Israel’s practice of denying family reunification permits and denying entry to foreign passport holders (many but not all of whom are of Palestinian origin) is part of a campaign of ridding the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem) of Palestinians and tightly controlling those it is obliged to retain. The practice takes aim at Palestinian families: 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 (www.righttoenter.ps) 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 four or five (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.
Palestinian citizens in Israel 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 West Bank or Gazan 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 from the occupied territories and to live with their spouses in Israel. These laws violate international legal covenants which affirm the fundamental right to privacy and family life when Palestinian citizens of Israel are denied this 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 three months. These visas had been granted routinely, but in March 2006, Israel 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.
As a result, families live in a state of chronic uncertainty. Not only can they not 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. Even those who manage to get a visa cannot be sure that they will be so lucky the next time they apply.
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 imposed this practice 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-party 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.
Academic institutions have been hard hit by this policy, too. A Birzeit University press release dated 6 January 2007 notes that 50 percent of foreign passport-holding staff have had to leave, which has put most departments at risk of dropping courses or losing specialists they cannot replace. One department may lose as much as 70 percent 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 and cannot study at Birzeit, the loss of tuition revenue means a loss of emergency funding that had helped the university cover its expenses. Because of the growing problem with denial of entry, applications to the program have dropped by 50 percent.
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 but 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 around 700,000 Palestinians refugees. In the 40 years since the 1967 war, it has illegally established Jewish-only colonies 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 settlements in the West Bank with Israel to make sure they never come into contact with Palestinians; 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 life in the occupied territories impossible, Israel has sealed all large Palestinian population centers, cutting them off from one another. For example, Qalqiliya, 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. Qalqiliya once 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. According to the US State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004, the number of Muslim and Christian Palestinians in Mandate Palestine (including Israel proper, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip) slightly exceeds the number of Israeli Jews. With the higher Palestinian birth rate, these differences will only become more pronounced over time. A state narrowly defined in terms of a religion adhered to by a minority of the residents under its rule cannot indefinitely control the majority population or extinguish its demand for a life with dignity and political, civil, and human rights.
Ida Audeh is a Palestinian from the West Bank who 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 idaaudeh AT yahoo DOT com.