefings to the Israeli press about the 'Palestinian situation,' yet it is one of the most important for Palestinians

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Protesters demonstrating against the extension of the amendment preventing Palestinian family reunification, June 2021.
Protesters demonstrating against the extension of the amendment preventing Palestinian family reunification, last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Even before some of the participants in the ongoing protest vigil in El Bireh were born, or when they were only children with no idea of the Israeli demographic manipulation, I wrote about the object of their protest: the prevention of Palestinian family reunification.

In other words, I wrote about the numerous obstacles Israel puts in the way of foreign national spouses of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to be granted residency status in the territories occupied in 1967.

About 30 years have passed. Tens of thousands of partners, citizens or residents of other countries have received residency status thanks to the legal battle waged by Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual, and, after 1995, also according to a specific article in the Oslo Accords. But since 2000 Israel, in its arrogant and authoritarian manner, has stopped the process that should have guaranteed residency status every year for about 4,000 people (most of them Palestinians), in the context of family reunification.

I have to dwell on the subject again and again because Israelis have so little interest in it, and because the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Shin Bet security service don’t bring it up in the briefings they organize for the Israeli media, and which determine the “proper agenda” regarding the Palestinian situation.

The office of the government coordinator does not decide policy, it only implements it, but because it is a unit of the Defense Ministry, its senior officials and officers are well aware of what is going on. Its representatives explain that the process of family reunification was stopped by government order and “only humanitarian cases” are being examined.

The magic word “humanitarian” is designed to divert our attention and to quiet our consciences, because what is more humanitarian than a family’s right to live together, in its home, and not in the shadow of the constant fear of severance from your beloved ones and expulsion? Namely, the case of many thousands.

About two years ago we heard about spouses who did receive residency status from Israel as part of a “gesture.” This refers to a very small number, perhaps 100, perhaps 150, who were on a special list prepared by individuals with close ties to the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Because it was an exceptional list and involved “connections” (wasta, in Arabic), what Israel did when it granted residency status to those included on it was a “favor,” and not the acknowledgment of its obligations nor of the universal right for a family.

I asked the government coordinator’s office about this exceptional list. I received no reply. I also asked when the last time was that the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry had sent them a standard application for family reunification.

Let me explain. The Oslo Accords created two bureaucracies (neither practice transparency), and the PA is still presenting that as an achievement. Instead of a Palestinian requesting a permit directly from the Israeli officer in the Civil Administration, he submits the request to an official on a Palestinian district liaison committee, who functions as a postman and forwards the form to an official/soldier in the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Office, which is subordinate to the office of the government coordinator in the territories. The same is true of applications for family reunification.

Israel does not hide the fact that it has discontinued family reunification, but at the same time it claims that applications (presumably humanitarian ones) that are submitted – are examined. However, sources in the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry say that in recent years the office of the government coordinator in the territories has forbidden them to pass on such applications. The Palestinian ministry obeys, and furthermore, judging by the experience of many residents and the lawyers who accompany them, it has stopped accepting any new applications altogether.

The logic: “The Israelis don’t handle them in any case.” Therefore, in legal terms there is no “exhausting of procedures,” and the families that are willing to challenge the system cannot appeal to Israel’s High Court of Justice. The office of the coordinator did not answer the question of when the last standard application from the Palestinian side was received.

In addition, it is not clear what has happened to old applications that the Civil Affairs Ministry did accept, prior to 2014.

Another question of mine addressed this lack of clarity. Each application that the Palestinian side accepted and supposedly transferred to the Israeli side received a tracking number. But in the few High Court sessions on the prevention of family reunification in the West Bank, the petitioners did not have another proof that indeed application had reached the Israeli side. Therefore, the judges deemed the procedure unexhausted, and the petitions had to be withdrawn. The judges would not listen to the Palestinian argument, that the Israeli side does not submit written confirmations for applications it has received. I asked the Coordinator’s spokesperson whether it means that the PA officials lie to their people when they assure them the applications were transferred to the Israeli liaison offices. I did not receive an answer.

I also asked whether the coordinator’s office can confirm that at least since 2016 or 2017, it has not allowed the Palestinian side to transfer applications for family reunification, which is why the Palestinians have stopped accepting those forms from Palestinian residents. According to the reply I received, which includes one relevant sentence: “Every application that is sent to us on behalf of the PA is examined in accordance with the regulations.”

As though I had guessed what its laconic answer would be, I also asked that office: On the assumption that no such directive (not to transfer family reunification applications) was signed, “Does that mean that if tomorrow representatives of the PA send you 1,000 applications for family reunification – you will accept them? (Regardless of whether you actually process them or approve them).”

I didn’t receive a reply to that question.

So, here: I suggest to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry that it immediately accept new or renewed applications for family reunification. We journalists will gladly document the transfer of the copies in binders to the Civil Affairs Ministry, which is about a kilometer away, as well as those sent by email. Let us see then what the justices will have to say.

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