BEERSHEBA/JAFFA – Some 15,000 Palestinians who married Israeli citizens in the past decade are illegal or temporary residents. Their lives and those of their families have become “unstable,” according to non-governmental organizations.
“Many families are being forced to live underground,” said Orna Cohen, an attorney from Adalah, an Israeli rights group fighting the ban on “family unifications” (mixed marriages involving Palestinians or some other Arabs) in Israel.
While most foreign nationals who marry Israelis can live in the Jewish state and eventually obtain citizenship, Palestinians and some other Arabs are unable to do so.
What started out in 2002 as a temporary order — enacted at the height of regional violence — preventing Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from marrying Israeli citizens and residents and moving to Israel, has now become law, which seems more permanent than provisional.
People who were already naturalized in Israel before the law took effect are not affected.
While heavily condemned by UN forums, including the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and numerous international and local rights groups, Israel said the law was needed for security reasons, although demographic issues have also been raised. Some nationalists in Israel expressed concern that the “family unifications” were swelling the size of the country’s Arab minority.
“If they want, let them go and live over there,” said an Israeli official in comments to IRIN. “Over there” meant occupied Palestinian territory.
Following the criticism and legal battles, the state added a clause granting a visitor’s permit to Palestinian men over 35 and women over 25 who marry Israelis, provided they had no security issues.
Rights groups protested against the age limits imposed, saying people tend to be married before they reached those years.
Adding to the trouble, a new amendment to the law says residents of the Gaza Strip, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq can never live in Israel, regardless of their age, unless they are Jewish. In practice this means such couples would have to find refuge in a third country.
Oded Feller, from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that even if a visitor’s permit is granted, it still does not grant them social rights, like health care, and the person cannot expect citizenship or residency.
“Also, if the Israeli spouse divorces the other, or dies, the Palestinian loses all rights to stay in Israel,” Feller added, opposing the law in its entirety. “The person then gets sent back, uprooted.”
Safa Younes from Arus al-Bakhar, a women’s rights organization in Jaffa, said the lack of health insurance hits women particularly hard.
“They do not receive checkups or any of the common screenings during their pregnancy,” Younes said, adding that most of the women affected by the law are of child-bearing age in need of more medical care than men.
Private health care remained expensive and out of reach. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel offered some basic health care for free to those in need, and has petitioned the Health Ministry to offer them medical insurance.
For those living in Israel without papers, or with only temporary visiting permits, life can be hard.
“My wife cannot work, she cannot drive a car,” said Morad al-Sanaa, who married Abeer, from Bethlehem, several years ago. She lives on a temporary permit which gives her only the right to reside and not much else.
Abeer worked as a lecturer at a Palestinian university and is a trained social worker. But, to stay with her husband and two children inside Israel, she had to give that up.
“Life goes into the freezer, your good years pass, and you can’t do anything with them,” lamented Morad.
In some instances, families become divided.
Ali Sarasreh, from Bethlehem, said his request for “family unification” with his wife, a resident of East Jerusalem, was denied by the Israeli authorities.
“There is no way for us to all live together like a normal family,” Sarasreh told the Israeli rights group B’tselem. “So I live in Bethlehem, while my wife and two children live in Jerusalem.”
For East Jerusalemites, whose residency is not as permanent as that of Arab citizens of Israel, moving to the West Bank to live with a spouse can lead to the revocation of their ID cards — an end to their health care, freedom of movement and ability to live in the Holy City.
Israeli officials have said the law does not prevent people from marrying, just from living inside Israel, though a spokeswoman from the Interior Ministry admitted that East Jerusalemites would lose their residency if they moved out of the city.