In Jerusalem, insurance becomes extortion

New regulations add another hoop Palestinians must jump through to secure their right to live in Jerusalem.

Saeed Qaq APA images

Earlier this year, new regulations made it mandatory for all residents in Jerusalem with temporary family unification permits to obtain Israeli medical insurance.

The law, which came into effect on 1 August, will cost those affected a monthly fee in addition to a large backdated one-time charge.

It has caused an angry uproar among Jerusalem’s Palestinians, who see it as yet another attempt by Israeli authorities to target their community and make their precarious existence in the city even more challenging.

For a start, the law solely affects the thousands of Palestinians with green West Bank ID cards, who are only able to enter Jerusalem with Israeli permits, married to those who hold the blue ID cards and are permanent residents of the city. Permanent resident status was imposed on the Palestinian population after Israel occupied the eastern half of Jerusalem, and eventually annexed it – in violation of international law – to the territory on which the state was declared in 1948.

Green ID card holders already live in the city under difficult conditions, constantly fearing that their permission to stay in the city – and therefore with their families – will be revoked, as Israel has revoked the residency rights of at least 14,000 Palestinians since 1967.

Every year, these people have to prove to the satisfaction of bureaucrats at Israel’s interior ministry that their “center of life” is Jerusalem. It is not enough for them, in other words, to be married to Jerusalem ID holders to hold rights in the city. Rather, they must constantly prove that they reside in the city; that they pay bills in the city, including the Arnona or property tax; that they work in the city; that their children go to school there.

And it doesn’t stop there. Spouses and children must also produce proof that they are registered with a medical insurance company and that their spouse works in the city. If the family falls short in any of these demands, the annual visit to the Israeli interior ministry for permit renewal could very well end up with a stamp of rejection.

Back charge

Enter the new regulations. The immediate problem faced by many was simply that they weren’t aware of the new rules. Insurance companies say they sent letters to the Israeli residency holders of each affected family, addressed to the spouse with the residency permit.

But, said Nasrat Dakwar, an attorney for the Society of St. Yves Catholic Center for Human Rights, while the letters were sent, many weren’t received.

Then there is the charge. The letters – whether received or not – informed the partners of blue ID card holders that they would have 60 days from 1 August to pay a back charge of NIS 7,695 (approximately $2,000), plus a new monthly fee of NIS 285 ($75) in order to be registered for full medical insurance.

There was no explanation as to why the huge back charge was imposed, nor were recipients fully informed that this payment was mandatory.

It will certainly be difficult for many to pay. According to a 2015 study by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a staggering 75 percent of Palestinians in Jerusalem live in poverty. Israel’s National Insurance Institute considers an individual below the poverty line if they make less than $792 a month.

Rana, from the Ramallah-area village of Beitin in the West Bank, has been married for 15 years to a Jerusalemite. She only found out about the new medical insurance regulations from a friend, she said, and did not receive anything in the mail.

“It’s a financial burden of course,” the mother of four said. “I don’t know how people will pay. We are even paying in installments. But we have no choice.”

She really has no choice. Dakwar says not only has it become mandatory for all Palestinians with residency permits to be registered with medical insurance companies, but they will be signed up whether they do so themselves or not.

Should people miss the 60-day cut-off date for payment, Israeli medical companies will still register their names without their knowledge. When the unknowing “client” eventually finds out, the debts have already piled up.

“What’s worse, if you finally have the means to pay the original NIS 7,695 a month or two after the cut-off date, you will have to pay interest for the delay and also have to wait for an additional two months for the actual medical services to start,” Dakwar said.

“They keep you in a loop of debt without services, which is a huge predicament for many.”

Back charges

The second catch is that the law differs for Palestinians with West Bank IDs who are married to Jerusalem’s permanent residents, like Rana, and those whose spouses are Israeli citizens. Most notably, the latter group is only made to pay $450 in back charges.

“Israel has something called a ‘gradual procedure’ for those wishing to obtain Israeli residency in Jerusalem or Israel. For those who marry Jerusalem residents, this period is 27 months from the time the family reunification application is accepted by the Israeli interior ministry; these applicants receive what is called a B1 permit. For persons who marry an Israeli citizen, the waiting period is only six months,” explained Dakwar.

That explains the discrepancy between spouses of permanent Jerusalem residents, whose back charge was calculated at NIS 285 multiplied by 27, and Israeli citizens, who are only being made to pay the equivalent of six months’ insurance payment.

In 2003, however, the Israeli parliament passed a constantly renewed temporary order freezing all unification rights for Palestinians, making it impossible for them to obtain Jerusalem IDs or Israeli citizenship. Thus, the 27 months are irrelevant in terms of obtaining permanent residency.

The Society of St. Yves is appealing this provision of the law, which lawyers are calling discriminatory, in the Israeli high court.

The law is not only biased against permanent residents of Jerusalem, says Dakwar, but is also unfair since no medical services were received during this period. “Basically you are retroactively paying for 27 months of medical insurance you never received,” Dakwar said.

Attorney Mohammad Abbassi from the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center says there is another problem with the new law.

“Most permanent residents have already privately signed up with medical insurance companies and pay a monthly fee,” he explained. “The new law does not consider the amounts already paid over the months or years they have been members. In reality, many people are paying double for a certain amount of time.”

This is true for Rana, who has been a client with the Israeli Meuhedet health services for three years and has paid monthly fees for the duration. What’s more, she is up for a temporary Jerusalem ID card this December because her family reunification application was accepted before 2002, a stipulation only recently introduced by the Israeli interior ministry.

She, however, paid the $2,000, saying she didn’t want to risk her status in Jerusalem, including the chance Israel would cancel her family reunification process altogether.

Allowing only the right type

While both Dakwar and Abbassi say the new medical insurance regulations have nothing to do with the family reunification process, Rana’s fears are not unfounded. Israel has repeatedly withdrawn family reunification permits from Palestinians in Jerusalem for a slew of reasons, such as having a family member involved in attacks on Israelis.

And some companies appear to be preying on these fears. Dakwar said unsigned flyers were distributed in East Jerusalem warning people that their family reunification processes would be disrupted if they didn’t pay immediately.

“There was no name at the bottom of the flyers, but we all know who it was,” he said, referring to Israeli medical insurance companies. “It was sheer intimidation.”

He, and Abbassi, believe the motive behind the law is purely monetary.

“They want to make money and by making it mandatory, they keep it flowing,” Dakwar pointed out.

“The idea [of medical insurance for residents] is a good one in general,” he said. “It is the execution that is so wrong.”

If Rana is finally granted a temporary Jerusalem ID – valid for two years before a review is conducted to decide whether she can be granted permanent residency – the $2,000 she paid will not be returned. This is another complaint Dakwar says St. Yves has taken up with the Israeli health ministry.

But Rana insists there is more to the law than simply an attempt to secure more revenue.

“Israel wants a certain type of Palestinian in Jerusalem and this is one way to achieve this goal. The Israelis want those who can afford to financially feed into the occupation and then remain as unobtrusive as possible so they don’t sabotage their status in the city.”

Rana opted not to use her last name because of her upcoming interview at the Israeli interior ministry. Her sentiments mirror thousands of others who keep a low profile in the city just so they are not kicked out of their homes.

Israel’s plan, however, is not foolproof either. People will pay the onerous medical insurance fees, they will pay their Arnona taxes and high rents and endure the tough Israeli measures exclusive to the eastern sector of the city.

They do so to prove something else: Jerusalem is their home and they will not leave.

Joharah Baker is a freelance writer who has worked with Palestinian, regional and international media. She is also a translator for a number of Palestinian organizations.