Let No Man Put Asunder

An Israeli woman marries a Jordanian man born in the territories. Under a new law passed last week by the Knesset, Palestinian spouses of Israelis are no longer eligible for Israeli citizenship or permanent residence. Can the `only democracy in the Middle East' bar this couple from making their home here?

After 10 exciting years in Milan, during which she studied graphic design and advertising and started to work in her profession, Galit, a young Israeli woman from Givatayim, understood that she was at a crossroads, and that "the time had come to decide where I would put down roots." She visited Israel, vacationed in Eilat and went for a night swim in the Red Sea. "I swam far out, and suddenly I saw lights shining from three directions: Israel, Egypt and Jordan. This was during the early days of the Oslo Accords, there was a feeling in the air that something amazing was going to happen here. During that second I knew that I would return."

Almost 10 years after those moments of illumination, Galit is still suspended between two worlds: For the past three years she has been married to Jamil, a Jordanian businessman, but the State of Israel refuses to grant him citizenship and enable them to lead a normal life. Her ID card says she is married, but it doesn't say to whom.

Galit and Jamil insisted their identity not be revealed in this article. Their names and some of the biographical details have been changed so they can't be identified. On the Jordanian side, they fear, there are bodies that would quickly sever business ties with Jamil if they knew about his status in Israel, and even in his wider family circle, not everyone knows that he's married to an Israeli. In Israel as well, say the couple, there is no lack of fanatics for whom interreligious couples are a plague that must be stamped out.

Last weekend they were particularly depressed. They anxiously followed the discussions about the new law regarding citizenship and entry into Israel, which were held in the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, and afterward in the plenum, and couldn't believe their ears. They heard MKs defining them and people of their ilk as a danger to the security of the state, while they themselves thought that if anything, the connection between them can only promote peace and understanding among the nations in the region. When MK Yossi Sarid called the law "a legislative crime against humanity," they nodded in agreement. In this case, they say, humanity is us.

Galit and Jimal are not typical victims of the new law, which prevents residents of the Palestinian Authority from receiving Israeli citizenship, even if they are happily married to an Israeli, and thus denies Israeli citizens the elementary right to choose their life partner. Jamil is a Jordanian citizen, and has never lived in the territories, but the law affects him as well. The fact is that for the past three years he and Galit have been trying to solve their problem, but there has been no progress.

Part of the problem is that Jamil does have a Palestinian connection. His family was originally from Jaffa, and fled to Jordan in 1948. He himself, by a coincidence that has already caused him a lot of problems, was born in the territories when his parents came for a family visit. When he was 10 days old the family returned to Jordan, but the fact that he was born in the West Bank was enough to give him an orange Palestinian ID card - a red flag for Interior Ministry officials. He has Jordanian citizenship and a Jordanian passport, but reality is sometimes stronger than documents.

"It's true that your husband has a Jordanian passport, but that doesn't alter the fact that he is a Palestinian resident of the PA rather than a Jordanian," wrote Uri Tamar, head of the department of Arab states and territories in the Interior Ministry, to Galit. Since then, establishment positions have softened somewhat, but the Palestinian cloud continues to hover over the couple.

The meeting

Galit, 39, whose father is a bus driver and whose mother is a teacher of arts and crafts, went the usual Israeli route. Childhood in Givatayim, army service as an officer. Afterward she went to Italy to study, in recent years she has had a studio for graphic design in Tel Aviv, but "the situation has changed completely since the beginning of the recession," she says. "High quality graphic design of the type I do is a luxury, now people take whatever is cheap, and it's very difficult to survive." She used to have an employee at the studio, now she does everything by herself and often works very late.

Politics never interested her. Despite that, in the summer of 1999 she decided to respond to an invitation to participate in an Israeli-Arab peace encounter. There she met Jamil, who had a great deal of experience with such encounters. "From the first moment there was a kind of magnetic connection," she recalls. "At first I didn't think of him at all as a possible boyfriend, I only thought he was a great person. From the start, when he wasn't with me I felt that something was missing."

