He’s Palestinian, She’s German, but Only an Israeli Stamp Lets Them Live Together in the West Bank

Thousands of spouses of Palestinians are denied permanent resident status and must continually obtain entry visas and visitor permits, or suffer forced separations

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Bettina and Bassem Zubaidi in their home in El Bireh, West Bank.
Bettina and Bassem Zubaidi in their home in El Bireh, West Bank.Credit: Bassam al-Mohor
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Bettina Zubaidi teaches music and the cello. Her husband Bassem is a professor of political philosophy. She is from Germany, he was born in the village of Zeita. She is 57, he is 59. They met in 1990 when they were both studying in the United States, and married in 1994.

Having completed his doctorate, Bassem wanted to return home. The Oslo Accords had inspired hope that things in his country would only get better. The couple lived and taught for a stretch at An-Najah National University in Nablus. Then they moved to Ramallah, where Bettina teaches at the Edward Said National Conservatory and he teaches at Birzeit University. They have a daughter and son who are both studying abroad. Like their father, the children hold West Bank residence cards (issued by the Palestinian Authority with approval from Israel).

>> Israel makes it increasingly difficult for Palestinians' foreign spouses to stay in West Bank

Had Bettina met a Jewish Israeli and married him 25 years ago, she probably would have received permanent resident status long ago, possibly even Israeli citizenship. But in 2000, Israel, which is the final arbiter for the Palestinian population registry, froze the family-unification procedure that was stipulated in the Oslo Accords and military legislation.

Under this practice, Israel (after a years-long legal battle) recognized that a family connection justified permanent resident status in the West Bank, though an annual quota of only 2,000 approved family-unification requests was set. The quota meant that many people had to wait years, as there was a long line for applications.

Thus, since she married and came to live in the West Bank, Zubaidi, as a German citizen, has had to continually obtain entry visas and visitor permits to live in her home with her husband and children. It’s hard to count the number of visa stamps in her passport, or the number of times her heart skipped a beat when her visas weren’t extended and she had to leave the country and wait abroad for approval, or when she was only issued a visa for two weeks or a month.

Last September 26, Zubaidi submitted her most recent application to extend her visa. The application was delivered, as required, to the Palestinian Interior Ministry, which, as required, passed it on to a branch of the Israeli Interior Ministry, which is situated in the Civil Administration building on the Beit El military base. A month later, on October 14, Zubaidi received a notice dated October 3 that her application had been denied because it was submitted late. The notice also said Zubaidi had been living in the country illegally since September 28.

In other words, for more than two weeks, she was considered an illegal alien in her own home. Had she received the option of a hearing at the Civil Administration, she would have noted that this was Jewish holiday season, when the administration’s offices were either closed or only operating limited hours.

In November, attorneys Lea Tsemel and Ahmed Halak filed an administrative petition with the High Court of Justice, which rejected the claim that the application was submitted late. They requested that the visa be extended and that Bassem’s application for family unification with Bettina, which he filed with the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry back in 2015, be approved as well.

After the petition was filed, Bettina Zubaidi received approval in writing from the High Court petition department at the State Prosecutor’s Office granting her “a temporary injunction to prevent her removal from the West Bank until another decision is made.” This only lets her move around the West Bank without fear of being deported.

At the end of last year, her father got sick. Her lawyers worked to obtain a special permit for her to go to Germany. When she returned on February 25, at the Allenby Bridge crossing, she received a visa for just one day, and is now once again dependent on the temporary injunction to prevent her deportation.

A sudden policy change

Sumeida Abbas, 60, an engineer and economist, has been living illegally in his home in Ramallah for eight years, if we use the Israeli definitions. His wife Sa’ada and their three children hold West Bank residency. She applied for her husband to obtain residency status in 2009. The application was transferred to the Civil Administration in 2014, but no answer has been received.

Abbas is Palestinian. He was born in Jerusalem’s Old City, traveled abroad to study and work, and had an impressive career as an engineer and then as a senior manager with international companies. He wasn’t aware that by obtaining Swedish citizenship in the late ‘80s, Israel would revoke his residency status in Jerusalem. Ahmed Qurei, a planner of the Oslo Accords and the economic accord with Israel, invited him to craft the Palestinian industrial-zone project on the Israeli border. “I was happy about the opportunity to serve my homeland,” Abbas says.

At a 1994 economics conference in Jerusalem, he met his future wife, Sa’ada Shubaki. For the first 12 years of their marriage, he often traveled on his Swedish passport, and easily obtained visas: He worked for the Palestinian Economics Ministry, the World Bank, the UN development agency and regularly dealt with Israeli and American officials. But in January 2006, when he returned from a work trip abroad, the Israeli border inspectors at the Allenby terminal informed him that he was denied entry. He was stunned. Then he found out he wasn’t alone.

