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Stuck in limbo, undocumented Palestinian spouses live shadow lives

Sana Qasim and Ruba Salaymeh headed to the Jordan River on a sunny day in late June, hoping to catch a glimpse of their families for the first time in years.

Their parents and siblings stood waiting on the other side, in Jordanian territory. The two groups, separated by an invisible border splitting the Jordan River, waved and called out to one another. Salaymeh, overwhelmed, burst into tears.

Both women, Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin, are in the West Bank illegally. Both married West Bank Palestinian men many years ago. Their husbands and children carry Palestinian residency cards, but current Israeli policy prevents them and almost all other applicants from legally immigrating to the West Bank.

As their presence in the West Bank is illegal, Salaymeh and Qasim live within sharply defined boundaries. They cannot open an account at a Palestinian bank or legally work in Palestinian cities. If they leave for a family visit to Jordan, they might not be allowed to return to the West Bank, even though their spouses and children reside there.

Qasim said the Jordan River reunion was the first time she had seen the relatives she had left behind in Jordan in more than 20 years. When she saw them, her stomach flipped, she said.

“How did I feel? I wanted to jump straight into the river and swim to them,” Qasim said.

Ruba Salaymeh (left) with her sister in Ramallah on August 8, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/Times of Israel)

Salaymeh, Qasim, and thousands like them live in the Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in isolated enclaves across the West Bank. To live legally in those areas, as in the rest of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians must possess green identity cards emblazoned with the PA’s winged eagle.

But despite the packaging, the PA cannot issue its own identity cards without Israeli approval. Nor can it determine who can legally enter or reside in its areas on its own. In order to get a Palestinian ID card, Palestinians file requests with Ramallah, which then sends them over to Israel for authorization.

In most cases, such as registering births and deaths, the process goes smoothly. But foreign nationals married to Palestinians have long been a particularly sensitive issue. Israel argues that providing them with residency — a process known as family unification — is not a right but a privilege to be granted only in exceptional circumstances.

In a unanimous 1987 ruling, the Israeli High Court determined that international law did not guarantee a right for foreign nationals married to Palestinians to obtain residency in the West Bank. Since then, the government has sporadically approved batches of undocumented spouses, but the process has been in deep freeze since 2009.

The result is that potentially tens of thousands of people are living in the West Bank illegally, cut off from their families elsewhere and with the threat of deportation constantly hanging over their heads.

Without papers, the spouses of Palestinians worry about every trip they take through parts of the West Bank outside Palestinian-controlled enclaves, where they run the risk of arrest or deportation at Israeli military roadblocks.

Jordanian-Palestinian Alaa Mutair has lived in Qalandiya Refugee Camp, near Ramallah, since 2011. But she said she has never traveled as far north as Nablus, about an hour’s drive from her home, fearing deportation. And she has not once returned home to see her family in Jordan in the intervening decade.

“Whenever they’re celebrating a happy occasion, a birthday or a wedding, I can’t bring myself to open Facebook to watch. It feels like my heart is burning,” Mutair said.

Nora al-Hajaji, a Tunisian married to a Palestinian, who has lived without documentation for years in the West Bank, on August 8, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/Times of Israel)

The lack of documentation renders some of the migrants vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Qasim alleged that she had put up with years of violence from her ex-husband. “He would beat me, insult me, hurt me. He would exploit the situation,” she said.

Qasim considered returning to Jordan, but could not bear the thought that she might not be able to ever live near her children again. She stayed with her husband for decades.

“If I’d been able to get a bank account on my own, for example, I wouldn’t have had to stay for so long,” said Qasim, who finally left her husband earlier this year.

During the 1990s, the Israeli government set a yearly quota for family unification approvals, peaking at around 4,000. But following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel cut ties with the Palestinian Authority, shutting down family unification.

In 2007, the Israeli government announced that it would examine around 50,000 outstanding requests from Palestinians as a goodwill gesture, following petitions by the HaMoked rights group. Around 32,000 were approved, according to court filings. But the government apparently never returned to the quota system.

In the meantime, another generation of Palestinians has traveled abroad, met spouses, married and returned to the West Bank.

No organization professes to know the actual number of foreign nationals who are living illegally in the West Bank after marrying Palestinians. But human rights groups and one Palestinian official have estimated that it could be in the tens of thousands.

