Fugitive in His Own Country

A bill permanently freezing all family reunification requests would perpetuate the difficulties encountered by Israeli Arabs who are married to women from the territories

When he turns off the lights each night at his home in the Pardes Snir neighborhood of Lod, Sa'id Abu Maamar regularly breaks the law that prohibits the overnight stay of "people unlawfully staying in Israel."

In the case of Abu Maamar, the unlawful resident is his wife, Maryam, who comes from a small village near Qalqilyah. Since the couple got married nine months ago, Abu Maamar has become a serial outlaw, something of which he is well aware. "I feel like someone living underground," he says with bitterness during a meeting in his new home in the ramshackle Arab section of Lod, which lacks normal electricity and water services.

Scattered on the table in the living room are a few recent issues of Time magazine, to which Abu Maamar subscribes, and a new computer is in the study - signs in sharp contrast to the scene outside: a neighborhood that remains stuck in the 19th century. "I hide like a fugitive from the law," he says.

It's not as if this situation has had no positive impact on Abu Maamar's behavior. During the last few months, for example, he has become an especially careful driver: The fear of being stopped by the police for a traffic violation and being asked to produce documents has made him particularly conscientious when it comes to observing traffic laws.

And unfortunately for Abu Maamar, he spends a lot of time on the road. Although he has a BSc in biology and a master's in industrial management from Ben-Gurion University, the 40-year-old must suffice with teaching in Bedouin schools in the Negev, where he was born and where he lived until moving to Lod.

Not long ago, he tried to volunteer at a factory on Kibbutz Naan in order to gain some work experience. He is familiar with the kibbutz, since his father at one time owned some land nearby. He used to know everyone at the kibbutz. Each day during his four years at high school, a kibbutz member would drive Abu Maamar to Ramle. Only four years after graduating, when Yisrael Galili died, did Abu Maamar discover the identity of the man "who would give a lift to a young Bedouin who smelled like a herd." Perhaps that is why he was surprised when the kibbutz rejected his request to volunteer.

These days, Abu Maamar makes his way from Lod to the Negev schools three or four times a weeks. Maryam, 20, usually joins him for the trip: She is afraid of staying alone given their dire situation. She does not understand the reality of her new home, feeling isolated and alien. "For Maryam, all of this is culture shock," says her husband. "But nevertheless, for her it is a better place than the little village in which she grew up. She is also used to living under military rule." Abu Maamar, clearly in love, would also like to give his young bride a few moments of occasional enjoyment. For instance, he dreams of taking her for a visit to the Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv, but know he can't. "It has very thorough security, and we would have no chance of getting away with it," he says. "At most, we can walk around Ramle, Lod and Be'er Sheva, where they are used to seeing Arabs, and we don't stick out as much."

When his wife requires medical care, he takes her to an East Jerusalem hospital. Since she does not have an Israeli identity card, Maryam has no medical insurance, and care is cheaper in East Jerusalem. The couple has not visited her parents for months. When they did, twice since getting married, they had to bypass roadblocks, walk through improvised paths, and arrive in a state of terror. "I feel like a wanted criminal," says Abu Maamar. "You have to live it day in day out to understand what sort of life this is."

Legislating and crying

Despite the difficulties, Abu Maamar is happy with his marriage. "It isn't every day that you meet a person that you love, that you want. Love isn't a commodity that if you don't buy it in one place, you can buy it somewhere else," he says. And at any rate, he didn't have a choice. Although his education, fine Bedouin customs and religiosity made him a good catch, Abu Maamar had a hard time finding a wife within the Green Line, because he was born into the wrong Bedouin family - one that is not "authentic" enough to be marriage-worthy. "That's how it is among us," he says, resignedly. "Most of my friends are doctors, lawyers, teachers, who don't have a choice and must marry women from the West Bank or Jordan. I had to wander into the territories, and I am very happy, despite all of the problems that I have come up against."

Abu Maamar did not, however, take into account the new legislation that is about to perpetuate his complicated situation for a very long time. He thought that the government freeze on all requests for family reunification was temporary, and did not imagine that it would soon become law.

Three weeks ago, the Knesset passed the first reading of a bill calling for a year-long temporary measure (with an option to extend the period), via the family reunification section of the Entry to Israel Law, that would further restrict permits for residency in Israel. This development occurred despite the fact that in November, the state had informed the Supreme Court of its intention to "set a new policy" on family reunification. Instead of setting a new policy, according to the proposed bill, "during the period in which this law is valid, the interior minister will not grant a resident of the region (read: the territories - L.G.) citizenship in accordance with the Citizenship Law, nor will he be given a permit for residency in Israel." The new law also states that "the commander of the region will not give said resident a permit to reside in Israel, in accordance with the legislation concerning security in the region."

Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, who introduced the new bill, claimed there was no choice but to enact the law, since from the outset of the intifada, an increasing number of Palestinians who have received Israeli identity cards through the family-reunification procedure, have become involved in the violent conflict. In the same breath, Poraz said, "It is not right for such a law to be included in the book of laws," and "a humane and enlightened society should enable family reunification." After years of "shooting and crying," you could say that Poraz has coined a new term - "legislating and crying."

The new legislation embodies a government decision in May 2002 that completely froze the family unification option after a long and difficult process that took about four-and-a-half years. After the freeze was imposed, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) petitioned the High Court of Justice. The first hearing on the petition is scheduled for next week. The petition's central argument is that "after a few instances of cruel exploitation of Israeli citizenship, the government is essentially preventing the realization of an entire set of basic rights - the decision discriminates against Israeli citizens that married spouses of Palestinian descent, and harms the principle of equality."

ACRI attorney Sharon Avraham Wiss, who filed the petition, believes the petition forced the government to submit the new legislative bill, since it feared it will be harder to defend a decision that harms a basic right in the High Court of Justice than it would be to defend an enacted law.

In her request for additional details in advance of the hearing, the ACRI attorney asked, among other things: "How many Palestinian residents of the territories who received status in Israel through marriage were involved in the terrorist attacks in Israel, either as the assailants or as aiders and abettors in helping assailants from the territories reach their targets, gather intelligence, or carry out the purchase, or smuggling, of materiel?" In response, the state prosecutor stated that there had been approximately 20 such instances since the start of the intifada.

The state prosecutor did not answer another question post by Wiss: How many requests for family reunification were submitted during the same period? ACRI also was unable to get an answer from other sources. At any rate, the numbers are so high that the organization has stopped taking on individual cases, and is now focusing on the "principle" petition. The Supreme Court is currently facing hundreds of cases of requests for family reunification, all of which are waiting for the "principled" ruling on this matter.

"Have to write to the president"

Zahadi Samadeh may not be a statistician or an expert on the subject, but he can declaratively state that "half of the Arabs in Lod are married to women from the territories." Even if the figure is slightly exaggerated, there is no doubt that the authorities suspect the occurence of this widespread phenomenon as an actualization of the right of return. But to Samadeh, a 35-year-old car painter, his recent marriage to Siham Abd Laasi of the West Bank village of Beit Lakia is the best thing that ever happened to him and saved him from the malaise brought on by his previous marriage to an Israeli Arab woman.

Samadeh lives at the edge of the Rakevet neighborhood in Lod, a center of drugs and crime. His home, which is secured from its surroundings by a large iron gate, is still ornamented with the baskets of flowers he received from friends at work marking the birth of his daughter, Maisam, two weeks ago. His two sons from his first marriage, aged 10 and 12, cluck over the new baby sister with evident affection. A picture of pleasant family life which even Siham is getting used to. "At first, whenever she left the house she would be very fearful," said Samadeh. "In the territories, they call us Jewish Arabs. Now she's happy; we have a good marriage. She isn't like the Israelis who only say all the time, `Bring me more, I want more.'"

A 20-minute drive separates Siham from her family in Beit Lakia, but she has not seen them for a year. Shortly after getting married, she went with her husband to visit her parents. Fearing the roadblocks, the couple drove via unpaved detours through the hills. Siham, then in her third month of pregnancy, was tossed around in the car and had a miscarriage. Ever since, she has not wanted to go back, and has no desire to leave her home.

Now Samadeh has a new objective: to see to it that his wife and daughter receive legal status in Israel. But it's not going to be easy. In contravention of the law, the Interior Ministry recently has been refusing to register on the identity cards of Israeli Arabs children born to spouses from the territories. ACRI is preparing a High Court of Justice petition on this issue. Samadeh knows of a collaborator with good connections who, for a nice sum of money, can arrange any permit. However, Samadeh, who got into trouble with the law after his divorce, is now careful about staying on the right side of the law.

"What are we going to do about the new law?" he wonders out loud, referring to the bill that would prevent family reunification. "What is someone who has children going to do? We should write a letter to the president," he says, somewhat naively.

At the end of the conversation, without comprehending the vagaries of the Basic Law on Human Dignity, he encapsulates the essence of the law: "I understand the security argument against automatic unification of families. At first sight, they're right. But they should check. If there are people who made trouble, who were suspects, they shouldn't allow it; they shouldn't give an identity card to everyone who comes. But they should check each individual. It shouldn't be like this - a law against everyone."

He sighs, and sums it all up: "I love her, what can you do. Love is a big mess."