The law tearing Palestinian families apart

Israeli soldiers obstruct a symbolic wedding party in protest of the controversial Citizenship Law, near the Hizma in the occupied West Bank (Issam Rimawi -Flash90)

Samah Salaime

+972 Magazine  /  July 2, 2021

The controversial Citizenship Law is supposedly about maintaining Israel’s security. In reality, it’s a tool to engineer Israel’s population.

In 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, the Israeli government passed an emergency order titled “The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (Emergency Order).” Since then, the legislation has taken on many names: the family reunification law, the demographic balance law, the “security threat” law. But the goal of this law has remained the same: to prevent Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza from marrying Arab citizens of Israel, and thus obstructing their path to Israeli citizenship.

The so-called Citizenship Law harms thousands of Palestinian families in Israel. It has been renewed every year since its passing — until this year. The order is set to expire on July 6, and currently the government does not have the parliamentary majority to re-extend it. While several MKs from the center-left Meretz and Labor parties have made their opposition to the order clear, it is unclear how they will vote next week when the law comes up for a vote in the Knesset.

Asmahan Jabali is one of those affected by the law. She was born in Taybeh inside the Green Line, but her parents were from Tulkarem in the occupied West Bank and were never registered as Israeli citizens or residents. As such, Jabali was registered as a West Bank resident, even though she has only ever lived in Israel. She married her partner, also from Taybeh, 26 years ago, and they have three children together. But her legal status in Israel was never sorted out. She has been undocumented, an “unlawful resident,” her entire life.

“Every year at around this time, I feel unwell, physically and mentally. I break down,” Jabali says. “Deep down, I know that the law will pass, but there’s also always a spark of hope that humanity will win out, and that someone in the Knesset will come to their senses and understand how much their voice can affect my life and the lives of thousands of women.”

Jabali is intimately familiar with the hardships caused by this law. She knows that children who are out of status can only attend school as guests, that they cannot receive matriculation grades, and that they cannot go on to attend college in Israel. She describes what it is like to try and run a household under the shadow of this law, and sets out the agonizing path people like her need to take in order to pass the law’s many “steps:” from being undocumented to becoming a temporary resident, then getting an ongoing residence permit, then full residency, and finally citizenship, which is never granted to any Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza.

Each of these steps has profound implications on everyday life. There is a drastic difference between a residence permit that doesn’t allow for a driving license and one that does, or one that grants the right to work and one that does not. If someone works without the proper permits, tax and insurance payments reach unmanageable sums.

“It’s not just that I couldn’t go to college or earn a living, I’m also completely dependent on my partner, and I’m not alone in that respect,” says Jabali. “I’m lucky, as I have a partner who can support the family alone. What can a vulnerable woman who is less fortunate do with a partner who is violent or unemployed?

“Imagine that your child falls over at school and shows up at the hospital bleeding, and you need to sign paperwork in order for them to undergo surgery,” Jabali continues. “Then they tell you that you are not your child’s guardian and that they can’t take your signature. What do you do when your child is waiting to have surgery and because of the ‘emergency order’ the doctors won’t treat them? I experience these situations every day in the shadow of this law. Then there’s the fact that as a family we don’t have the right to fly abroad together. I’m not allowed to fly out of Israel with my children, we can’t have ‘family holidays.’”

Jabali acknowledges that her situation is, relatively speaking, better than that of women who pay exorbitant sums for health insurance, yet who nonetheless discover that they are still not entitled to expensive treatments, such as cancer therapies.

And it’s not just medical treatment that is expensive. In order to settle their children’s legal status, every mother has to take a paternity test to prove that the father of her children is the person she is seeking to live with. This places a heavy burden on families, who need to pay thousands of shekels for each test, and sometimes repeat tests for the same child. No matter that it seems logical to do a paternity test for just one child in order to prove that both parents and their offspring deserve to live under the same roof.

Hilda Qadesa, a 48-year-old resident of Lydd who is also affected by the law, describes how the “emergency order” strips couples of the right to public housing if one of the partners is a resident of the occupied territories. And even if both partners work, they are not entitled to a mortgage.

For the past 22 years, Qadesa has been married to a man from Ramallah, and she is an activist against the citizenship law. Her partner was supposed to become a citizen just before the law passed in 2003, and the process has been stalled ever since, forcing the family to begin the application process from scratch.

Three years ago, as part of then-Interior Minister Aryeh Deri’s attempts at alleviating the situation, the government issued 1,500 residence permits — including the rights to work, drive, and obtain social security and health insurance — to those who began the naturalization process prior to 2003. Qadesa is not, however, getting worked up about the compromise currently being proposed, which would similarly issue residence permits including the right to work and drive to those who applied for citizenship before 2003.

“The previous interior minister did this, and then MK Osama Saadi [Joint List] helped us present the most difficult cases,” Qadesa says. “The minister can grant these permits at any time, with no need to do favors for Mansour Abbas [Ra’am]. The humanitarian committee they’re talking about is always running, and they didn’t [give out any permits]. This [compromise] is idle talk to allow Ra’am and Meretz to go back on their word.

