Once every three weeks, for over half a year, dozens of women, men and children gather for protest vigils in the West Bank city of El Bireh, under the slogan “Family reunification: my right.”
The slogan thus became the name of a new grassroots Palestinian movement that is active in the Gaza Strip as well.
These protesters are not asking to live in East Jerusalem or a town within Israel’s recognized borders. All they dream of and want is to receive the status of permanent residency in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, where they have already lived for many years as the spouses or parents of a person who holds a Palestinian identity card.
The members of the group – mainly women – are mostly Palestinian in origin, language and culture. The families of some happened to not be present in the West Bank or Gaza when the 1967 war broke out, and Israel therefore denied them residency status and the right to return to their homes. Others are descendants of the 1948 Nakba refugee families.
All are citizens or former residents of Arab countries – mostly Jordan, but also Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and even Syria. They met their spouses, who are residents of the occupied territories, abroad, either during their studies, on vacation or as members of their extended families. They married abroad and then built their homes and had children in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. They assumed that after they applied for family reunification, the non-resident spouses would quickly get a Palestinian ID and residency status, but their hopes have been dashed.
Others arrived as children with their parents, and have lived in the West Bank or Gaza for their entire adult lives. Due to various bureaucratic obstacles, they themselves have remained without legal status. There are many thousands such people without resident status in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, although no one is providing precise figures.
What is it like for you to live in the West Bank for five, 10 or 20 years, without an ID card, I asked. The demonstrators replied, one after the other, sometimes almost in one voice.
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“You almost don’t leave the borders of the city where you live, or the village, so a soldier won’t catch you at a checkpoint without an ID card,” they said. “If it’s in a village, it’s even more difficult. You are nearly confined to your home. We live in fear all the time. Dying of fear when we see a mobile checkpoint. Every day you are thankful that you have not been deported and separated from your children.”
One of the women described how “When soldiers raid the neighborhood, I hide in the bathroom, trembling in fear that they will come into [our home] and find me.”
There are women who couldn’t cope with this fear and tension, and went back to live in Amman. Their husbands, who remain in the West Bank or Gaza and are cut off from them, attend the regular protests.
Prisoners in their own homes
The women who stay in the West Bank, living as “illegal residents” in their own homes, say that they have not been able to see their families abroad for years. Because their entry permits to the West Bank have expired long ago, and they are considered overstayers, Israel usually retaliates by not allowing their siblings and parents to visit them there.
All of the women say that the most painful experience is when their parents abroad fall ill or die, and they cannot be there next to them. “If you travel to them to Amman or Tunisia, Israel won’t let you return because you have overstayed for so long,” one woman explained. All share the same bitter experiences: “On holidays and happy occasions, you aren’t together. When your husband and children take a trip, you can’t join in. You just hear about how much fun they had. East Jerusalem is out of bounds, even if your husband or child is hospitalized in a Palestinian hospital there, or if you need treatment. We aren’t permitted to drive because we are not allowed a driver’s license. It’s impossible to open a bank account. It’s hard to find work.”
Over time, they have found workarounds for some of the bureaucratic issues, such as Palestinian health insurance, opening accounts at certain banks or receiving a salary. But the experience of being caged remains. Everyone understands that the decision is in Israel’s hands.
“Israel has put a stop to our lives. We practically do not live,” they say. “We are the walking dead,” is how one woman summed it up. But sometimes a sense of grievance against their husbands also surfaces in their tone. “I thought I was getting married. I didn’t know I would be entering a prison,” is a common refrain.
“All of my beautiful years have been lost. I was a flower when I moved here 10 years ago,” one woman laments. “Now I’m wilted. When spouses fight, the woman always finds consolation and temporary refuge with her family. I have nowhere to go when we fight.” Another woman recounts roaming the streets, and one time even sleeping in the mosque, under such circumstances. A third woman without resident status acknowledged having lost all of her feelings for her husband, explaining that it was because of him “that I lost my place in the world.”
For Gazans, who live under blockade in any event, the major hurdle for those without resident status is over the right to leave the Strip for medical treatment in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or Jordan – a privilege that Israel limits to few people.
The Interior Ministry of the Palestinian Authority issues and prints the Palestinian identity cards, but Israel alone decides whether, when, who and how many foreign passport holders receive those Palestinian ID’s. At the present time, Israel is stubbornly refusing to approve resident status for thousands of women and men who have functionally become “illegal residents” in their own homes, where they have been living with their families for many years. This is despite the fact that family reunification through granting residency is explicitly enshrined in the Oslo Accords.
In the 1990s, Israel committed to approving 4,000 requests a year for family reunification in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But it unilaterally suspended the process in 2000, with the start of the second intifada. The process was never resumed, save for a “diplomatic goodwill gesture” to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, when 32,000 families’ applications for reunification were approved. This “gesture” followed a two year campaign, known as “Right to Enter,” of non-resident spouses and their families and the filing of high court petitions by the HaMoked Center for the Defense of the Individual on behalf of the families.
