In early April, Sandra Elaine Zoughbi, an American citizen married for 30 years to a Palestinian from Bethlehem, was barred from entering Israel. In their home near the Church of the Nativity, they raised a daughter and three sons, one of whom is to be married on May 26. Now the family doesn’t know whether Israel will let their mother arrive in time for her son’s wedding.
A form from the Interior Ministry’s border control administration states that Zoughbi was denied entry for reasons of “public security” and “prevention of illegal immigration.” When she asked the border control official why she was being treated differently from other Americans entering Israel, she said he answered: “Because you married a Palestinian.”
The frank border control official’s response wasn’t an empty phrase, and Zoughbi’s case isn’t unusual. Tens of thousands of “mixed” families, in which one member of the couple is a Palestinian and the other is a foreign citizen, live in the West Bank. These families depend on Israel’s good graces because it controls the Palestinian population registry and decides who will receive permanent residency status and who will not.
From the signing of the Oslo Accords until 2000, a slow approval process of family unification applications awarded permanent residency status based on a quota of 2,000 applications in Gaza and the West Bank. Over the course of six years, the process was suspended for two years over Palestinian protests, which achieved nothing, against the very existence of the quota. In 2000, Israel froze the family unification process. Tens of thousands of people like Zoughbi had to extend their permit to live in their own home every few months, or travel abroad with the constant fear that they wouldn’t be allowed back into the country.
In 2006, Israel stiffened the criteria for residency permits. A public, media and legal struggle led to the relaxing of the procedure, and one-time approval was awarded to a few tens of thousands of family unification requests as a gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Two years ago, the criteria were once again tightened. For example, work in the Palestinian Authority is considered a “breach” of the permit’s conditions. The permits were valid for shorter periods than in the past. In the meantime, the freeze on processing the applications continues, and Israel says this is a political issue and a new policy is being crafted.
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The Zoughbis and those tens of thousands of other families live in the West Bank – not Israel – so the consideration of “illegal immigration” is strange and can only indicate Israel’s obsessive fear of Palestinian population growth. But a family’s right to conduct its life as it chooses, where a couple chooses, is a basic human right. The new policy must be based on full recognition of this right.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.