Qadesa is referring to the “humanitarian committee” that was appointed as part of the passage of the 2003 law, and which has the authority, in exceptional circumstances, to grant legal status to those affected by the law. Adi Lustigman, legal counsel for Physicians for Human Rights — Israel, has represented hundreds of families in their legal battles with this law. She confirms that many women are negatively impacted by this law, and that the humanitarian committee almost never confers legal status, even in the most drastic cases in which women are in life-threatening danger and have nowhere to go in the West Bank. According to Lustigman, both the right and the left have rejected thousands of petitions filed on humanitarian grounds.

Only those with family in Israel can petition the committee. It can grant temporary residence or a temporary identity card which confers rights upon the holder. But Lustigman notes that the committee almost never wields this authority, except for in cases that reach the courts and which put pressure on the Interior Ministry. And the committee cannot grant citizenship or permanent residence status.

The law has a profound impact on Palestinian women whose partners are undocumented or who are undocumented themselves. It can sabotage relationships and a couple’s ability to have a normative and functioning family. Sumaya Abu Zar, also from Lydd and who married her cousin from Gaza 20 years ago, says that he insisted on being present at the birth of their third child, even though he did not have a residence permit.

“One of the nurses realized that he couldn’t fill out the forms and that he didn’t have a blue [Israeli] identity card, so she called the police who arrived and arrested him, even as I was experiencing severe labor pains,” Sumaya says. “I gave birth alone, and went into a deep depression. I had three children and didn’t see my husband for two years, until he managed to leave Gaza and enter the West Bank, and from there came back to us.

“My baby didn’t have a father for the first two years of her life, and it continues to be traumatic for the whole family. My husband is a diligent worker, a talented gardener, I opened a business in my own name, and drove him around for years because he was barred from driving,” Sumaya continues. “That was my role — morning, noon, and night — to take him around from place to place, and take care of our children in between. Since we received the residence permit, my life as a woman and a mother has completely changed.”

Lustigman is representing a family in which the woman has been living in Ramle for almost 30 years, but continues to only have temporary status due to the law. Her son was seriously injured by Israeli Jews in a nationalist attack and another daughter has a severe disability. But because of the law she needs to renew her permits every year. She struggles to visit her parents who emigrated abroad, and the humanitarian committee is yet to respond to her.

The state argues that Palestinians who have been naturalized through family reunification have been involved in hostile activities. But Lustigman has been grappling in court with this claim for years. “The data has never backed up the law’s supposed security rationale,” says Lustigman. Rather, she adds, the law has always been about demographics, meaning, maintaining a Jewish majority.

“No effort has been made in the past few years to support the security claims [of this law],” Lustigman continues. “The law is causing serious and sweeping harm to [people’s] basic rights, in all areas of life. Its existence is unacceptable in a supposedly democratic country. It’s no wonder that nowhere else in the world has a similar law that discriminates according to people’s origin.”

Israel claims that it knows how to identify Palestinians who are security “threats,” and it deploys this so-called expertise when it issues work permits to tens of thousands of Palestinians every day. There is nothing preventing the state from applying these methods to similar adjudications regarding Palestinian couples, who have lived in Israel for decades and present no security threat whatsoever.

It’s unclear why the state cannot grant citizenship to women and mothers who pose no danger other than being possessed of a womb. They “threaten” only the population registry and the Jewish character of the state. If the law is required to maintain the security of the Jewish state, how can extreme-right Knesset members oppose ratifying it? How dare they harm national “security?”

We need to call things by their name. The purpose of this law is to control Palestinians and engineer the terms of their citizenship and presence in this country. It preserves and perfects 2021-style apartheid, which maintains a hierarchy of people who live here: at the top are the pure Jewish citizens, below them undocumented Palestinians, and perhaps beneath them asylum seekers and migrant workers. That, in my view, is the essence of the law. Demographics, and nothing else.

Hassan Jabareen, the general director of Adalah, which has submitted countless petitions against this “emergency order,” says that the law is one of the three most racist pieces of legislation in Israel, alongside the Absentee Property Law and the Jewish Nation-State Law. “The state has repeatedly struggled to address the fact that no other country in the world that bars entry to a couple because [one of them is] of a different nationality,” Jabareen says. 

Even apartheid South Africa, Jabareen adds, lost a famous court case involving a Black woman whom it had banned from her white boyfriend’s neighborhood. “The right to family unity won out over apartheid laws, which segregated Black and white [South Africans],” he says. 

Jabareen believes that the issue of the citizenship law will be examined by a special UN Human Rights Council committee, which is also supposed to investigate the most recent war on Gaza and the accompanying violence against Palestinian citizens in May. “This is the first time that an international body is getting involved in [matters concerning] Palestinian citizens of Israel, and not just the West Bank and Gaza,” he says. “The testimonies of those affected by the citizenship law will provide important material for opposing Israel’s policies against Palestinians wherever they are, and perhaps then we can start discussing the real question, which has persisted for 73 years: Is Israel a democratic state or an apartheid state?”

Samah Salaime is a social worker, community activist, feminist and the founder of AWC -Arab Women in the Center, an NGO which seeks to promote the status of women in the cities of Ramla, Lod and Jaffa, and to combat gender-based violence against women, particularly in Arab society