‘My life has just begun’:  Gazans celebrate receiving ID cards after rare Israeli approval

(APA Images - Omar Ashtawy)

Tareq S. Hajjaj

Mondoweiss  /  January 27, 2022

3,400 Gazans received their national Palestinian ID cards for the first time following a rare approval from the Israeli government, which controls the Palestinian population registry in the occupied territory, and has put a freeze on issuing IDs for over a decade.

Scenes of joy erupted outside the Ministry of Civil Affairs building in central Gaza, as crowds of Palestinians gathered in jubilant celebration.  Families hug and kiss one another, crying tears of joy, others pass out sweets, while a band of drummers and oboists play their tunes across the street, and passersby stop to take in the scene, with smiles on their faces. 

A young Palestinian man is raised onto his friends’ shoulders, waving his shiny new green ID card in the air.“I was born today. The feeling I have is like a bird who breaks his siege and flies into the wide open sky,” Mothana Al-Najar, 34, shouted from atop his friend’s shoulders.

On January 6, Al-Najar was one of 3,400 Palestinians in Gaza to received their national Palestinian ID card for the first time following a rare approval from the Israeli government, which controls the Palestinian population registry in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). 

The move came after a series of meetings between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz since October, during which the Israeli side agreed to legalize the status of 13,500 Palestinians and foreign spouses living in Gaza and the West Bank. 

It came after a 10 year freeze, during which Israel refused virtually all residency applications across the occupied territory, leaving tens of thousands of Palestinians and their families without any legal status. 

“I’ve waited 26 years for this, I never thought it would happen,” Al-Najar said, still struggling to believe his dreams had finally come true. “I was getting hopeless, but when I read my name on the last list I was shocked, and speechless. I can’t explain how I feel,” he said. “I feel like my life has just begun.”

A discriminatory policy

Al-Najar is the son of Palestinian refugees from Yaffa, though his parents were born outside of Palestine. He was born in Iraq, along with his three siblings. They moved to Gaza when he was a young boy, over a decade before Israel’s siege on Gaza began, when entry into the territory was a little easier.

The family entered Gaza in 1993 after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority on temporary visas, approved by the Israeli government. When they applied for permanent status, their applications were repeatedly rejected. 

The al-Najar’s are one of tens of thousands of Palestinian families suffering under Israel’s permit and ID regime, living for decades in the occupied territory without any legal status.

During the 1967 war, thousands of Palestinians fled from their homes to surrounding Arab countries. Three months after the war, during which Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, Israel conducted a census, registering only those who were physically present in the occupied territory. 

The move rendered hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had fled during the war paperless and without legal status, preventing them from coming back to their homes. 

Over the following decades, some Palestinians were allowed back by Israel on visitor permits, many of whom overstayed their visas. Many, like al-Najar’s parents, hoped that the prospect of a final peace agreement after the Oslo Accords would mean their residency status would be legalized. 

“Many of these people had no place in the world to go but Gaza. And so they stayed,” Samir Zaqout, deputy head of Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza told Mondoweiss.

Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian residency rights were further tightened during the Second Intifada, when Israel enacted the The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law of 2003, which prohibits family reunification for Israeli citizens married to Palestinians in the oPt. 

A 2007 amendment to the law allowed for the ban on family unification where one spouse is a Palestinian from the oPt and the other is a foreigner, with more stringent restrictions on cases where one spouse is a resident of an “enemy state”, like Lebanon, Syria, Iran or Iraq. 

Though passed as a temporary order, the 2003 law and its subsequent amendments have been consistently renewed by the Israeli government, and broadly applied to Palestinians and their families living in the oPt. 

“This law has had a large humanitarian cost for Palestinians,” Zaqout said, naming freedom of movement, and the freedom to marry who you chose as some of the basic freedoms affected by the law.

“We have no idea just how many families have been torn apart, or how many marriages have been destroyed because Palestinians are denied their basic right of holding IDs,” he said. 

‘I struggled for 26 years’

Receiving his ID has been surreal for Al-Najar, who was the last member of his family waiting to receive the treasured piece of paper. 

His siblings and mother received their ID cards during a batch of approvals between 2007 and 2009. His father, however, died in 2009 before ever having received his ID card. 

“I will never forget what happened to my father,” Al-Najar recalled. “He had cancer, and needed to go to Egypt urgently for treatment that wasn’t available in Gaza.”

“We did everything we could, but he couldn’t leave because he didn’t have an ID. He was gone just one and a half years after his diagnosis,” al-Najar said. 

After his father died, Al-Najar’s mother got sick, and required open heart surgery, which needed to be performed in an Egyptian hospital. By that time, she had already gotten her ID, but Al-Najar, the oldest of his siblings, was unable to accompany her on her journey, as he did not have an ID.  

“For 26 years, I struggled to get my most basic right, my national ID card,” he said. “That’s why I celebrated in front of all the cameras today. I want people to know what it means to get this card, and deliver a message on behalf of all the people who are still waiting to get their IDs.”

According to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee in Gaza, there are still at least 6,000 resident requests filed by Palestinians in Gaza that have not been answered or approved by Israel. Some of the applications were submitted as far back as the 1990s. 

The ministry told Mondoweiss that there are likely many more status-less Palestinians in Gaza who have never filed applications through the Palestinian government.  

Ban on family unification must end

Palestinian human rights groups have long criticized Israel for its ban on family reunification, with some calling the policy the “most racist legislation in the State of Israel” aimed at “undermining the rights” of Palestinians. 

The policy stands in stark contrast to other Israeli laws, which allow for open Jewish immigration to Israel, where Jews from around the world can immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship, and the spouses of Israeli Jewish persons are automatically eligible for citizenship after marriage.

“Israel fights against the humanity of Palestinians,” Zaqout said. “Since the state was established, Israel has enacted laws that discriminate against Palestinians because of their ethnicity.”

Zaqout pointed out that while the recent approval of IDs is certainly a positive step for thousands of Palestinians and their families, it is nowhere near sufficient. 

“By allowing Palestinians to be registered in the population registry, Israel is committing a very minimal obligation under international law,  as a ‘gesture’ or sign of goodwill,” he said. 

“In reality, Israel’s stringent policies towards Palestinians under occupation deny people their rights in the first place – thousands remain status-less and millions subject to the permit regime,” Zaqout continued, saying at the end of the day the ban on family reunification needs to end as a policy. 

“Israel feels immune when they violate the rights of Palestinians,” he said, adding that the US government is the biggest enabler of Israel’s racist treatment of Palestinians.  

“I believe that public opinion in the U.S. can change the future,” Zaqout said. 

“We are asking for basic human rights, and we need the people of the U.S. to put pressure on their leaders to support Palestinian human rights, instead of supporting the side that continues to violates those rights.”   

Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of Palestinian Writers Union