Israel’s family unification gesture not a change in policy

Since October 2007, Israel has approved 31,830 requests for family unification in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is the first exception in Israeli policy on this issue since the outbreak of the second intifada, in September 2000, when Israel froze family unification procedures and the granting of visitor’s permits. The approvals, which were given in the framework of Israeli-Palestinian political negotiations, were described as a gesture, and not a change in policy.

Most of the approvals determine the status of relatives of West Bank and Gaza Strip residents, who had not been registered in the Palestinian population registry. In most cases, the relatives are Palestinian refugees, nationals of other countries, who married residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The approvals also determine for the first time in a concentrated manner the status of Palestinians whose parents had not registered them at birth in the population registry.

As a rule, Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are stateless, holding the status of “residents of the Occupied Territories.” As this status is arranged in the population registry, which Israel administers for both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel has sole power to determine who is entitled to this status and to receive an identity number.

The recent approvals amount to slightly more than one-quarter of the requests for family unification that had been submitted. According to figures provided to B’Tselem, since the freeze began, at least 120,000 requests for family unification have accumulated in Palestinian Authority (PA) offices. This figure understates the need, given that many Palestinians, knowing about the sweeping freeze, chose not to submit requests.

Most of the requests that were approved relate to persons who remained in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip after their visitor’s permit expired and continued to live with their families there. PA officials estimate that another 22,000 approvals are needed for persons living in this situation. In addition, Israel did not approve requests for unification of split families, in which some members have been forced to remain outside the region during the freeze period of the last eight years, thus barring them from the opportunity to arrange their legal status. These latter requests relate mostly to children, who may find themselves in a legal predicament if they are not allowed to enter the region and register in the Palestinian population registry before they reach age 16. Unless they do so, from age 16 onwards they will be required to submit a request for family unification in order to register.

In April 2007, HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, together with eight other human rights organizations, B’Tselem among them, petitioned the High Court of Justice to order that a legal status be given to foreign nationals married to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It should be noted that the deviation from the freeze policy did not result from the High Court petition.

Life with no legal status and Israel’s obligations

The lack of a legal status — an identity card, in practice — affects most aspects of life of Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Without an ID card, they have great difficulty crossing checkpoints or going abroad. The restriction on movement also affects their access to medical-treatment centers and educational institutions and reduces their options for gaining a livelihood and realizing their professional aspirations.

International humanitarian law requires Israel, as the occupier, to respect the family rights of residents of occupied territory. International human rights law recognizes the right of everyone to a nationality and to found a family. In particular, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Israel ratified, recognizes that “the widest possible protection and assistance should be accorded to the family, which is the natural and fundamental group unit of society.”

B’Tselem welcomes the recent wave of request approvals, while stressing that the freeze on family unification procedures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip must be lifted immediately. A freeze policy marked by politically-based occasional exceptions — be they as generous as they may — breaches Israel’s obligation to respect the human rights of residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The government of Israel must end the freeze and process requests for family unification in a way that recognizes the right of residents to family life, and arrange the status of all persons in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who presently lack a status.

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