Palestinians in a ‘uniquely vulnerable position

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — She had been getting away with it for years. But fate, in the shape of the Israeli border police, finally caught up with JJ, as she always knew it would, at the Qalandiya checkpoint into Ramallah.

After what was an apparently random stop, perhaps since she was driving a yellow-plated (Israeli registered) car, the Israeli police became suspicious of the US passport and Arabic name. Digging further they realised she had a Palestinian ID as well, and, visa transgression apart, she was done for.

It is illegal for a West Banker to sit in a yellow-plated car, let alone drive one. But of greater concern to the Israeli police was the fact that JJ, married and a mother of two, lives in Jerusalem.

JJ’s husband S is a Jerusalemite. With two court cases now pending, neither would give their names for this article. They were married in 1998 and have lived in the city’s occupied eastern part since. They have two children, aged two and five, both of whom have Jerusalem IDs, and thus the right to reside in the city, because of their father.

But JJ doesn’t. After JJ and S got married they applied for family reunification, but were denied for “security reasons,” even though the reasons had nothing to do with JJ. It was S who had been arrested in 1990 during the first Intifada for membership in an “illegal political organisation” — i.e. a Palestinian nationalist faction.

“What was I supposed to do,” says JJ. “I married the man, I bore his children. He is not supposed to live in the West Bank and I am not supposed to live here. But his work is here, our house is here, my son’s school is here, and this is my life.”

JJ’s is just one family out of what the Israeli daily Haaretz estimates to be between 16,000-21,000 to be affected by Israel’s draconian citizenship laws, laws that have only further tightened since JJ and S tried to legitimise their existence in Jerusalem in 1998.

The Israeli government enacted the citizenship and entry into Israel law (temporary order) in July 2003, following a May 2002 freeze on applications for family reunification between Israeli citizens and Palestinians from the occupied territories. The law prohibits the granting of residency or citizenship status to Palestinians from the occupied territories who are married to Israeli citizens or permanent residents (such as Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem).

That law is set to expire on May 31, but on May 15, the Israeli Cabinet endorsed a continuation of the law with limited exceptions based on the age and sex of the spouse. While the Israeli government tried to sell this as an easing of restrictions, the law as presented has still been widely condemned. On May 24, three human rights organisations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, urged the Israeli government not to extend the law.

“The law blatantly discriminates against Israelis of Palestinian origin and their Palestinian spouses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement released by the group on May 24. “Thousands of married couples are forced to live apart, and children are prevented from living with both parents.”

Palestinian-Israeli lawyer Mohammad Dahleh doesn’t mince his words either.

“This is a racist law with only one purpose: To maintain a demographic balance in Israel whereby there are not `too many’ Palestinians,” said the East Jerusalem lawyer who has tried several family reunification cases and is petitioning the Israeli supreme court to dismiss the law outright. With automatic right of Israeli citizenship for any Jew anywhere in the world — “and his entire family including grandparents and grandchildren” — argues Dahleh, there can be no other reading since the law cannot apply to Jews.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Israel ratified in 1991, even “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation,” any country is prohibited from taking measures that would “involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin.”

Dahleh is also not impressed with the recently proposed exceptions.

“The exceptions allow for women over 25 and men over 35 to apply for family reunification. But their acceptance is always subject to the discretion of the military commander of the West Bank. That discretion is neither transparent nor in any way explained, and any and all applicants can always be turned down for `security reasons’,” said Dahleh, who was not at all surprised to hear about JJ’s case.

“This is another absurd thing. In this case, if anyone is a security risk it is the husband, who already has a Jerusalem ID. So, to my mind, denying him the company of his wife only makes him a greater potential security risk, if you have to employ this Israeli rhetoric. This is a punishment. It has nothing to do with security.”

Neither JJ nor Dahleh take very seriously the “security reasons” and nor do they believe Israeli police do.

“They can’t possibly believe I am a risk to security,” said JJ, “and if they do they are even stupider than I thought. They just want to make my life difficult to make me leave.”

As evidence of this, JJ points out that she was released with no specific order to leave for the West Bank.

“If they really thought I was a security risk, they would have taken me back to Qalandiya and told me not to come back.”

Dahleh says that it doesn’t really matter to the Israeli police whether or not JJ stays in Jerusalem, as long as she doesn’t gain residency right, because that alone would disturb the demographic balance.

“They may arrest her again if they happen to check her papers, but they are really trying to set an example. I don’t envy these people [couples like JJ and S]. They live with constant fear and insecurity because they don’t have any legal status and are entirely at the mercy of luck and the Israeli police.”

Dahleh also claims this puts people in a uniquely vulnerable position.

“Since the power to grant family reunification is an entirely discretionary responsibility of the military, and because it is such a personal means of pressure, I think this is a prime way for the Israelis to recruit collaborators, particularly when people reside in the West Bank.”

JJ says her husband is already expecting a call from the Israeli internal security service, the Shabak. They are trying to apply again for family reunification, but in the meantime, “I’m not driving anywhere and I’ll try to avoid the checkpoints. What else can I do?”

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