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Israel Takes Aim At
Palestinian Families

By Ida Audeh

11 September, 2007

Israel's practice of denying family reunification permits and denying entry to foreign passport holders (many of whom are of Palestinian origin) is part of a campaign of ridding the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem) of Palestinians and controlling those it is obliged to retain. The practice takes aim at Palestinian families under occupation: it splits families apart, denies Palestinian communities access to foreign and expatriate talent, deprives the economically hard-hit territories of foreign currency, and further isolates the Palestinians under occupation.

The Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-Entry to the Palestinian Occupied Territories ( estimates that more than 150,000 family reunification applications were submitted to the Israeli occupation authorities between 1973 and 1982 but that only 1,000 were approved each year. Between 1983 and 2000, the annual number of approved applications has fluctuated between 1,000 and 3,000. Since the second intifada began in September 2000, Israel has not processed about 120,000 family reunification applications. Multiply that by 4 or 5 (a conservative estimate; most Palestinian families are much larger), and the number of people affected by the Israeli refusal to grant residency rights to Palestinians with foreign passports becomes apparent. As applied to Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, the policy is clearly designed to drive out as many indigenous Palestinians as possible, with the aim of maintaining a Jewish majority in the city.

Israeli Arab citizens are targeted by legislation that violates their rights in similar ways. In May 2002, the Israeli Knesset enacted Government Decision #1813, thereby freezing all unification applications for the Palestinian spouse of an Israeli citizen or permanent resident. The 2003 Law of Nationality and Entry into Israel (Temporary Order 2003) effectively denies Israeli citizens the right to marry Palestinians and to live with their spouses in Israel. These laws violate the Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights because they violate the fundamental right to privacy and family life of Palestinian citizens of Israel on the basis of the ethnicity of their spouses.

The denial of legal residency has meant that foreign passport holders have had to leave the country when their visas expired and then re-enter in hopes of receiving another tourist visa, typically good for 3 months. These visas had been granted routinely, but in March 2006, the Israelis began to withhold them. Thousands of people whose families, businesses, and jobs -- in short, their lives -- were centered in the occupied territories have been turned back from the borders.

The result? Families live in a state of chronic uncertainty. Not only can't they make long-term plans, they can't even trust that they will be permitted to live together for more than a month (or two, but not more than three) at a time. Anita, a Swiss woman married to a Palestinian resident, left the occupied territories this summer to visit her elderly mother in Europe because she hadn't seen her in years; she left knowing that she might not be able to rejoin her husband. Why should anyone have to choose between visiting an elderly parent and living with her or her spouse in their own home? Sam, a businessman from the US, married a West Bank resident and has lived in the West Bank for 10 years or so; his two young daughters are terrified that when he leaves the area, as he must periodically to avoid illegal residency, he may not be able to return. Enaya, a Palestinian grandmother with a US passport who is married to a Palestinian resident, was denied entry after having lived with her husband for 30 years on a tourist visa that she renewed every 3 months. After a separation of about 9 months, she was finally allowed to return on a 3-month visa. But even those who manage to get a visa cannot be sure that they will be so lucky the next time they apply.

In the summer of 2006, my husband and I had flown into Israel's Ben-Gurion airport after visiting his mother in Jordan. At that point, we had been living in Ramallah for about 18 months. Upon presenting our passports at the passport control counter, we were whisked off to a separate section behind a partition and away from incoming tourists. Soon my husband was called in for interrogation and told that we had to return to Jordan.

The official who told us this, an Israeli with a New York accent, seemed a little embarrassed to be in this position. He could see from our US passports that my husband's roots in the area predated the establishment of the state he served. I'd like to think that he had the grace to be ashamed of the power he had, by virtue of his being a Jew, to deny another American entry to his geographic birth space, even for a visit, and to be doubly ashamed by the knowledge that we would have been welcomed enthusiastically no matter how many times we entered as tourists, had we been Jews ourselves and "untainted" by any Palestinian connection. My argument that we needed to go home, even if only briefly, to close down our apartment and find our cat a new home (I mentioned my cat rather than my elderly mother, reasoning that a Westerner would more likely be swayed by a pet than a Palestinian mother), simply made things worse; as a tourist, I was told, there was no reason I should have either a home or a cat.

We later learned that the US embassy in Jordan was receiving 24 complaints a day of US citizens -- most, but not all, of Palestinian ethnicity -- being turned back from the bridge. US citizens were the largest group of foreign passport holders denied entry, but no foreign nationals were immune. (To get an idea about the vicious treatment that many foreign nationals have been receiving at the hands of Israeli border authorities, check out the cases on this page:

Less than 3 months later, I tried again to enter the territories through the Allenby Bridge, this time accompanied by my mother, who lives alone and has chronic health problems that are pretty apparent even on casual observation. I assumed that after taking one look at her (my Exhibit A), any Israeli official I encountered, swayed by humanitarian law and normal human decency, would let me enter the country to care for her. I was wrong. Once again I was told that I could not enter the territories.

