Ramallah, occupied West Bank – A thick cloud of frustration, sadness and anger hung over dozens of undocumented Palestinians who rushed to the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Ramallah last week after hearing Israel had approved requests to grant legal status.
They had scoured the ministry-issued lists for their names, but to no avail.
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The Israeli army’s administrative body in the occupied West Bank, as well as other Israeli officials, announced they would be issuing 4,000 approvals for “family reunification” requests last Tuesday. Some 442 requests were also reportedly approved in the weeks prior.
The decision affects Palestinians who married undocumented foreigners and who live together in Palestine, as well as Palestinians who have an undocumented immediate family member.
Israel has controlled the Palestinian population registry since 1967, and the occupying state has full authority over issuing Palestinian ID cards and passports, and deciding who gets to enter and exit the country.
Israel had stopped processing requests for Palestinian family reunification 12 years ago, leaving thousands of Palestinians without legal status and unable to travel or access healthcare, jobs, an education, or the legal system – including for divorces.
Many avoid travelling from one town to the next, fearing arrest at military checkpoints where their IDs are checked.
Israel’s policies towards Palestinians have left what officials estimate to be tens of thousands without legal status in their homeland and have torn many families apart.
Manana Bahr, one of those hoping to obtain legal status, said it was a “black day” when she found she was among the many people whose names were not on the lists issued by the Ministry of Civil Affairs – the Palestinian authorities that liaise with the Israeli occupation on this issue.
“Our joy was destroyed, people collapsed and went to hospital,” Bahr told Al Jazeera. “Those who brought sweets to distribute threw them on the ground after they found out that their names were not on the lists.”
Bahr is one of the activists among the Family Reunification is My Right movement. She is a Moroccan woman married to a Palestinian man, and who came to Palestine on a temporary visa 15 years ago.
During the past 15 years, Bahr has been unable to leave the town of Ramallah where she lives with her family, due to not having legal status.
“I have been without an ID since 2007 – I cannot work, travel or open a bank account,” Bahr said.
At the end of a meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz in August, Israel announced its approval of 5,000 family reunification requests in the occupied West Bank.
This came among the so-called “confidence-building measures” between the two sides proposed by the United States envoy to the peace process, Hady Amr.
However, some 2,800 of the 4,000 approved requests were to change the addresses on the ID cards of Palestinians who had moved from the Gaza Strip to the occupied West Bank a long time ago.
The issue of changing addresses between the West Bank and Gaza is separate from that of Israel refusing to issue IDs to undocumented Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
And, out of the remaining 1,200, some were individuals who had already gained legal status in 2008, while some were requests made by Palestinians many years ago and who are now dead.
“This is a dirty game that the Israeli authorities are playing,” Ayman Qandil, deputy minister at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said in a meeting with the Family Reunification is My Right movement.
“[They] wanted to deceive us all … they wanted to provoke your anger against us, but we must continue to work together in order for everyone to obtain their right to family unification.”
A PA official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity that Palestinian officials had submitted a complaint to the US envoy to the peace process about Israel’s failure to provide Palestinian identification cards.
“We told the American envoy that we do not recognise the list announced by Israel, and we want it to grant family unification to a list of 5,000 names that we present to them,” the official said.
Rights groups have said Israel’s administrative policies are part of an effort to significantly lower the number of registered Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, while increasing the number of Israeli settlers.
According to Human Rights Watch, the population registry is “central to Israel’s administrative efforts to control the demographic composition of the occupied Palestinian territory”.
“Israel has used Palestinians’ residency status as a tool to control their ability to reside in, move within, and travel abroad from the West Bank, as well as to travel from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank.”
‘For future generations’
Najah Abdelrazek, a Palestinian previously living in Jordan who later married and lived with her cousin in the occupied West Bank, said that she has not left the country since she arrived on a visitor’s permit more than 12 years ago.
She told Al Jazeera that she had experienced many tragedies during this period, including the death of her parents and one of her brothers in Jordan, without being able to attend their funerals.
“I was always thinking of travelling to Amman, especially on painful occasions, but I ruled out the idea because I am sure that I will not get a visitor’s permit again, and therefore, I will be cut off from my husband and children here,” said Abdelrazek.
Another woman, Mariam, who lives with her family in the northern town of Jenin, came to the West Bank more than 25 years ago.
Years after her arrival, she and her husband split and Mariam was left with two options: to remain with her children in the country but without legal status, or to leave for Jordan and take them with her.
She chose the former – preferring to remain where there is a source of income for the family, rather than tearing the family apart.
Her sons and daughters grew up, and became able to travel outside the country, while their mother remains stuck. Much has happened since she left Jordan: her parents passed away, many of her nieces and nephews married, while others graduated from college, without her being able to attend a single family occasion.
“I was waiting for my name to appear in the list, but unfortunately, it did not appear,” Mariam told Al Jazeera. She said she and her children reviewed the list over and over again.
The Family Reunification is My Right movement is organising a series of protests to demand that those who are entitled to legal status receive it.
“This is not a life. We will continue with our efforts to obtain our right to live our lives and freedom. We live on the land of Palestine, and it is our right to get a Palestinian ID,” Bahr said.
“What has passed is in the past and we cannot retrieve it even if we get reunification now, but we will continue for our sake and for the sake of the future generations.”