Sumeida Abbas and Sa’ada Shubaki in their home in Ramallah, West Bank.Credit: Amira Hass

Thousands of other people were caught in the same situation: Suddenly, visas for spouses of Palestinians who hold foreign passports were being denied, after years when such visas were commonly granted. In many cases, the spouses were Palestinians who were born abroad or in the West Bank and Gaza and whose residency status had been revoked by Israel before the Oslo Accords because they lived abroad.

Abbas was stuck in Jordan against his will for 13 months. The forced separation from his family, who were only able to visit him for short periods, and the uncertainty in which he lived brings tears to his eyes even now.

The sudden change in policy caused a big stir. Palestinian spouses with Western (mainly American) passports established the volunteer group Right to Enter. The public campaign they launched, combined with press coverage (in Haaretz and elsewhere) and legal work by rights group Hamoked, yielded some positive results. Even Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, criticized Israel’s policy, using diplomatic language.

At the end of 2006, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories set more-flexible rules for visa extensions for foreign citizens living in the West Bank, including for academics, investors and spouses of local residents. High Court petitions filed by Hamoked required the state to approve family-unification applications in the West Bank.

In 2008, Israel approved more than 23,000 family-unification requests (out of 32,000 applications) in what was termed a “diplomatic gesture” to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. And that was it. The situation then reverted to what it was before. The practice was suspended and anyone who didn’t receive approval for family unification was dependent on obtaining visas.

Meanwhile, since late 2017, the Israeli policy on issuing visas to foreigners in the West Bank has again changed for the worse, without any explanation. Since then, spouses have been required to leave their jobs in the Palestinian enclaves if they want to qualify to extend their Israeli “tourist” visa, and applications have been denied on the grounds that the person traveled via Ben-Gurion Airport (no such prohibition exists in writing).

Also, the visa duration has been drastically shortened, thus applicants have had to leave the country and then pray they’ll be issued a new visa at Allenby. If the Palestinian spouse traveled abroad for an extended period, possibly for work, the application for an extension was denied.

But Sumeida Abbas stopped going abroad long ago, to avoid the anxiety of not knowing if he’ll be able to obtain a visa upon his return. After the year of forced exile in Jordan, Abbas became depressed. “For six months I sat on the balcony and did nothing,” he says.

But he recovered and returned to managing large development projects. The first visa he received was for three months, then it was extended for a year and then another year, in accordance with the new COGAT guidelines. The visas – for Abbas and thousands of others in the same situation – are tourist visas. It’s written in them that it’s forbidden to work, though it’s well known that many people with such visas are employed in Israel. The common interpretation became: It’s forbidden to work in Israel but permitted to work in the West Bank. No one imagined it would be a retroactive pretext fpr denying a visa.

After 27 months, in keeping with COGAT’s procedures, Abbas left for Amman once more so he could come back and start a new round of applying for a visa and then an extension. “Take a seat on the side,” he was told at Allenby when he returned, and his heart sank. He recounts the story emotionally as if it just happened yesterday, not in May 2009. Then the border inspector handed him back his passport stamped “entry denied.”

Abbas saw that the stamp was covering another stamp from the same day: Permit for three months. What happened there? Who approved his entry, and who decided to refuse him entry? Why?

Abbas recalls that he screamed. He tore his shirt and told the border officials from the Interior Ministry: Kill me, I’m not going back to Jordan. A COGAT official happened to hear him. He took an interest, looked into the issue and returned with the passport with the entry permit for three months stamped inside.

Abbas’ permit was extended twice, for a total of two years. Then in August 2011, when the rules required him to go to Allenby again to receive a permit, he feared he would be denied entry. He decided not to take a chance and not to leave.

He has been stuck in Ramallah ever since. He can’t work for companies or on projects that require travel abroad, but his reputation and experience have allowed him to obtain work as a consultant for a large Palestinian insurance company. His mother and brothers live in Jerusalem’s Old City. When his younger brother died, he couldn’t go to the funeral. When his mother underwent open heart surgery last year, he wasn’t allowed to visit.

A simple love story

Abbas and his wife are one of 12 couples for whom Hamoked filed a petition to the High Court last November. Tsemel and Halak also filed four similar petitions for couples whom state policy is threatening to split up or force to emigrate. So did attorneys Leora Bechor and Yotam Ben-Hillel, who represent clients like Josefin Herbach, a German citizen, and Abdelrahman Salaymeh, who live in Hebron. Two people in their 20s, they met in 2015 when Herbach was studying Arabic and Salaymeh was her teacher.

“It could have been a very simple story, a love story that happens every day, every hour, all over the world,” Ben-Hillel wrote in the petition, but it turns out the story isn’t simple at all.

Herbach, who was studying social work, and Salaymeh, an English teacher, are exceptional among many other so-called mixed couples for whom petitions have been filed to the High Court. Many others live in the West Bank and haven’t petitioned the court. Their request for family unification is among a handful of requests that COGAT is known to have reviewed in recent years.

Josefin Herbach and Abdelrahman Salaymeh in Hebron, February 10, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Shortly after they married in November 2015, Salaymeh filed, as required, a request to extend his wife’s visa. She received her answer on January 4, 2016: The extension was accepted, but only for six days. They appealed immediately, and when they didn’t receive an answer from COGAT they petitioned the High Court against the decision not to extend the visa further.

