‘Devastating’: How Israel is pulling Palestinian families apart
Known locally as the ‘family reunification law’, the legislation bars Palestinians with Israeli citizenship or residency from extending their legal status to spouses holding PA passports.
Occupied East Jerusalem – Israel re-enacted a law late last week that deprives tens of thousands of Palestinian couples and families of the basic right of being together as a family.
The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which has been in effect for close to two decades, expired in July 2021 when the Israeli government failed to renew it. Yet, in practice, it remained in force.
Known locally as the “family reunification law”, the legislation bars Palestinians with Israeli citizenship or residency from extending their legal status to spouses holding Palestinian Authority (PA) passports, and denies them the ability to live together in an area of their choosing.
It also applies to spouses from Israeli-designated “enemy states” – Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran.
Meanwhile, Jewish foreign spouses of Israeli Jews are granted Israeli citizenship automatically, while non-Jewish spouses can obtain citizenship after a maximum of five years. Such couples are free to live in Israel or in Israeli settlements across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
On Sunday, the Haifa-based legal centre, Adalah, filed a petition in the Israeli Supreme Court against the law’s re-enactment, calling it “one of the most racist and discriminatory laws in the world”.
“There is no country in the world that restricts the right of its citizens or residents to family life with spouses from their own people,” Adalah said.
The law was first passed in July 2003 as a “temporary order” and has been renewed annually. Estimates say it affects 25,000 to 30,000 Palestinian families.
The Jerusalem Legal Aid Center (JLAC), which helps families apply for reunification, described the law as a “major pillar in Israel’s apartheid regime”.
“The right to live in peace, safety and dignity with one’s own family, to choose the person with whom they wish to form a family, is a fundamental right that Israel continues to strip Palestinians of. It has torn Palestinian families apart, subjecting them to perpetual fear, separation, and uncertainty,” JLAC said.
Some 1.8 million Palestinians live within the “Green Line” and hold Israeli citizenship. Another 4.5 million Palestinians live in the 1967-occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip, and carry PA passports.
While Palestinians in the West Bank are forbidden from entering Israel without a hard-to-obtain military permit, Palestinians with Israeli passports can enter the West Bank freely and have familial, social and other ties there. Many Palestinians in Israel also study in Palestinian universities in the West Bank. However, they are forbidden under Israeli military orders from living in West Bank city centres.
Tayseer Khatib, 48, from the northern coastal city of Akka who holds Israeli citizenship, married his wife Lana from Jenin in the West Bank in 2004.
The couple met while Khatib was conducting academic field research in Jenin, and have led popular efforts for the past 15 years to cancel the law because of the struggle they faced in attempting to build a life together.
“The impact of this law is devastating,” Khatib told Al Jazeera. “Families are separated and fragmented, and even when the couple are together, they have no horizon to develop and there is no guarantee that they will be able to stay together.
“You live in a constant state of paranoia,” he added.
Lana, 43, has been living with her husband in Akka based on six-month stay permits issued by the Israeli military, which must be consistently renewed with dozens of documents. Over the past few years, the army granted her one- and two-year stay permits.
Palestinians from the West Bank living on stay permits in Israel cannot get health or social benefits, cannot work in many professions, and until recently were not allowed to drive.
“Over the past 15 years, my wife could not work even though she has a degree in economics from An-Najah [National] University in Nablus and she used to work,” said Khatib, adding this forced his family to rely solely on his income.
“She couldn’t go about her life normally – to drive, go out, work, to have an active role in her community like any other woman.
“Lana always says: ‘In Jenin, even under the [Israeli] military tanks, I had more freedom than I do living in this state, which claims democracy,’” Khatib continued. “It’s like a prison for her here.”
Khatib noted that marriage between Palestinians with Israeli and PA passports is most common in towns straddling the 1967 armistice line. This includes Palestinians in the Naqab with those in Hebron and Gaza, and the “Triangle area” consisting of Umm al-Fahm, Baqa al-Gharbiyya and Barta’a with nearby Jenin and surrounding villages in the northern West Bank.
He said marriages also take place with Palestinians in the Galilee and in the central cities of Lydd and Ramle, though to a lesser degree.
The law, however, overwhelmingly affects Palestinian residents of Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, where marriage with West Bank Palestinians is significantly higher because of geographical proximity, among other reasons.
Palestinians from Jerusalem, who number about 350,000, hold Israeli residency and not citizenship. Not only are they forbidden from extending their residency to their West Bank spouse and living with them in the city, Jerusalem residents are also liable under Israeli laws to losing their residency, health insurance and ability to enter the city if they move to the West Bank.
“Palestinian Jerusalemites are the most vulnerable segment of the population targeted by this law,” Budour Hassan of JLAC told Al Jazeera.
Beyond demographic engineering
Proponents say the law ensures Israeli security and maintains its “Jewish character”.
In the most recent version of the law re-enacted last Thursday, Israeli officials – for the first time – unequivocally clarified that one of the law’s goals is to ensure Jewish demographic supremacy by preventing the naturalisation of Jerusalem and West Bank Palestinians – which human rights groups, academics and analysts have long pointed out.
“The demographic aspect has become very clear now,” Nijmeh Hijazi of Adalah told Al Jazeera. “They are passing this law on a purely racist basis.”
Hassan, of JLAC, agrees but believes this is not the only motivator for Israeli officials. “It’s definitely beyond demographics,” she said.
“For Israeli policymakers, even one additional Palestinian is too many. It’s part of the architecture of domination over Palestinians that Israel has always tried to construct and fortify, but this will not be the issue that tilts the demographic ratio.”
“I think it has to do with senseless cruelty of controlling, restricting and putting boundaries on Palestinian intimacy, and perpetuating the fragmentation of Palestinians.”
“The things that Palestinians – women especially – have to consider before getting married, such as where their address will be and how they will register their children, are definitely beyond anything that any newlyweds or people in love think about,” continued Hassan.
Despite the Israeli restrictions, Khatib said, Palestinians continue to defy the difficult reality imposed on them.
“There are many young men and women who call me – from both sides of the fictitious ‘Green Line’ – and inquire about the difficulty of the procedures,” said Khatib. “Palestinians know that these laws exist, yet they still get married and defy all the challenges that come out of it.
“We are a stubborn nation and Israel is stuck with us – we have not backed down on our rights for the past 74 years.”