The meeting with Jamil, a businessman who mainly serves as a consultant to companies, shattered all her stereotypes. "I grew up in average Israeli environment, not especially racist, certainly not from home, but with all the familiar prejudices. There was `Arab work,' which is not exactly like Italian design, and there was a `stinking Arab,' and in general the Arabs were the bad guys, and not so human. Until I met Jamil I had hardly ever met any Arabs. The frontal encounter with reality shattered something huge for me. I felt as though I had been lied to all these years, and I hate being lied to. I understood that reality had been described to me in a very distorted manner."

Jamil, who is in his mid-30s, is dressed with a certain elegance, but his long hair gathered into a pony tail makes him look more like a rock star than a business consultant. When he was a child, his family traveled a lot because of his father's profession as a doctor of pharmacology. In addition to Jordan they lived in North Africa, Europe and several Persian Gulf countries. The very strict religious atmosphere he encountered in school contradicted the atmosphere in his home - his father was a Communist. Very early he turned his back on religion, and today he lives an entirely secular lifestyle.

He received his bachelor's degree from Amman University, and began to work as a consultant to various companies. His career took off. The money was good. He lived for a few years in Los Angeles, among other places. He had no reason to assume that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have such a dramatic influence on his economic situation and his lifestyle. As opposed to many Palestinians who "marry a blue ID card" (a partner with Israeli citizenship) to improve their economic situation, the state of Jamil's bank account has only deteriorated since the beginning of his Israeli romance.

Unlike Galit, Jamil was not surprised to discover the human face on the other side of the barrier. From the early days of Oslo he participated in rapprochement meetings, and managed to acquire a number of Israeli acquaintances. Like Galit, already after the first discussions, he felt something between them. At the end of the conference each of them returned home, and they started corresponding by e-mail. It was a time of economic prosperity, and Jamil traveled abroad often on business. Occasionally Galit joined him, several times he came to Israel.

Things progressed slowly: "I wanted to understand what was happening here," she says. "At first I thought everything was virtual, that it wasn't really happening. But when he came here it was so real. At a certain moment I said to myself, `Wow, I'm having a love affair with a Jordanian!'"

By 2000, they were a couple in every sense, even if long weeks separated between one meeting and the next. After a few more months of a flying relationship, Jamil decided to take the big step. He phoned Galit from Los Angeles and proposed. She accepted. A week later they met in Cyprus. "At first I thought about all the consequences, the risks and the problems that would be created," he says. "But after a few weeks I understood that we couldn't let that stop us."

Galit: "I can't say that the beginning wasn't accompanied by fears, but somehow I always knew that I didn't really care about the origin of my soulmate. All the doubts and small calculations disappeared before the fact that the man fascinated me, I knew that this was the guy for whom I had always been waiting. At first there were also fears because of the gaps we discovered between us. Jamil said that he hates to cook and clean, and that when we have a child he doesn't intend to diaper him. The subject of children disturbed me very much. Over time things developed in such a way that for several months he was stuck in the house for lack of choice, and did all the household chores."

They married in Cyprus and returned to the reality in Israel. First of all, they had to manage with their families. Galit: "My mother worried, but only from the political aspect. She feared for our happiness. She identified with us a lot. She herself had no problem with it, she is devoid of racism. My father took each of us separately to ask `Are you sure you're doing the right thing?' Afterward he accepted it and he does whatever he can to help us with the establishment. For my brothers it was somewhat difficult that their sister is married to an Arab, but it passed, and now they all accept and love Jamil."

Nor was it easy on the Jordanian side. Jamil's immediate family welcomed Galit warmly. He preferred not to tell the more distant relatives, some of whom are strictly religious.

Immediately after the wedding, Galit rushed back to Israel to submit a request in the Interior Ministry for family reunification and for citizenship for Jamil. She naively thought that if she hurried, things would move more quickly, she hoped it would be a matter of days. Four years later she is much wiser, has learned to adapt her level of expectations to the frustrating reality. The first blow came when she discovered that her husband - after they married - couldn't even enter Israeli territory. His Palestinian ID makes him a security risk. After months of exhausting battles, she managed to convince the authorities to consider him an ordinary Jordanian citizen, and to allow him to enter on a routine flight from Amman.

