It Took a Decade for This Palestinian to Learn She Was Allowed to Live in the West Bank

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Sura Tawil at her home in Ramallah, the West Bank, January 2019.
Sura Tawil at her home in Ramallah, the West Bank, January 2019. Credit: Amira Hass

Sura Tawil’s miracle occurred in Ramallah/El Bireh in the West Bank at the end of December. After about 10 years of waiting she received her new ID card – with a new number – as a West Bank resident. Her miracle was a rare triumph over a double bureaucracy with clearly asymmetrical powers – Israeli and Palestinian.

The first bureaucracy’s objective is to curb the number of Palestinians living in the Palestinian enclaves as much as possible, and it’s authorized to do so. The second bureaucracy is unfit – or less than eager – to deal with the Israeli bureaucracy’s methods to achieve its goal.

During those 10 years Tawil was for all intents and purposes a prisoner in Ramallah, hardly venturing out of town because she didn’t have a Palestinian ID card, and the visa in her American passport had long expired. Sometimes she took a chance and went to Nablus, where she gave courses on cosmetics, she said with a tired smile in the living room of her family’s stone house in the center of El Bireh. But she didn’t go abroad or to Jerusalem.

She knew that every Israeli soldier or police officer at the checkpoint could order her immediate expulsion out of the country (including the West Bank). It wouldn’t do any good to tell them that she was born in El Bireh in 1963, four years before the city was conquered by the Israeli army, that for 10 years she has been living in the house where she spent her childhood, that she’s a grandmother and her grandchildren live near her, and that her widowed mother needs her.

To understand in full the Israeli intrusiveness into the Palestinians’ lives, one must remember its control of the Palestinians’ population registry.

Like Sura Tawil there are thousands in the West Bank who have been waiting 10, 20 or nearly 30 years for residency status, and according to the Israeli criteria they’re transgressors, illegal sojourners in their own homes. The Palestinian Authority prints the ID cards (including for those who turn 16), but it may do so only after receiving authorization from Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank – “the Palestinians’ real government,” the joke goes.

As I’ve written many times and will keep doing in the future, Israel is the first and last to decide who may receive Palestinian residency status – even in the blockaded Gaza Strip. There, too, live thousands of Palestinians without residency status because Israel hasn’t allowed it.

None of this bothered Tawil at the beginning of the ‘80s. She – then a recently married young woman – moved with her then-husband to the United States in search of a better life than they could achieve under the Israeli occupation. Her husband opened a supermarket in Florida. She raised three sons and a daughter.

Maybe she was too young to know or understand that under the occupation’s rules, Israel would revoke her residency status unless she came for a visit every three years. Maybe she didn’t believe – as many others didn’t – that the occupation would last forever. Her residency status was indeed revoked.

In the early 90's the couple wanted to return to the West Bank with their children for good. By the end of the 90's, Sura had broken up with her husband and found that returning to live in her home town wasn’t simple, because she was classified as a tourist.

Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank.Credit: Emil Salman

She traveled back and forth a few times, and in 2005 her mother, Sabha Tawil, applied for a family reunion. The bureaucracy generated by the Oslo Accords stipulates that the request must be submitted to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry, the counterpart of the Civil Administration. The Palestinian clerks examine the documents, grant the application in principle and pass it on to the Israeli side. Then they wait for an answer. If it’s positive, the Palestinian Interior Ministry receives a green light to print the ID card.

The Israeli side set an insufficient annual quota of 2,000 requests, which therefore created a long line of people waiting. The two main groups asking for family reunions were Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who had been abroad in 1967 or later, and spouses of West Bank residents, many of them Jordanian-born Palestinians, and often from the extended family or home village of an intended bride or groom.

The Palestinians were convinced that all the bureaucratic duplication would subside after five years – the Oslo Accords’ original expiration date – and that from 1999 their sovereign authority would decide who and how many people would be entitled to residency status in their new state. As it turns out, Oslo’s only on-the-ground achievement was to reduce Israel’s control of the Palestinian population registry. As of 1994, Israel may not revoke any more residency status in the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinians living abroad for many years.

