On a Scale of 1 to Horror: Ranking Atrocities in the Middle East

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As the horror stories coming out of Syria and Egypt increase, why should anyone be concerned with the plight of a Palestinian widow and mother of six children (all minors and all Israeli residents) who faces the prospect of deportation, although she has lived in East Jerusalem for nearly 20 years? Someone who read my report last week on Nahil Rajbi, 38, who was born in Hebron and has been living in East Jerusalem since 1995, told me, “You spend too much time on trifles” (“Court grants East Jerusalem widow last-minute reprieve from deportation,” Haaretz, Aug. 22, 2013). The remark was not hostile or scornful; it was simply an expression of surprise.

Rajbi’s case went beyond the letter of the law, as they say. A Border Police officer did not deport her immediately even though a senior official at the Population Registry had given him a green light. Instead, he took into consideration that Rajbi has six children, ages 5 to 17, and gave her a grace period of three days to give her time to fight the deportation order. An Israeli human rights group, Hamoked: The Center for the Defense of the Individual -- where people naturally turn in such instances -- filed an urgent petition to the High Court of Justice on her behalf. It asked that the deportation order be rescinded. Justice Yoram Danziger did not issue a temporary injunction against the deportation, but the Justice Ministry’s High Court Petitions Department understood from the wording of his ruling that he was effectively instructing the authorities to suspend the deportation order; the spirit of his decision also influenced the guidelines given to the police and Population Registry.

There are those who say Rajbi’s fear of being deported from her home in the Old City of Jerusalem is dwarfed by the suffering of the million Syrian children who have become refugees. Some would even go so far as to say that the history of Israeli domination over the Palestinians is dwarfed by the incomprehensible slaughter taking place in the region. According to that logic, men can tell the women in Israel and Italy not to complain about gender discrimination because their sisters in Africa still suffer the practice of female genital mutilation, while in India, the selective abortion of female fetuses is still widespread. Westernized Jews can tell Arab-Jews and Sephardi Jews that they should stop complaining because they’re doing far better than residents of favelas in Brazil.

Ranking injustices, atrocities and discrimination on a scale of horrors is just one more technique employed by those in power to retain their power, to justify their excessive privileges and to belittle any public or civil struggle for equality.

The issue, therefore, is not whether Rajbi’s case is overshadowed by something more horrendous, but rather what laws and procedures established by Israeli jurists have made her a criminal. The question is not whether the situation in Syria is terrifying, but rather why thousands more Palestinian men and women are in Rajbi’s situation, facing the threat of deportation and of being cut off from their families in Jerusalem.

Rajbi’s husband, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, was an epileptic, a drug addict and an alcoholic; he neglected bureaucratic affairs, such as filing an application for family reunification. He only did so in 2006, even though he and Nahil were married in 1994. The request was approved in June 2012, and Rajbi was granted a permit to stay in Jerusalem, valid for one year. Israeli law restricts Palestinian partners of Israeli citizens and residents from gaining permanent resident status or citizenship, so that approval for family reunification in such cases takes the form of a renewable one-year stay/sojourn permit. When Rajbi’s husband died last January, her permit automatically expired.

There is a special committee that deals with non-Jews, such as Russians or Australians, who married Israeli citizens and became widows or widowers or who divorced their partners before being granted permanent residency status or citizenship. This is, as its title puts it, “the Advisory Inter-ministerial Committee on Granting Residency Status in Israel on Humanitarian Grounds.” The members of the committee consist of the director general of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority, who also chairs it; representatives of the Foreign, Health and Social Affairs ministries; and representatives of the National Insurance Institute, the Israel Police and a semi-secret liaison unit called Nativ (which encourages Jewish immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union). This committee’s work procedures are outlined on five A4-size pages; its procedure number in the records of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority is 5.2.0022. By definition, it advises the authority’s director general, who, as noted above, also chairs the committee.

As a Palestinian, Rajbi had to turn to another committee, to which she appealed through the Center for the Defense of the Individual in March. This committee is the “Public Committee to Review Applications for Temporary Stay/Sojourn Permit on Special Humanitarian Grounds.” The committee is chaired by someone qualified to serve as a district court judge and is appointed by the interior minister. Other members include representatives of the Defense Ministry and the Shin Bet security service, an Interior Ministry representative appointed by that ministry, and a representative of the public who is jointly appointed by the justice and interior ministers. Here again, the committee’s work procedures are set forth on five A4-size pages; the committee’s procedure number is 5.2.0039. As noted above, the committee advises the interior minister and deals only with applications for temporary residency or a stay/sojourn permit.

The application to the inter-ministerial committee (for non-Jews born in Australia or Russia) must be submitted in person at one of the many branches of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority. Section A.2 of another one of the authority’s procedures, 5.1.0001, states that, “until a decision has been made regarding the application or the appeal, the applicant/appellant shall not be deported from the country,” on condition that the application/appeal was submitted to one of the authority’s branches.

In contrast, the request to the second committee, the public advisory committee advising the interior minister, must be sent by mail to the Government Compound, 125 Menachem Begin Rd., Tel Aviv. Thus, section A.2 in procedure 5.1.0001 does not apply to Palestinians. This technicality is what allowed the authorities to threaten Rajbi with deportation from Jerusalem in the first place. Since the Israeli government policy is motivated by a desire to limit the number of Palestinians in Jerusalem and in Israel proper, I allow myself the liberty of saying that this technicality was clearly premeditated.

Nahil Rajbi, a Palestinian widow and mother of six, faces deportation from East Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

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