Jerusalem24 – At the end of August 2021, hundreds of Palestinians flocked to the offices of the Palestinian Civil Affairs, crowding the office and the entrance that leads inside. Recent talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz resulted in the announcement 5000 applications for family reunification being accepted. As many were applying with new applications, others rushed to get their old applications taken into consideration.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Jordan river in Amman, Dalia Shurrab observes the sun setting Westward towards the Occupied Palestinian territories that she believes she will never return to. Knowing that any return to Palestine would return her into the bureaucratic nightmare, she found family reunification to be.
“I have had enough in the West Bank.”
-Dalia Shurrab on her experience in the West Bank regarding family reunification.
Palestinians face a range of challenges when it comes to marriage between Palestinians from different areas such as the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and/or Israel. And that is something which 5000 grantings of family reunification cannot solve. According to the Israeli human rights NGO, HaMoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, there are still 30,000 applications currently pending family unification.
Dalia Shurrab had met her fiancé in Jordan in 2011. Dalia spoke about how she first fell in love. In a conversation with Jerusalem24, she described how she met Rashed, her fiance’ at the time in Jordan in 2011. How he crossed into the Gaza Strip in 2012 so they can get engaged. This love story was beset on all sides by many difficulties. The first and most obvious, Dalia was from the Gaza Strip and Rashed, her fiance’ was from the West Bank; something the Israeli Citizenship and Entry Law (C&E Law) would not allow.
Looking for a way to be with her fiancé, she headed to the General Authority of Civil Affairs in the Palestinian Authority in 2013, who would tell her that she was not given any papers to move to the West Bank for security reasons. To her, this made no sense, as she had left Gaza in the past and returned, and as she did not understand why she would suddenly be perceived as a security threat. The employee told her she had no other choice but to write a plea to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Only he can help, this matter is out of their hands,” she said.
By 2015, at her wits end, Dalia was traveling through the West Bank on her way back to Gaza. A friend of her, managed to get her to meet the Palestinian President; Mahmoud Abbas. In a publicized event, the president told her she will stay in the West Bank. In a breath of relief, she headed the next day to the Civil Affairs ministry.
One more disappointment awaited her there. The ministry refused to offer any help without any official papers. Rejected, she left the building. Years of trying had left the groom tired, the relationship strained with fatigue and bureaucracy, ended it all.
The C&E Law was designed to introduce curbs on the immigration of Palestinians from the occupied territories into Israel proper. It does this through denying legal status under Israeli citizenship and residency laws. The Israeli government claims that the immigration of Palestinians through marriage generated an increased security risk. It also prevented Palestinians moving from one region to another, such as in Dalia’s case who was trying to move from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.
Israel to this day maintain, that the reason behind the law is security”**
To that end, Jessica Montell, general manager of HaMoked, talks about the Israeli law saying that “we know that the primary justification is demographic, preventing more Palestinians from acquiring status inside Israel.” She continued, “I think the family unification in the West Bank has a similar motive to restrict any increase in the Palestinian population in the West Bank.”
Dalia’s case was hardly the only one with difficulty being with the man she loved. Even before the Citizenship and Entry Law was passed, Palestinians had several challenges to remain in their homes and with their families. It was not specific to Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem either. But it also included Palestinians living in Israel. But if Israeli law was a challenge in itself, other social issues can also stand in front of two people in love.
When Palestinians from different areas get married, their troubles only begin. From registering the marriage, to getting birth certificates for the children. The process of visiting your in-laws can become a journey through Israel’s bureaucracy that can decide if you are allowed or not to see your in-laws.
The difficulties and challenges Ahmed Y. and his family faced have taken a toll on their life. “I was once asked if I would encourage others to do what I did and file for family reunification – I replied strongly that I would not,” he said.
The difficulties Ahmed was talking about were varied and diverse. The first of these challenges falls under the geographical separation that Palestinians face. Palestinians in the West Bank cannot travel into Occupied Jerusalem, Israel or the Gaza Strip. Palestinians in Gaza cannot leave the enclave without Israeli approval, a matter that they find challenging. When two Palestinians from different regions wish to be together like Ahmed, who is from the West Bank and his wife who is from Sakhnin in Israel, Palestinians find themselves stuck between the Palestinian authority and the Israeli government. The former decides which applications get sent to Israel; the latter decides whether to approve them or not. According to Montell, “It’s a very tiny number of approvals, either very extreme humanitarian cases or more likely somebody with a lot of connections in the right places.”
Ahmed fell in love with his co-worker. “In terms of challenges, my case is a little different,” he said. He then added, “her extended family kept asking, what is this West Bank guy doing here, and why does he want to marry from here?” Ahmed’s now-wife was from Arraba, near the town of Sikhneen in Israel. Her extended family were implying a stereotype of West Bank Palestinians marrying women with Israeli IDs for work permits, and then leaving the woman after the paperwork was finalized. “I didn’t have a problem with my wife’s immediate family,” says Ahmed. “Their family spent the majority of their careers teaching in universities in Beirzeit and Abu Dis, so stereotypes aren’t ingrained in them,” he added.
Despite the understanding family, there were still many challenges faced by Ahmed. The largest challenge was the deep dive into Israeli and Palestinian Authority bureaucracy. They had to obtain documents from the Palestinian Authority, which meant going through loopholes and such to prove that Ahmed was single. After that, Ahmed needed to legally translate them, which meant finding an approved translator. After which they had to go to an Israeli lawyer, who would certify the documents, charging roughly 700 NIS (around 225 USD) for each signature and document. Then they had to take the certified documents to the Israeli ministry of Interior, which has its own reputation of making these matters even more difficult for Palestinians.
