How to Dismantle a Family

Abdel Karim Shamasna, a 40-year-old resident of Ramallah, works as a chef at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. For more than 20 years, he has worked in Jerusalem restaurants and hotels, mostly at the American Colony. For most of that period, he has worked with a permit.

Three years ago, he married Inas Dakak, 33, the great-granddaughter of both the elite Palestinian Nashashibi family and of Nobel Prize laureate S.Y. Agnon. Dakak-Shamasna's grandmother, Esther Weiner, who was Agnon's niece, married Jawad Nashashibi in 1940 (Haaretz, Papa Jawad and Grandpa Maurice," July 6, 2006). The Shamasnas have two young children, aged 2 and 6 months. Ostensibly, it is hard to imagine a Palestinian family that better meets the criteria for family reunification than Inas and her husband.

Nevertheless, on November 21, the head of the family reunification department at the East Jerusalem population registry office, Hagit Weiss, sent the Shamasnas a letter informing them their request had been rejected for security reasons. Weiss explained in her letter, "Family members of the petitioner (Shamasna's relatives - S.I.) are associated with hostile terrorist activity and served time in jail for this."

This response seems surprising, especially given that Shamasna's work permit allows him to be in Israel for work daily from 5 A.M. to 2 A.M. It is not entirely clear how letting him in for those three remaining hours would threaten security.

Shamasna's lawyer, Adi Lustigman, writes to Weiss, "My client was not involved in any security or criminal matter and was never interrogated, detained or jailed on such suspicions. My client is aware that one of his 10 siblings and two of his brothers-in-law were placed in administrative detention many years ago. To the best of my client's knowledge, none of his relatives have been arrested in the past 10 years."

Shamasna was turned down via the most draconian clause in the citizenship law, a temporary regulation that severely limits reunification of mixed Israeli and Palestinian families. This clause stipulates that permits to stay in Israel will not be granted to Palestinian Authority residents if the interior minister determines, based on defense officials' opinions, that a member of their family poses a security threat. In other words, a person can be prevented from reuniting with his family because his brother (or brother-in-law), with whom he may have no relationship, is considered a security risk.

Jewish, at times

"If my brother made a mistake, he was punished, and it was more than 10 ten years ago, and it doesn't seem fair to me that I should also be punished because of that," says Shamasna. The fact he is not a resident severly restricts the family's movement. He cannot drive, and they cannot leave Jerusalem together. When a closure is imposed, he cannot enter Israel or work.

But beyond all that is the knowledge that he can remain with his family only due to his job and his work permit. If he loses them, he will be separated from his wife and children. Inas, as an Israeli citizen, cannot live in Ramallah.

"I couldn't imagine us not being together," says Shamasna.

"It would be disaster for the children, for me and for him," says Inas.

Initially, Inas held only the status of a Jerusalem resident. When she asked for Israeli citizenship 10 years ago, her request was granted because she is the granddaughter of a Jewish woman. That is why her children are also citizens. She assumed that her family reunification process would also go relatively smoothly.

"Now I see that the fact that I'm considered Jewish doesn't help me at all," she says. "Basically, they're telling us that if we want to be together, we have to leave the country."

Population registry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said in response that the Shamasnas' request "is being reviewed with the security services, and their position is significant. Given their recommendation, it was decided to refuse the request."

The Shin Bet security service said in response: "Shamasna has indeed worked in Israel for an ongoing period and no security factor currently prevents him from continuing to work." However, the Shin Bet "does see a substantial difference between a permit to work in Israel and permanent status. This status is binding and far more meaningful, and therefore his family connections to terrorist elements may be relevant when reviewing the request."

The Shin Bet further noted that the Shamasna family could submit a new request this April, "and it will, of course, be reviewed in a precise and relevant manner."

The despairing appellant

The Shamasna children see their father every day, but the story of Reuven Azriel is even more amazing. Azriel, 40, an Israeli citizen, married his wife, Esterna, a Romanian citizen, four years ago. According to Interior Ministry regulations, the ministry must issue citizens' spouses an entry permit within 30 days of the submission of a request. Four years have passed, and Azriel's wife is still in Romania. In the meantime, they had a daughter, and she is there too.

Azriel says he used to go twice a week, sometimes even more, to the population registry office. Clerks yelled at him for coming so often, and asked if he had started working there. But despite the frequent visits, he is yet to receive a response. Last November, he was compelled to appeal to the High Court of Justice, also through the services of attorney Lustigman.

Azriel emigrated from Romania in 1992. In the mid-1990s he married, and then divorced a few years later. In 2000, he met Esterna, today 29, and in August 2002 married her in Romania. In December 2002, he submitted his first request to bring her to Israel. He did not receive a response until March 2004, at which point he was told the file had been lost and he had to submit a new request.

Amid this Kafkaesque episode is one chapter that seems particularly absurd. Azriel claims in his petition that the director of the permit department of the Jerusalem population registry office, Yochi Levy, advised him to move to Romania and live there with his wife for at least a year to convince the authorities the marriage was genuine. In Azriel's petition to the High Court of Justice, Lustigman writes: "The despairing appellant left his job in Jerusalem, rented a house in Romania and went to live with his wife. For a year and three months, the appellant lived in exile in Romania. During that time, in October 2005, his daughter Naomi was born."

In March 2006 he returned to Israel and submitted a new petition for his wife. After not receiving an answer, he appealed to the High Court of Justice.

"The woman cries all the time," he says. She is pressuring him to leave the country and immigrate with her to the European Union.

Lustigman argues, "It is blatant maltreatment of the appellant by the population registry ... contrary to the rules of proper procedure and the population registry's own regulations." An office that acts this way, she says, is "an obtuse despot."

The Interior Ministry noted in its response that Azriel immigrated to Israel after converting in Romania and that he had already been married to a Romanian citizen and obtained Israeli citizenship for her. The population registry spokeswoman, Sabine Haddad, said that in the wake of Azriel's request to bring his second wife to Israel, "questions arose that necessitated additional review. The request was not approved."

The questions apparently relate to the fact that even though Azriel converted, he married non-Jewish women twice.

Haddad said that in 2004 Azriel submitted another request, but "it turned out that Mr. Azriel left the country and therefore his request could not be processed."

In 2006 he submitted a third request that "was discussed in the office's legal department, and it will present a detailed response to the High Court of Justice. The question of why the office did not respond to Azriel's request in four years will also be addressed there," she said.