A young man who has been a resident of the Jenin refugee camp since the age of three has been detained at an Israeli prison for illegal aliens for the last 20 months. Israel is seeking to deport him to Brazil, where he was born.
Maen Abu Hafez speaks only Arabic and knows no Portuguese or anyone in Brazil. He hasn’t been in that country since his early years and has no valid Brazilian passport. He was detained in February 2017 at a mobile checkpoint set up between the West Bank towns of Tul Karm and Jenin.
He was transferred to Israeli immigration detention when it turned out that he had no identification documents other than a letter from the Palestinian Authority confirming that a request for family reunification in the West Bank had been filed for him.
Since then, a court that monitors the detention of people who are in Israel without official documentation extends his remand monthly. HaMoked, the Center for the Defense of the Individual human rights organization took over his case recently after his family could no longer afford private counsel.
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The organization filed an appeal last week against his continued detention in Givon Prison in Ramle. The organization has in its possession a letter from early October, from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, confirming that a request for family reunification, in his name, is still under review.
Abu Hafez, who is now 24, came from Brazil to the West Bank in 1997 with his Palestinian father, his Uruguayan mother and three brothers. He was then two years and ten months old. The mother and minor children entered on a tourist visa, valid for three months. They moved with the father to the refugee camp in Jenin, where he had been born.
The father abandoned his wife and children a few months later, apparently returning to Brazil, and all contact with him was lost. Before leaving in a hurry he failed to request the registration of his children in the Palestinian population registry or to file a request for family reunification for his wife, processes which to this day are under the sole jurisdiction of Israel.
The wife’s Uruguayan family broke off contact with her since she had converted to Islam before getting married. Since then the mother and her children have been living in the West Bank with no resident status. Without this they cannot get a permit from Israel to visit the detained Abu Hafez.
Maen Abu Hafez and his brothers grew up with his uncle’s family in the refugee camp. He studied in schools run by UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority. Before his detention he started to work in a car repair shop.
When he was arrested in February 2017 there were security-related suspicions raised at first, but the police released him after two days. In the absence of an ID card he was transferred to the detention facility. If the suspicions had been validated and supported by evidence there would have been no problem in indicting and trying him, says his attorney, Nadia Daqqa from Hamoked. Brazil has announced that it would not let him in against his will.
In July 2017 a district court for administrative affairs in Lod rejected his first appeal against his deportation order and his request to return to Palestinian-administered territory. Judge Dr. Michal Agmon-Gonen adopted the Ministry of Interior’s position, explaining her ruling by stating that he was in the West Bank illegally and that the court had no authority to order the deportation of a person to a state he was not a citizen of and that he had no legal status in Palestinian Authority territory. He hadn’t tried to sort out his status there, she said, which is why he couldn’t be returned there.
Abu Hafez’s detention illustrates a problem that is common to tens of thousands of Palestinians and their family members in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 Israel has frozen the family reunification process in these areas it controls, ceasing to give resident status to Palestinian children who were born overseas or to foreign spouses of Palestinian residents.
This freeze placed tens of thousands of people under a constant threat of deportation, as well as causing families to leave or even break up. In 2006, a legal and public Palestinian campaign was launched by Hamoked, aimed at resuming this process. In 2007 Maen’s uncle submitted a request for family reunification on behalf of his sister-in-law and her children.
As required by the Oslo Accords, this request was submitted to the civil affairs department of the Palestinian Authority, which was supposed to transfer it to the Israeli coordination and liaison office. In 2008-9 Israel granted resident status to 30,000 people who had submitted similar requests years earlier. Since then, as part of the political sanctions imposed by Israel on the Palestinian Authority, it has not resumed this process.
The request by the Abu Hafez family, like thousands of other similar ones, have not been transferred by the Palestinian office to the Israeli one, which declared (orally) that it was not accepting such requests. Despite this, last May Authority officials managed to transfer the family’s request to the Israeli office and in early October confirmation from the Coordinator’s office arrived, stating that the request was under review (i.e. had been received).
The explanations offered by attorney Daqqa did not convince Judge Raja Marzouq, who ordered the continued detention, or the Ministry of Interior’s representative Yaron Brinder. In a court hearing on October 10, Brinder reiterated that the detainee was a Brazilian citizen who must return to his country, and that Israel cannot return him to the territories or to any country he is not a resident of.
“Only the State of Israel is responsible for people residing in it and it has decided unequivocally, based on the deportation order against him, that he must return to Brazil,” Brinder said in court. In an appeal filed by Daqqa last week she claimed that according to the first section of the 2003 law regulating citizenship and entry into Israel “a resident of an area occupied since 1967 is someone who is registered there or who lives there without being registered, other than residents of Israeli communities.” She added that the arrest of Abu Hafez by Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories was based on the state’s rule there, which means that it does have the authority to return him there.