While waiting for my documents to be returned to me, I noticed that a family was also waiting. The man was a Palestinian resident, his wife was not; their children were perhaps 2 and 3 years old. Then an Israeli officer approached them, and I could tell by the animated way in which the man spoke and the stunned silence of the woman that she too had been denied entry. Rather than separate the children from their mother, all four returned to Jordan.

Israel's denial of entry to the occupied territories and its refusal to grant permanent residency to spouses of Palestinian residents -- Israeli officials insist that it is not a policy, although they have enforced it with increasing regularity since March 2006 -- is a violation of international humanitarian law and the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel, as occupying power, is obligated to respect. Third states have an obligation to insist that Israel respect the law, since it can do so easily; when they ignore Israel's violations, they violate their own obligations not to acquiesce to unlawful and deliberately harmful acts by other states. (Someone should bring this to the attention of our fearless members of Congress.)

Academic institutions have been hard hit by this policy, too. A Birzeit University press release dated 6 January 2007 notes that 50% of foreign passport holding staff have had to leave, which has put most departments at risk of dropping courses from their offerings or losing specialists they cannot replace. One department risks losing as much as 70% of its staff. Programs such as the Arabic language and cultural program were funded by foreign student tuitions; when foreign students are denied entry to the region to study at Birzeit, the loss of funding has meant a loss of emergency funding that had helped the university cover its expenses. Because of the growing problem with entry denials, applications to the program have dropped by 50%. Recent e-mail I received from the campaign show that the university continues to struggle with this Israeli restriction.

I think of the people I know of or met who have been turned back at the borders -- middle-aged people like myself and Walid, the Brazilian national of Palestinian origin in his 70s who had been in the occupied territories for 10 years and who was sent back to Jordan on the same bus I did, others with families, teachers at the Quaker high school in Ramallah that I graduated from, Birzeit University staff -- and I know that no on in his right mind could believe we pose a threat to Israel's security. The only explanation for a practice that is inconsistently implemented just enough to keep people off balance is that it is part of the ongoing Israeli strategy of tightening the noose on Palestinians.

Since Oslo, Israel has speeded up implementation of the policy it has followed even before the state of Israel was established -- grab as much land as possible with as few indigenous Palestinians as possible. To establish a Jewish state in a part of the world that has not had a Jewish majority since biblical times, Zionist militias wiped off the map more than 400 Palestinian towns and villages and made 700,000 Palestinians refugees. In the 40 years since the 1967 war, it has illegally settled Israeli colonizers in Jewish-only settlements in the occupied territories, it has established more than 400 checkpoints, it has built a monstrous separation barrier complete with patrol roads and watchtowers that seal off Palestinian towns from each other, it is building a separate road network to connect Israeli settlements in the West Bank with Israel to make sure they never come into contact with Palestinians (a type of segregation that one South African anti-apartheid activist labeled "obscene" and exceeding anything he experienced under apartheid), and it has sealed geographic districts for months on end, preventing the movement of people and goods, with predictably devastating effects on the Palestinian economy.

One of Israel's thorniest problems has always been the presence of an indigenous non-Jewish population (typically referred to in racist terms as a "demographic problem") residing within its (undeclared) borders as well as in the territories it occupies. Through a combination of laws and policies designed to make the occupied territories unlivable, Israel has sealed all large Palestinian population centers into open-air prisons cut off from one another. A case in point (there are unfortunately many to choose from): Qalqilya, at one time referred to as the West Bank's bread basket, has been completely encircled by a wall since 2003, with a single gated road leading into and out of the city. Qalqilya had a population of 43,000, but by 2006, several thousand had moved. No doubt they left in search of work -- the wall has had that effect on many communities. But who can gauge the psychological pressure of living in a city where a monstrous concrete wall higher than the former Berlin wall blocks view of the sunset?

Israel's policies will ultimately fail. A state narrowly defined in terms of a religion adhered to by a minority of the residents (and in the not-too-distant future, Jews will be a minority in Mandate Palestine) cannot indefinitely control the majority population or extinguish its demand for a life with dignity and political, civil, and human rights. Nor can it hope to survive in the region as long as its policies are both expansionist and exclusionary. But until the international community insists that Israel respect international law and abandon its cruel policies, Israel will continue to target Palestinian families, a silent form of ethnic cleansing that is less dramatic than other forms it has implemented since the state's inception, but just as deadly to Palestinian national life.

Ida Audeh is a Palestinian who grew up in the West Bank and now works as a technical editor in Boulder, CO. She is the author of the five-part series, "Living in the Shadow of the Wall," published by Electronic Intifada on 16 November 2003; "Picking Olives and Removing Roadblocks as Acts of Resistance: An Interview with Ghassan Andoni," Counterpunch, 28 October 2002; and "Narratives of Siege: Eyewitness Testimonies from Jenin, Bethlehem, and Nablus," Journal of Palestine Studies, no. 124 (Summer 2002). She can be reached at


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