A life in legal limbo

For many Palestinians returning home means giving up their right to travel.

    Um Nael has land and property in
    Gaza but no residency rights


    System of control

    Um Nael is one of more than 50,000 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian ministry of civil affairs, who await a family reunion ID card, or hawia.

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    The hawia is issued by the Israeli military to residents of the occupied territories. 

    It enables Palestinians to move in and out of either Gaza or the West Bank and both entitles them to residency there and to a Palestinian Authority travel document.

    The Israeli authorities first began issuing them as part of a system of control imposed on the population following the 1967 war.

    The Palestinian borders were sealed immediately after the war and a door-to-door population census was conducted. 

    Cards were issued to only those Palestinians who were in residence and added to the population registry. 

    Family 'reunification'

    Millions of others who were abroad - studying, working, or visiting family, were immediately excluded. 

    "I curse the day I came back - I don't exist as far as Israel is concerned"

    Um Nael, Palestinian in Gaza

    Over the years, Palestinians who had direct family in the territories could apply for an ID through a process known as family reunification.

    But less than one-fifth of the applications were approved by Israel, subject to bi-annual renewal from within the occupied territories. 

    Failure to renew resulted in immediate cancellation.

    It was only in the mid-1990s, under the terms of the Oslo Accords, that Israel established a quota for both temporary visitor's permits and permanent family reunion ID cards to Palestinians awaiting the hawia. 

    Many, like Um Nael, jumped at the chance to finally return home - even if it meant she had to do so as a "visitor" to her own land. 

    Once she arrived, she immediately applied for the family re-unification ID.

    "I expected I [would come back] to my land and would face no difficulty, now I curse the day I came back. I don't exist as far as Israel is concerned," said Um Nael.

    'Torn apart'

    Since 2000, Israel has frozen all family reunification ID requests and visitor's permits and has not permitted additions to the Palestinian Population Registry, leaving tens of thousands of Palestinians like Um Nael stranded.

    "If you are born in the US and get a citizenship, how is it that I was born in Gaza and I can't get residency rights here? I have land and property here," said Um Nael.

    The freeze has also affected Palestinians in the West Bank.

    Amal Souf lives in the town of Qalqiliya, where she has been waiting for her ID for more than 10 years.

    Souf came to the West Bank on a visitor's permit to join her new husband there in 1997. 

    She renewed her permit three times, but after that the Israeli authorities told her she was not allowed to renew any more, and that if she left the West Bank she could never return.

    "I was pregnant and newly married. What was I supposed to do? I decided to stay here, not tear my family apart, but this also meant I would not be able to move."

    Risking detention

    Four years ago her father in Jordan became seriously ill.

    "I knew that if left I would never be able to return to my husband or my children -imagine having to make such a choice"

    Amal Souf, Palestinian in West Bank

    "I began crying and saying I wanted to leave Qalqiliya to see my father ... but I knew that if I left I would never be able to return to my husband or my children. Imagine having to make such a choice."

    Her father died shortly thereafter.

    "Now they are telling me my mother is sick and I don't know what to do," she said tearfully.

    Souf has trouble far closer to home, too. 

    Because she resides "illegally" in the West Bank, she risks detention even when crossing from Qalqiliya to neighbouring Palestinian towns across Israeli checkpoints. 

    "I never leave Qalqiliya. I feel like I'm locked inside my own home," she said.

    'Not Palestinians'

    Shlomo Dror, the Israeli spokesperson for the co-ordinator of government activities in the territories, insists the onus lies on Palestinians such as Souf and Um Nael, who "overstayed their visitor's permits".

    "This is something they should have thought about from the beginning. 

    "There are many Israelis that have problems in the US. For example, they overstayed their visas. 

    "It's the same story here. These people came here, asked for visitors' permits. And then decided to stay permanently. 

    "So when you are working against the law you should expect that there will be a problem in the future," Dror told Al Jazeera.
    "And from our point of view they are not exactly Palestinians ... they came on a permit to visit family inside and decide to stay even though they didn't have ID cards," says Dror.

    Ameen Siyam, deputy Palestinian minister of civil affairs, argues that family re-unification is a Palestinian's most basic right.

    "What are they, then, if not Palestinians? Tourists? Of course they came back to stay - it is their home after all"

    Ameen Siyam,
    deputy Palestinian minister of civil affairs

    "So what are they, then, if not Palestinians? Tourists? Do you think they came to take in the views of shelling and destruction? Of course they came back to stay - it is their home after all," Siyam said.

    He handles the family re-unification applications on the Palestinian side, but there is little he can do except send the files to the Israelis for approval and wait like everyone else.

    He says each week he receives dozens of new applications.

    "Choose a file at random and it will be the same: a mother separated from her children, a husband from his wife. Most are humanitarian cases but who will have sympathy to deal with them? No one."

    Until the problem is resolved, Palestinians such as Um Nael and Amal Souf are trapped in legal limbo in their own towns.

    "Sometimes I dream I was actually allowed to travel ... and then I suddenly get up and start crying when I realise it isn't true," says Um Nael. 

    "I wish I can go to get treated for my heart condition in Egypt or Jordan; that I can visit my daughters who live abroad; that I can go to Mecca to perform the hajj. 

    "But I can't do any of these things. I can only watch people go and cry and dream. I am trapped in a prison inside my own home."


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