According to a retired official in the PA’s Civil Affairs office, over 35,000 unresolved Palestinian family unification requests had accumulated with the PA body as of 2020.

Between 2010 and 2018, only five requests were approved, the Defense Ministry told the HaMoked legal aid group following a Freedom of Information request.

“These are not even people seeking to live in Israel. These are people trying to live with their partners in Hebron, in Nablus, in Ramallah,” said Yotam Ben-Hillel, an Israeli lawyer who has represented the spouses of Palestinians seeking residency in the West Bank.

Israeli policy stipulates that only exceptional humanitarian cases are to be approved, although the criteria for what constitutes such cases are not public. Appeals to Israel’s High Court to reveal the standards were struck down on national security grounds.

“We always ask Israel what the security justification for this [policy] is. I believe this is a political decision, not a matter of security,” Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, one of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s closest advisers, told frustrated Palestinians in February at one of a series of protests outside his office over the issue.

Al-Sheikh vowed to the demonstrators that Ramallah consistently raised the matter in conversation with their Israeli counterparts.

Some, however, have accused the PA of contributing to the bottleneck by not transferring requests received by its Civil Affairs Commission over to Israeli authorities. In the same statement, the Defense Ministry told HaMoked it had only received 18 requests from the PA over the same period.

Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Commissioner Hussein al-Sheikh (WAFA)

A spokesperson for Ramallah’s Civil Affairs Commission did not respond to numerous phone calls over the course of several months.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli military body that handles Palestinian civilian affairs in the West Bank, declined to answer numerous detailed queries on the subject.

“Every application that is sent to us by the Palestinian Authority — is checked and assessed according to procedures,” COGAT said in a laconic statement.

Grisha Yakubovich, a retired colonel who held senior positions in COGAT, agreed that “on the individual level, [the issue] has humanitarian elements, security elements.”

But Yakubovich said that “en masse,” it could not be disentangled from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s big, unresolved questions, such as the Palestinian claim of a right of return to Israeli territory for the descendants of those who fled or were expelled during the 1948 War of Independence.

The vast majority of those who marry West Bank Palestinians are themselves of Palestinian descent, born and raised in the diaspora, mostly in Arab states, Yakubovich said. Most arrive via visitors’ permits that are intended to allow Palestinians to visit for a few months, and simply never leave.

Such permits are not easy to get, and are subject to strict Israeli security oversight, said former senior Shin Bet commander Arik Brimberg.

“We’re quick to pull the trigger [on rejections]. Even a little thing suffices to reject a request, unless there’s some kind of appeal to the High Court,” Brimberg said, adding: “We aren’t obligated to allow them into the area.”

While those entering the West Bank are not seeking Israeli citizenship or residency, Yakubovich believes they still contribute to the overall demographic balance that will play an important role in determining the contours of a final-status agreement.

“This issue is directly related to the right of return. Imagine for a moment that a million Palestinians marry a million foreign citizens. In such a way, you would bring a million Palestinians through the back door,” said Yakubovich, who now works as an independent expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“At that point, there would be no further point in discussing the right of return, because everyone who wanted to get here could get status,” he added.

But the restrictions also apply to those with little national connection to the conflict. One recent appeal to Israel’s High Court dealt with a plea by a German woman to live with her husband in Hebron. Other applicants for residency — such as Nora al-Hajaji, originally from Tunisia — are Arab but not Palestinian.

“Even emigrating wouldn’t help at this point. We’ve built a whole life here,” said al-Hajaji, who met her husband over the internet before arriving in the West Bank in 2008.

Blue card, green card

In recent years, with the quota system suspended, Palestinians seeking West Bank residency for their spouses have found themselves caught between Israeli and Palestinian bureaucracies, uncertain where to turn.

When a Palestinian needs to obtain new residency documents — whether for a new child or a new spouse — to live in the PA-administered areas of the West Bank, the first stop is the Palestinian Authority.

In the absence of a negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians, Israel has ruled the West Bank since 1967. During the 1990s, Israel signed a series of bilateral agreements known as the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The accords led to the creation of the PA, which was given limited self-rule in scattered enclaves across the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. As part of the heady Oslo days, the nascent PA and Israel created a new system for providing Palestinians with identity cards.