On January 10, the day COGAT ordered Herbach to leave, the court issued a temporary order preventing Herbach from being removed from the West Bank and ordered the state to respond within four days. For more than a year, the state asked for extensions to respond, and these were approved until a hearing was set for March 2017.

Meanwhile, the two filed a request for family unification. As required according to the interim agreements, the request was filed with the PA’s Civil Affairs Ministry. Wonder of wonders, Herbach and Salaymeh received confirmation within a month that Israel had accepted the request.

Why the surprise? Well, for years, the PA ministry hadn’t passed on to the Civil Administration, which is subordinate to COGAT, family-unification requests on the grounds that the Israeli side had refused to accept them because the entire process was on hold. This is the information lawyers get from couples seeking assistance, and what they hear from PA officials.

However, Lt. Sharon Astrog, an adviser at the population department of the Beit El legal adviser’s office, wrote to Tsemel and Halak at the end of February denying that this was the situation. “Our consultation with COGAT officials showed that there is no basis to the claim in your letter that COGAT officials allegedly stopped processing family-unification requests,” Astrog wrote. “They process every request provided to them by the PA, and handle them according to procedures for processing requests by foreign citizens for family unification.”

According to a report by rights group Al-Haq, some 30,000 family-unification requests have piled up at the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry. Is this really a sovereign decision by the Palestinians, as COGAT told Hamoked regarding Abbas’ case, not to pass on to the Israeli side requests by their own people whom they’re supposed to serve? If so, what’s their motive for stoking more bitterness toward a PA institution by not passing on requests? These are open questions.

A basic question

Before the hearing on their appeal, which was set for March 2017, the young couple from Hebron reached a compromise under which COGAT would decide on the husband’s family-unification request if they retracted the petition. In June 2017, COGAT rejected Salaymeh’s request.

“As is known, according to the current policy and in accordance with the position at the political level, family-unification requests in the region are approved only in exceptional cases, only when there are humanitarian circumstances,” COGAT wrote. “In the case at hand, the PA request did not make humanitarian or other arguments supporting approval of the application, and sufficed with referring to the petition that was filed, in which there was also no special humanitarian or other extraordinary circumstances justifying acceptance of this request. In light of the above, your client must leave the region within two months from today; that is, by July 31, 2017.”

In response, Ben-Hillel and Bechor filed a new petition asking the state, army, Civil Administration and COGAT to explain why they wouldn’t reverse their refusal of Salaymeh’s family-unification request. The appeal is also a matter of principle – regarding the heart of the new policy to approve family unifications “only in exceptional humanitarian circumstances.”

They filed the petition on July 30, 2017, and the state has requested several extensions for responding. A preliminary answer came last June. Its main point: Approving family unification for partners of West Bank Palestinians has a political element, putting “the decision in the political realm rather than the legal realm.” This political aspect increased after the signing of the Oslo Accords because implementation of the agreement “is subject to clear political considerations and relations between Israel and the [Palestinian] Authority.”

The preliminary response added: “The issue of approving settling down in the region because of marriage, as well as the relationship with the Palestinian Authority for approving requests, is not strictly a humanitarian issue. This issue begs questions about balancing various political-security factors, factors related to Israel’s foreign relations, the maintenance of diplomatic relations with the PA and other considerations …. The decision about implementing the interim agreement, the structure and scope of this implementation, is a political decision amid the government’s broader considerations.”

The court has ruled that it does not intervene in political decisions, wrote attorney Sharon Hoash-Eiger, an official in the High Court department at the attorney general’s office, who signed the preliminary request. Therefore, the appeal was rejected, she wrote. She noted that administrative work was underway to develop a draft for examining the way “requests for entry and staying in the region by foreign citizens married to Palestinians is handled.”

This is exactly what COGAT officials have told lawyers and the PA’s Civil Affairs Ministry since early 2017, at least. According to the preliminary response, the administrative work was presented last May 29 to COGAT, which approved it in principle.

Hoash-Eiger added: “Noticing the complexity and sensitivity of matters, it was required to bring the proposal to politicians as well, and the respondents are working on it.” In January she reported more progress in the administrative work and said more time was needed to complete it. She thus asked for another postponement in the hearing date, which was set for late March. She then asked for another delay until September 1 to decide on the administrative work, and because Israel’s general election was approaching.

The court rejected the request this time, but Hoash-Eiger again asked for a postponement until September because the election period did not allow for the review of family-reunification policy for West Bank Palestinians to be completed. Ben-Hillel opposes another delay.

Thus everyone is waiting to see if the High Court will grant the request. Herbach, Zubaidi and Abbas are protected in principle from expulsion from Israel because their cases are in court. Thousands of others who haven’t submitted petitions are not protected. A question of principle remains with the High Court justices: By what right does Israel ignore the right of West Bank Palestinians to have a family life as they choose?

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