One of the most insidious aspects of Israel’s military occupation is also one of its most overlooked: its deliberate fragmentation of Palestinian society.
While the spectacle of violence is typically the focus of media attention – when international media cover Israel’s oppression of Palestinians at all – the reach of Israeli control over Palestinian family life falls under the radar.
But as the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq points out in a new report, Palestinians are forced to make life choices as personal as who they marry and where they live “based on the constraints of Israeli policies and practices that not only target them, but are ultimately aimed at their transfer.”
Since its inception Israel has endeavored to prevent Palestinians from living in their homeland – from mass expulsions and displacements in 1948 and 1967 and preventing refugees from exercising their right to return, to permanently canceling the residency status of Palestinians in the West Bank, including Jerusalem.
As a result of those efforts, “hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were born in Palestine are now considered ‘foreigners’ with no immediate right of entry or stay by Israel,” according to Al-Haq.
While restricting the rights of Palestinian citizens of the state, as well as the rights of their spouses and children, Israeli law encourages Jewish immigration and grants national rights to the relatives of Jews, including those who have no connection to Israel.
The result is that “a grandchild of a Jew (who never immigrated [to Israel]) may be granted nationality, while the grandchild of a Palestinian citizen may only receive citizenship if they were born in the country; if they themselves were; or were naturalized,” according to Al-Haq.
“Discriminatory prohibitions” prevent Palestinian citizens of Israel from living with the partner of their choice.
Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip married to Israeli citizens are prevented from receiving legal status under a 2003 law. That law was later amended to prohibit citizens and residents of Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq from living with their spouse in Israel.
“In principle, this would mean that even a Palestinian refugee in one of those countries would be unable to live with their Palestinian ‘citizen’ spouse, in stark contradiction to the Law of Return for individuals of Jewish origin,” Al-Haq states.
Israeli leaders have been forthright about the purpose of these policies.
In July last year, Avigdor Lieberman boasted that “As long as I am defense minister, there will not be any reunification of Palestinian families. If they want, they can unite in Gaza.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israel’s Nation-State Law – which states that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” – “helps prevent the continued uncontrolled entry into Israel of Palestinians.”
“Environment of instability”
Meanwhile Israel has full control over who enters the occupied West Bank, and has full discretion over how long individuals may stay.
Israel prevents Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, from living with their spouses through the denial of family unification requests and by imposing different residency statuses on Palestinians living in East Jerusalem versus the rest of the West Bank.
“One third of family unification applications coming from East Jerusalem residents were denied between 2000 and 2013,” Al-Haq states.
“Such policies not only create an environment of instability and fear for Palestinians from East Jerusalem and their families, but also serve Israel’s demographic aims for Jerusalem through forcible transfer.”
In the late 1980s, Israeli forces raided Palestinian communities “to expel the spouses of Palestinian residents in the [West Bank and Gaza Strip] who did not hold residency permits and had overstayed their visas or visitor permits.”
Because Israel denied family reunification applications, these spouses, mainly of Palestinian origin, were forced “to choose between overstaying their visas or leaving their established homes.”
The family unification process for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with foreign spouses was suspended altogether in 2000, with an exception of some 33,000 applications submitted before the beginning of the second intifada.
There are some 30,000 applications for family unification pending, according to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee, which collects the applications. Israel has stopped processing applications altogether.
“It is estimated that more than half a million people are impacted by Israel’s policy of refusing to process family unifications and may be forced to leave,” Al-Haq states.
Impeded institutional development
Israel’s control over entry and stay of foreign workers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip also impedes the development of Palestinian institutions.
“For example, 15 foreign faculty members at Birzeit University have have had their visa requests refused or significantly delayed,” according to Al-Haq.
Between August and December 2016, “no new aid workers were able to secure a B1 work visa,” leaving individuals and international organizations in “legal limbo.”
These limitations serve “to deny Palestinian institutions human resources, and [have] an impact on the services and quality of life available to Palestinians in the [occupied Palestinian territory],” Al-Haq states.
The healthcare sector in Gaza, on the verge of collapse after more than a decade of blockade, has particularly suffered as it is very difficult for young people to study abroad or for guest lecturers to enter the territory.
Israel may soon require workers and volunteers coming to the West Bank and Gaza to apply for a permit before entering, according to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee.
Last year, Israel denied entry to a record number of 19,000 individuals.
It has previously denied entry to UN human rights investigators and is actively trying to deport the director of Human Rights Watch’s Jerusalem office.
Last year, Israel placed a travel ban on members of 20 international organizations over their alleged affiliation of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.