But the bilateral agreements, which were originally intended as merely an interim deal, left control over who can legally enter and reside in the West Bank in Israeli hands.

Brimberg, the former senior Shin Bet commander, said that Ramallah has an interest in allowing Israel to closely examine those who enter the PA, whether to visit or to reside, and bar potential terrorists or political opponents. “There are shared interests here between Israel and the PA,” he said in a phone interview.

To get a green residency card for their spouse, Palestinians must turn to the PA Civil Affairs offices. In principle, Palestinian officials examine the applications before passing eligible requests over to COGAT, which consults with other Israeli government bodies before rendering its decision.

Palestinians protest outside the Civil Affairs Commission in Ramallah on Sunday, August 8, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

But the extra layer of bureaucracy created by the Oslo Accords has introduced an added wrinkle: the Palestinian Authority appears to no longer even transfer requests for family unification over to the Israeli side in protest of the policy.

COGAT has said that as far as it can determine, only a trickle of Palestinian requests have reached its doorstep since 2010.

The Palestinian Authority has said that Israel refuses to acknowledge the requests it sends over. But rights groups say that Ramallah has also not provided them with proof that requests were sent to the Israeli side.

Some Palestinians who spoke to The Times of Israel reported that the PA’s Civil Affairs Commission was no longer even allowing them to file new applications for family unification.

“We go to the Palestinian Authority, they tell us to go talk to Israel. We go to Israel, they tell us to talk to the PA,” said Mohammad Raji, a Jordanian-Palestinian from Beit Sira outside Ramallah.

Raji, whose wife is a West Bank Palestinian, has been applying for residency since 2008. “Everyone’s saying that it’s somebody else’s problem,” he said.

Lawyers and rights activists expressed bafflement at the situation. One human rights worker argued that Israel is “100 percent responsible” for the deadlock. But the PA’s puzzling refusal to transfer the cases was hampering legal efforts to fight the policy, the worker said.

“​​The only way to challenge this freeze in Israeli courts is to bring individual cases, and here the Palestinian Civil Affairs Office is a big obstacle: Israel will only accept requests from the PA; you can’t submit a request directly,” they said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly on the sensitive subject.

“For some reason, Civil Affairs won’t transfer requests to Israel, or give official confirmation that a request was transferred. And then the Israeli military can just say they never received the request. So we’re at an impasse,” the rights worker added.

Numerous officials in the PA Civil Affairs Commission declined or did not respond to requests for comment over the course of several months. Yakubovich, the former colonel, chalked it up to the PA’s “all-or-nothing” approach on the issue.

“The PA is at a loss here, because they helped these people get here, and they signed off on their permits. But they can’t fix their problems for them. On the other hand, there’s a backdoor here that Palestinians have used as a loophole for many years,” said Yakubovich, referring to the visitors’ permits.

‘An unknown fate’

Frustration with the status quo among some families has led to months of protests in front of the Civil Affairs Commission’s headquarters in Ramallah.

Sustained rallies — even small ones — in front of PA offices are rare in the West Bank, where dissent is often met with arrest or even violence.

In the past, those who spoke out were mostly spouses who hold Western passports, which are believed to offer a modicum of protection against abuse. These protests are different — they have mostly been led by women from the Arab world, particularly from Jordan.

On a Sunday in early August, around 150 Palestinians affected by the issue gathered in front of the Commission, which lies just a few hundred meters from the Israeli military government’s Beit El office. They chanted slogans calling for Civil Affairs chief al-Sheikh to grant them permits.

A few demonstrators were summoned into the building for meetings with Civil Affairs officials. They emerged a few minutes later, saying they’d been informed that there might be news soon.

The frustration, barely hidden, was palpable. A protester muttered that the answers “never change, there’s no progress.”

Demonstrators, including Mutair, the Jordan-born Qalandiya resident, then marched a few hundred yards away towards the local Israeli military liaison office, a maze of concrete that lies at Ramallah’s northern entrance.

The distance is just a few minutes’ walk. But as far as their applications are concerned, it might as well be on the other side of the planet.

“It’s worse than being a prisoner. At least prisoners know when they’ll get out of jail. But we’ve been cast to an unknown fate,” said Mutair.

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