According to the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry is to represent Palestinian residents and their immediate interests vis-a-vis the Israeli authorities that decide their fates. Several of the organizers of the protest movement met each other at the ministry’s offices while waiting to hear whether Israel had responded to their applications. They shared their concerns with one another, and realized that they were not alone. Gradually, they formed the protest movement. Therefore, the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry headquarters on El Bireh’s Nablus Street was selected as the natural center of the protest vigil.
At the first few protests, ministry representatives went out to meet the demonstrators. The first time, it was Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh himself – a senior Fatah official and confidant of Mahmoud Abbas. On another occasion, his deputy Ayman Qandil met with them, and another time it was ministry spokesman Imad Qaraqreh.
The protesters were told that the power is in Israel’s hands. The senior officials said that the decision to deny them residency status is a political rather than a security matter, but that the pressure they are applying is important.
Over time, however, senior officials at the ministry no longer stepped out to talk to the demonstrators. “They’re also avoiding our phone calls,” said one of the protest organizers.
The protesters understand that Israel is calling the shots, but they’re also increasingly aware of how the Palestinian side, as represented by the Civil Affairs Ministry, is uninterested in their plight, some told Haaretz – if it had wanted to, the ministry would have done more.
Hitting a wall
Citizens of Western countries (including former Soviet bloc states) who are married to Palestinians are also waiting for their status to be determined. But they enter the West Bank on tourist visas, which can then be extended once a month or once every few months, through the Israeli Civil Administration, or by going abroad and returning.
There are times when Israeli border control officers refuse to grant new visas, and the spouses’ return to their West Bank home is secured only with the intervention of a lawyer, a diplomatic representative or a reporter. These people live with constant sense of instability and the justified concern that if they go, they may not be allowed to immediately return. But at least they have valid and renewable tourist visas.
Citizens of Arab countries, meanwhile, are subject to harsher entry regulations, as determined by Israel, particularly for those who are of Palestinian origin. Many wives entered the West Bank with an Israeli visitor’s permit, given for a specified period based on a request by a family member (usually a husband). But these are short-term and unrenewable permits that have expired. People who enter the country on a visitor’s permit must deposit their passport at the border.
Even though Jordan and Egypt have diplomatic relations with Israel, and Israelis enter Jordan with tourist visas issued at the border, the citizens of these countries who are married to Palestinians have discovered that it’s almost impossible to obtain a tourist visa, which is issued by the Israeli embassies. Several Jordanian spouses told Haaretz that in the 90s, it was still easy to get these visas, but they have become increasingly difficult and rare to obtain over the years.
Some women paid exorbitant fees to middlemen in Amman in order to enter on a tourist visa, which allows them to retain their Jordanian passport. They mentioned sums ranging between 5,000 and 18,000 dollars. These women traveled in groups, passing the Israeli side at the Allenby Bridge terminal with no hassle and no questions asked. They continued to hold on to their passports. They don’t know who the high fees they paid went to. Some of the middlemen, if not all of them, presented themselves as lawyers – which may be why some of the protesters are wary of being represented by Israeli lawyers in Israeli courts. Another reason is that most of them don’t have the money to hire a lawyer. Some activists emphasized that this was not an individual legal matter, but a collective cause that should be addressed as such.
In recent years, spouses of West Bank residents who have individually filed family reunification petitions to Israeli courts have hit a solid wall.
In court, the Israeli State Prosecutor’s office says that the government is working on a new policy on the matter, as well as on the renewal of visas. But this is something that lawyers who represent Palestinian residents have been hearing for at least five years. The HaMoked Center for the Defense of the Individual was obliged to withdraw petitions it filed pro-bono in 2018 in the name of Palestinians who are married to foreign residents, mainly from Jordan, who had applied for family reunification before 2014. The courts had accepted the state prosecution’s argument that the Israeli Civil Administration had not received these applications from the Palestinian side.
People who submitted their applications at The Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry were given a tracking number, something the ministry does only for people whose applications were transferred to Israel. But there is no other documentation indicating that they reached the Israeli side, since officials at the Civil Administration and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) do not provide written confirmation when receiving documents from the Palestinian side.
According to Palestinian sources, COGAT officials have been prohibiting the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry from passing applications for family unification to them for about four or five years now. The ministry is complying with this prohibition, often refusing to accept new applications from Palestinian residents. The COGAT spokesperson refused to answer questions from Haaretz regarding this issue or others. It only claimed that “any application transferred by the Palestinian Authority is examined according to the regulations”. The spokesperson for the Palestinian ministry did not respond to phone calls from Haaretz.
When “Family reunification: my right” began its activism, the widespread public and media attention it received raised hopes among the group’s members, who believed that their right to residency would be soon recognized, and they could travel to see their families abroad. Once again, during this week’s Eid al-Adha celebrations, they find themselves separated from their families, feeling like prisoners in their own homes.