Some in the occupied West Bank have spent decades waiting to meet their relatives.
Israel’s parliament is set to vote on Monday on whether to renew a temporary law first enacted in 2003 that bars Palestinian citizens of Israel from extending citizenship or even residency to spouses from the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Critics, including many left-wing and Palestinian Israeli legislators, say it is a racist measure aimed at restricting the growth of Israel’s Palestinian minority, while supporters say it is needed for security purposes and to preserve Israel’s Jewish character.
The law creates an array of difficulties for Palestinian families that span the largely invisible frontiers separating Israel from the occupied territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip – territories it seized in the 1967 war that the Palestinian leadership wants for a future state.
The vote is expected late on Monday.
The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law was enacted as a temporary measure in 2003, at the height of the second Intifada, or uprising, when in response to Israel’s escalating and violent measures in the occupied territories, Palestinians launched many deadly attacks inside Israel.
Proponents of the law said Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza were susceptible to recruitment by armed groups and that security vetting alone was insufficient.
The law has been renewed even after the uprising wound down in 2005 and the number of attacks plummeted. Today, Israel allows more than 100,000 Palestinian workers from the occupied West Bank to enter on a regular basis.
“It was passed in the middle of the Intifada, and now we are in a very different period in time,” Yuval Shany, a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Associated Press.
Not only are attacks far rarer, but Israel has vastly improved its technological abilities to monitor Palestinians who enter, he said.
“I don’t think the security argument is very strong at this point in time.”
Because of the law, Palestinian citizens of Israel have few, if any, avenues for bringing spouses from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip into Israel. The policy affects thousands of families.
Mohammed Zaatreh, a Palestinian who carries a West Bank ID, lives in occupied East Jerusalem with his wife and daughter, both of whom have Jerusalem IDs.
Every 12 months, he has to apply for a special Israeli military permit just to live in his own home. The permit excludes him from having Israeli health insurance, most forms of employment, an Israeli driver’s licence, and, he says, peace of mind.
“At any moment they might tell you that you have to leave and that you’re not welcome,” Zaatreh told Al Jazeera.
His wife Hanadi Gheith said that if the citizenship law was scrapped, the family would have more freedom.
“He could work easily, move easily, travel and live daily life more easily,” she said.
“Unlike when you don’t have anything and you’re afraid all the time, scared.”
Male spouses over the age of 35 and female spouses over the age of 25, as well as some humanitarian cases, can apply for the equivalent of a tourist permit, which must be regularly renewed.
Palestinian spouses from Gaza have been completely banned since Hamas seized control there in 2007.
The law does not apply to the nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers who live in the occupied West Bank, who have full Israeli citizenship. Under Israel’s Law of Return, Jews who come to Israel from anywhere in the world are eligible for citizenship.
Israel’s Palestinian minority, which makes up 20 percent of the population, has close familial ties to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian citizens view the law as one of several forms of discrimination they face in a country that legally defines itself as a Jewish nation-state.
“This law sees every Palestinian as an enemy and as a threat, just because of his ethnic and national affiliation,” said Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with Adalah, a Palestinian rights group that has challenged the law in court.
“The political message is very racist and very dangerous.”
Palestinians who are unable to get permits but try to live with their spouses inside Israel are at risk of deportation. Couples that move to the occupied West Bank live under Israeli military occupation. If their children are born in the occupied West Bank, they would be subject to the same law preventing spouses from entering Israel, though there is an exception for minors.
The citizenship law also applies to Jewish Israelis who marry Palestinians from the territories, but such unions are extremely rare.
Human Rights Watch pointed to the law as an example of the widespread discrimination faced by Palestinians – both inside Israel and in the territories it controls – in a report earlier this year that said such practices amount to apartheid.
Israel rejects such allegations and says Jewish and Palestinian citizens have equal rights. It says a controversial 2018 law, which defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, merely recognises the country’s character and does not infringe on individual rights.
And while Palestinian citizens have the right to vote, there are more than 60 laws that actively discriminate against them in various sectors such as education, housing and due process laws.
Israel’s dominant right-wing parties strongly support the law, and it has been renewed every year since being enacted.
But Israel’s new government includes opponents of the measure including a Palestinian faction, and the right-wing opposition led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – aiming to embarrass the government – has warned it will not provide the votes needed to renew the law.
But even as Defence Minister Benny Gantz, a political centrist, recently urged the opposition to support the law on security grounds, he also evoked demographic concerns.
“This law is essential for safeguarding the country’s security and Jewish and democratic character, and security considerations need to be put before all political considerations,” Gantz said in a statement. “Even in difficult times politically, we put Israel before everything.”
But Jessica Montell from the Hamoked campaign group says the justification of the law for security reasons must be questioned.
“You hear that the law is necessary for security, and also to maintain Israel as a Jewish democratic state,” she told Al Jazeera.
“That should be suspicious to anyone who hears the two justifications. You have to call into question whether the law is essential only for security reasons.”