Since then he has been a present-absentee in Israel. They live in a pleasant apartment on a quiet, tree-lined street in a Tel Aviv-area suburb. Sometimes they seem like an ordinary bourgeois couple. But Jamil's status here is defined by the authorities as B1 - with residence and work permits - without health insurance, without being allowed to open an ordinary bank account, with fears that repeat themselves every few months before the expiration date of the permit, without which he becomes an illegal resident in Israel. The present permit expires today, Friday, August 8. By midweek there still had been no reply from the Interior Ministry, despite repeated appeals by their attorney, Avigdor Feldman. The past days of waiting in the hope of gaining a few more months of quiet have been nerve-wracking for them. Citizenship for Jamil now seems a distant dream.

The suicide bomber and the law

The Knesset plenum was stormy last Thursday, during the discussion of the Citizenship Law proposal. MKs from Meretz, the Arab parties and even the Labor Party tried various parliamentary tactics to postpone the vote to October, after the recess and the Jewish holidays. Coalition members made sure the Knesset would succeed in leaving its imprint before the recess. Everyone understood that it's not every day that such a problematic law is approved by the Knesset (by a majority of 53 to 25). Even Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, who two days earlier said, "I'm not happy with this law," voted for it.

Attorney Orna Cohen didn't sleep on Wednesday night. Both because she was working energetically on the wording of the petition to the High Court of Justice on behalf of Adalah, the watchdog group for Arab rights in Israel, for which she works, and because she was angry. "Under the cover of security," she says, "we are taking racist action against the basic rights of Israel's Arab citizens."

Cohen is not keeping her thoughts to herself. During the discussion in the interior and environment committee, she accused the Knesset members: "You are being sold mistaken information, misleading information. Be honest and say that you want racist legislation in Israel." MK Nissan Slomiansky of the National Religious Party said aloud what others prefer to whisper: "They say outright that they want a state ... a security element also means changing the demographics. When there's a group that is knowingly and purposely realizing the right of return, of course the state has to protect itself."

The story began in early 2002. Eli Yishai (Shas), then interior minister, decided to declare an all-out war for the Jewish character of the state, a war that suited his political-factional need to prove that he was as good as deposed leader Aryeh Deri. On February 6, 2002 Yishai told Haaretz that "through the back door of the State of Israel, the right of return [of the Palestinians] is being realized. The statistics are frightening and a cause for concern, and threaten the Jewish character of the State of Israel."

Not a word about security issues. Yishai instructed the officials in his ministry to "learn from the strict American law; bring me radical proposals, too." And they went to work.

The Interior Ministry assumed that relying on the "demographic threat" would not be sufficient to pass such a problematic law. On the other hand, it was clear that the security threat, certainly at the height of the intifada and the severe terrorist attacks, was very convincing. The opportunity arrived soon. In late March, Shadi Tubasi, a resident of Jenin, carried out a suicide bombing at the Matza restaurant in Haifa. Fifteen Israelis were killed. After the identity of the bomber was revealed, it turned out that he had Israeli citizenship, which apparently enabled him to cross the Green Line unchallenged.

Tubasi was the son of an Israeli Arab woman who married a resident of Jenin and moved to the other side of the Green Line. With his death, the suicide bomber brought disaster on thousands of Israeli citizens, most of them Arabs, who are married to Palestinians and are waiting for the day when they can reunite and have a normal family life. He immediately became a symbol for the people at the Interior Ministry. He was proof that granting citizenship to Palestinians who were residents of the West Bank must be stopped at all costs, in order to prevent them from moving about freely through the streets of Israel sowing destruction. Eli Yishai didn't miss an opportunity to mention the Matza suicide bomber, and today his successor Avraham Poraz, is doing the same.

But there's a slight flaw in this theory: The new law wouldn't have prevented Tubasi from having Israeli citizenship, for the simple reason that he didn't receive it through marriage and family reunification, but because he was the son of an Israeli citizen. In other words, there is no connection between the law and the person who ostensibly provided the excuse for its quick adoption.

Last May, because of the security panic during Operation Defensive Shield, the government made a decision to freeze all requests for family reunification. The law that passed this week was only an official seal of approval for a situation that has actually existed for over a year. About 5,000 separated families, couples separated by roadblocks and fences, children who get to see their mother or father once every few months, all know now that the future doesn't promise any improvement in their situation.