Family separation bill in Israel: Collective punishment?

Besides being forbidden from driving, Amjad is deemed ineligible for social security benefits and national health insurance

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Rana and Amjad had not anticipated that the Israeli government would make them, and tens of thousands of other Palestinian couples, pay the price for a suicide bombing carried out a few years after they wed.

Thirteen years into their marriage, Rana describes what has become of it: “I live like a single mother. I can’t depend on [my husband] for anything because he has no rights here in Israel.”

Deciding to live in East Jerusalem after their wedding, Rana, who holds Israeli permanent residency, brought Amjad from the West Bank, thinking he could obtain it too through the family unification procedure previously sanctioned by the state.

The procedure made it possible for spouses from the West Bank or Gaza Strip to gain the same legal status and rights as their partner if they lived together in East Jerusalem or Israel.

However, after the 2003 Matza restaurant suicide bombing in Haifa, Amjad lost every chance he had of building a stable life with his wife in East Jerusalem, under the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law passed immediately after the attack.

The law prohibited the granting of any Israeli status to Palestinians from the West Bank. Amjad, and others who had applied for family unification before the law was passed, were given a temporary stay permit issued by the military.

However, many couples who applied later were denied any status. Those who did obtain the temporary stay permit did so at the cost of their basic rights in Israel.

“My own husband couldn’t even drive me to the hospital when I was on the verge of giving premature birth,” said Rana. “I had no idea this is how my life would turn out.”

Besides being forbidden from driving, Amjad is deemed ineligible for social security benefits and national health insurance.

He faces a cumbersome process to work in Israel, and to travel, he must pass through Allenby Bridge on the border with Jordan rather than Ben-Gurion airport with his family. Such has been the couple’s reality for eight years now.

“If the day comes when he can’t take it anymore and wants to move to Ramallah, that’ll be the end of it for us,” Rana said.

“This is what Israel wants. They purposely make it difficult to live here so that we pack our bags and move to the West Bank.”

If they move, she and their son risk losing their residency status, and with it their right to enter Jerusalem and visit family without special permits, sometimes only valid for a day.

Dalia Kerstein, executive director of Israeli human rights center HaMoked, says the law can be classified as a form of collective punishment.

“Palestinians are afraid. The law is against you, and if you speak out you don’t know what repercussions there could be,” said Kerstein.

“Israel says the law is about security, but they used the suicide bombing as an excuse to shut the door in people’s faces. We know it’s actually about preserving the 25 - 75 percent ratio between Palestinians and Israelis” in Jerusalem.

In 2002, then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai pointed to the 140,000 Palestinians naturalized since 1993 through the family unification process.

He said the figures “prove that the [Palestinian] right of return was being realized through the back door of the State of Israel,” and the statistics were “staggering and worrisome.”

Although the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law was enacted as a “temporary order” distinctive of permanent primary legislation, it has been renewed 15 times in the past 12 years, with no end in sight.

In 2005, the law was amended to grant stay permits for husbands over the age of 35, and wives over 25. In 2008, it was amended again to ban any Israeli status for spouses from Gaza.

The Palestinians in East Jerusalem, a minority of 360,000 people, often marry into the West Bank, where 2.7 million reside.

Thawra Abukhdeir, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, says nowadays it is often out of the question to marry someone with a West Bank ID because it means instability and complications.

“They’re more restricted. They can’t exit the 1967 borders, and the checkpoints are the biggest physical obstacles,” Abukhdeir said.

“The occupation has penetrated into the minds and hearts of the Palestinians. It’s even limited them to whom they can marry.”

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