Unfilled quota

Instead of the longed-for state, the second intifada broke out in 2000 and Israel suspended the family-reunion process. It has now been suspended for 20 years. In 2005 and 2006, Israel also altered its policy toward Palestinians or spouses carrying foreign passports who live in the West Bank. It no longer allowed them to live in their homes for many years with renewable tourist visas. In growing numbers, they were denied entry into the country.

The families harmed by this got organized, the media kept reporting on these cases, and foreign diplomats showed interest, culminating in the open dismay of then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with the policy discriminating against American citizens of Palestinian origin – compared to those of Jewish origin. At the same time, the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual submitted to the High Court of Justice 50 petitions for families that Israel had separated with one arbitrary bureaucratic swipe. The combined pressure opened a window of opportunity through which Sura Tawil’s request for a family reunion got in.

Without recognizing each Palestinians’ basic right to a family life of one’s choice, including living in one’s own home, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced a special gesture to Mahmoud Abbas: He authorized the processing of 50,000 family-reunion requests. It was a one-time quota to be carried out in several stages. Ultimately fewer than 30,000 requests were granted.

An Israeli official told Haaretz that the Palestinian Authority hadn’t filled the quota. Some of the requests were denied, and in their stead the PA could have submitted others, but didn’t.

Tawil stayed in the United States at the end of 2009, when her mother told her that her family-reunion request had been granted. She completed a course she was taking, packed her bags and flew back. The Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry gave her written confirmation that her request for permanent residence had been approved. It was signed by the Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, who’s still in that post.

She took the confirmation letter to the Palestinian Interior Ministry to have a new ID card printed out, with a new ID number. But there they told her she had to wait for final Israeli approval.

From time to time she returned to the Palestinian Interior Ministry, only to receive the same answer. “Maybe there’s no Israeli approval because you didn’t come back immediately,” she says they told her. Also, because she was waiting for an ID card, she wasn’t allowed to renew her tourist visa.

West Bank separation barrier near Ramallah, May 2019.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

Persistence pays off

Months went by, then years. She didn’t know how to unravel the knot of the duplicate bureaucracy. Having no other choice, she got used to being an illegal alien, like thousands of others.

Then in 2018 she heard about attorney Yotam Ben Hillel of Jerusalem. He embarked on a series of letters and telephone calls with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, a unit of the Israeli Defense Ministry, which implements the government’s policy. He attached to his letters the written confirmation by Hussein al-Sheikh, photographs of Tawil’s ID card and a copy of her passport. He asked to let her have her ID. It doesn’t have to be terribly complicated, especially not for a high-tech nation that boasts advanced Military Intelligence units like Unit 8200.

But apparently it is. In January 2019, despite all the attached documents, COGAT replied that it had never received Tawil’s family-reunion request and that she had to file a new request via the PA. In any case, the policy isn’t to grant these requests except for unusual humanitarian cases, they told the lawyer. And Tawil’s case isn’t humanitarian and unusual. A similar reply came in October.

Ben Hillel continued to call, write and nag until Tawil was summoned to a “hearing” at the Civil Administration this past December 4. There, in a half-hour conversation, the administration officials put together the details and facts.

“Inshallah, it will be all right,” she says they told her, “and a week later Yotam told me the paper had arrived. Go to the Interior Ministry to get your ID card, he told me.”

Apparently in the population registry that Israel controls she has been a permanent resident – with a new ID number – since 2011. It even says there that since 2015 she has been allowed to enter Israel with no permit, as women above 50 and men above 55 are allowed.

So why did it take a lawyer an entire year to discover this? And why did the Palestinian Interior Ministry claim for 10 years that no Israeli approval had arrived and thus didn’t implement the approval she had indeed received? The answer is lost in red tape.

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