Ahmed worries though, the real legal challenges will only rise when they have children. Issues like residency, national health care and more. “Despite having Israeli identification, my wife must always prove that she works and is present in Israel even if it’s only temporarily,” he said. If she fails to prove any of the aforementioned requirements, Ahmed says, “She will not get her full legal rights.”
Palestinians in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, have to prove what Israel calls “Center of Life.” That is to say, where do these Palestinians live? Where do they work? Where are their lives centered? The loss of residency is a very real threat that hundreds of Palestinians fear. According to HaMoked, 18 people lost their residencies in Jerusalem during 2020. That is a decrease since the year before where 40 Palestinians lost their Jerusalem residency. Based on figures from the Israeli Ministry of Interior, Hamoked has calculated that Israel revoked the status of 14,701 Palestinians from East Jerusalem between 1967 and 2020 on the grounds that their status “expired of itself”.
“The problem is that Israel does not recognize family reunification as a basic right,” says Jessica Montell. According to her, in the past Israel has accepted family reunification applications as a diplomatic move or a sign of good will rather than recognizing that these people have rights.
Even after marriage, Ahmed and his wife’s lives are long battles for basic rights like citizen registration and the right to move. For example, he headed to the Israeli Ministry of Internal Affairs to retrieve his daughter’s birth certificate and add his name to it. “Whenever we need a legal document of this nature, we are fully aware that we are in a battle with the government.” This means that Ahmed and his family need to place themselves between the Palestinian authority and the Israeli government, legal translation fees and not to mention the struggle to get travel permits so that Ahmed can go to the Ministry of Interior. That is the position Ahmed and his family found themselves in.
Eyad K., a Palestinian from Jerusalem who asked not to be named, described his own challenges keeping his family together. Born in Jerusalem, Eyad left because of the difficult economic situation to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s for work. There he met his wife Sahar, born to a Jerusalemite family in Jordan; and they were married in 1985. Together they raised a boy and two girls.
People often marry to others living geographically close. But in the West Bank and Jerusalem, somebody living down the road can have a different kind of ID.
In 1995, they headed to Jordan in hopes of returning to Jerusalem. Eyad applied for a visa. He had an ID, however his wife did not. Both received a visa along with the youngest daughter. His son, Kamal who was ten at the time and daughter Layal who was seven didn’t receive any visas. Eyad went on about how his family went in circles, until eventually he managed to obtain temporary passports for his offspring. He ended up applying for their visas apart from the rest of the family, and they had to cross the borders as if they were traveling as complete strangers for fear of Israel sending them all back.
In 1997 they were finally in Jerusalem, Eyad went to the ministry of interior to apply for family reunification. He returned home and would later receive a letter in the mail, telling him to leave the country, and that his application was rejected. Eyad’s own ID was also revoked and he had to submit it to the Ministry of Interior. However, they remained in Jerusalem as “illegals” in defiance of the government’s decision.
“We have been here for centuries, long before the Ottomans built their courthouse in Jerusalem and registered us all,” says Eyad who says his family can be traced in Jerusalem 400 years back. Despite that, he had challenges sending his children to school. Sending his daughters to the then recently established Palestinian Authorities’ schools. His son, had to go to a Jerusalem municipality school. Through the help of other Palestinians in the city, who worked in the schools and municipality who wanted to preserve the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem.
Challenges would still arise. Around 2002, Eyad’s mother-in-law was sick, and his wife couldn’t visit her in Amman. Communication technology wasn’t as advanced today. Every day, the phone would ring and they would expect the worst news, it might have been the worst time in their lives.
Despite all the hardship, Eyad had hope for his family to remain in Jerusalem. Even when the second intifada broke out, making it harder for his family to move around the city as Israeli police, military and border police filled the city. He said, “in 2004 there was a chance for family unification.” The door for applying for family reunification was open in a rare chance. He added, “in 2005 I managed to get permits for children which allowed us to move around a bit.”
Kamal, Eyad’s son, said that, “up until that point my childhood was spent couped up at home. I spent my teenage years making sure to remove any body hair so that I could look younger for fear of being found and deported.” Despite having some papers, it was still difficult to cross a checkpoint at times.
13 years after returning to Jerusalem, they were finally given IDs. However, they still live in fear. Kamal says, “Whenever there are tensions or incidents, whether an intifada, or a war with Gaza. When the soldiers stop me, they would ask where I am from. I tell them Jerusalem. Then they find my ID and under the place of birth they read Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. They would tell me to go back to where I am from.” These fears are not simply for being told things like that by soldiers and police officers, but also because of their legal situation. “My mother, sisters and I are not allowed to carry an Israeli travel document. La Se Pa se, we have a visa on a Jordanian passport that should be renewed every 5 years. This always keeps us on our toes. For the day that Israel can decide they don’t want to renew our visa or revoke our Id’s.” says Kamal.
On the other side of the Jordan river, Dalia Shurrab, stood there again, looking westward towards the land that she left.
Fate had it that she received a work permit to the West Bank for a month. During this visit, she met the man who would become her current husband, Abdullah who is from Hebron; they married and moved to Amman, Jordan, rather than attempting to be united in the Palestinian territories once more. Dalia spoke with some bitterness. Knowing that any return to Palestine would return her into a bureaucratic nightmare of being a Palestinian from Gaza. She had lost the battle for family reunification and decided to live in another country with the man she found love with, at the cost of never going home.
“I told him I don’t want to live in Gaza or in Palestine. I told him I want to emigrate to any country that would take us in,” said Dalia.