The Knesset’s action in extending the validity of the law will continue the severe impairment of the family life of tens of thousands of persons, citizens and residents of Israel and residents of the West Bank and Gaza alike. Israelis who married residents of the West Bank or Gaza will not be able to live with their spouse. Couples choosing to violate the law and live together in Israel (including East Jerusalem ) will find it impossible to live normal lives, and will be in constant fear of being caught. If a couple decides to live in the West Bank or Gaza, the Israeli spouse will be considered a lawbreaker, unless he or she received a special permit, given that the military commanders have forbidden Israelis to enter Area A in the West Bank or to enter the Gaza Strip.
Couples who married before the statute was enacted, in cases in which the spouse from the West Bank or Gaza has not yet received a permanent status in Israel , are allowed to live together only if the non-resident spouse is given a temporary permit, which can be obtained by applying to the Civil Administration. Permits are hard to obtain, and Israel cancels them at frequent intervals.
Despite the many changes in Israeli control of the Occupied Territories since the occupation began in 1967, registration of persons in the population registry of the Occupied Territories and the granting of visitor’s permits in the area has remained under Israel ‘s almost absolute control. Most of the powers transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the framework of the Oslo Agreements in these areas of activity are as brokers between the Palestinian population and the Israeli authorities, with Israel retaining the substantive powers.
Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, in August 2005, did not substantially change this situation. Although the crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt (Rafah Crossing) has since then been controlled by the PA, the PA is not permitted to allow the entry of persons who are not registered in the population registry unless the person has a visitor’s permit approved in advance by Israel.
The only procedure available to a person not registered in the population registry to be allowed to live lawfully in the Occupied Territories is family unification. A request for family unification may be submitted only by a first-degree relative of the applicant who holds residency status in the Occupied Territories . Most requests are submitted for residents’ wives who are of Palestinian origin and Jordanian nationals. The large number of families in which one spouse is a resident and the other a foreigner results from the continuing ties of residents with the Palestinian diaspora and from Israel’s policy, which forced residents to find work and to study abroad, and to establish a family outside the Occupied Territories.
The family unification procedure is closely tied to another bureaucratic procedure: obtaining a visitor’s permit. First, only a person who is physically present in the Occupied Territories can be registered in the population registry and receive an identity card, if the person’s request for family unification is approved. Therefore, the possibility of realizing the approval given by Israel depends on receiving a visitor’s permit, which enables entry into the Occupied Territories .
Presence is also required for registration of children born abroad to parents who are residents of the Occupied Territories, and in this, case, too, there is a close connection between the two procedures. Second, given that the family unification process has always taken several years to complete, many persons need to repeatedly obtain visitor’s permits to enable them to live together with their families, even for short periods of time. Spouses of residents (the majority of whom are women) who following petitions to the High Court of Justice were given “long-term visitor” status, which allowed them to remain in the Occupied Territories until the family unification request was processed, also have to renew their visitor’s permits every six months.
Shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada on September 29, 2000, Israel decided not to process requests submitted by Palestinian residents for family unification with their spouses and family members living abroad, and not to issue visitor’s permits to these non-residents (hereafter: the freeze policy). Israel has not explained the purpose of the new policy, stating only that, “… because of recent incidents [the outbreak of the second intifada], the handling of requests for family unification in Judea and Samaria has stopped…”
Despite the new policy, the Palestinian Authority continues to receive new requests for family unification and visitor’s permits, but Israel refuses to process them. Israel also refuses to approve requests that it received prior to the second intifada, except in exceptional instances that it considers “humanitarian cases.”
Tens of thousands of Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories are married to foreign national non-residents. According to this policy, these residents must file a request for family unification to enable them to live lawfully in the Occupied Territories with their spouses. Since the inception of the freeze policy, the only way for Palestinian to live under one roof with their foreign spouses who are abroad is by emigrating to the spouse’s native land. This position is primarily dictated by political considerations, whose objective is to change the demographics of the Occupied Territories by blocking immigration of spouses of residents of the Occupied Territories into the area and by encouraging emigration of divided Palestinian families.
Israel’s policy totally ignores the social reality existing in the Occupied Territories, in which marriage between residents and relatives from outside the area is extremely widespread. In employing this policy, Israel forces residents to make a cruel choice between family separation and leaving their homeland. The Israeli authorities inflict ongoing suffering on hundreds of thousands of persons and force them to live in a new reality. Spouses are unable to live together under one roof, children grow up in one-parent families, residents refrain from going abroad for medical treatment out of fear they will not be allowed to return to their families.
It being almost impossible to obtain a visitor’s permit or approval of family unification, many spouses who were in the area when the freeze policy took effect remain there after their permits expired. As a result, tens of thousands of them have become “persons staying illegally” in the Occupied Territories and are forced to live an underground existence. Out of constant fear of deportation, tens of thousands of foreign women live in the Occupied Territories without any status, and live like prisoners in their homes, unable to live a normal life.
Denial of the right to family life severely impairs the social, economic, and mental condition of every member of these families. The harm increases day by day as long as the freeze continues.
As of October 2005, the Palestinian Authority had received more than 120,000 requests for family unification submitted by West Bank and Gaza residents that Israel has refused to process. If Israel would begin again to handle family unification requests and apply the quota set in 2000 (4,000 a year), it would take at least thirty years to process all the requests that have accumulated.
The relationship between the residents of the Occupied Territories and the Occupied Territories is like that between citizens and their country, even though the residents do not have the status of citizens of the Occupied Territories . They were born there or lived there for many years after arriving as refugees; most are not citizens or residents of another state and are not immigrants who came to the Occupied Territories from another country, so they have no other homeland to which they can go to live with their family. Their right to maintain a proper family life in the Occupied Territories is a basic right, which Israel may not deny. Freezing the procedure for obtaining family unification and visitor’s permits artificially freezes life, in breach of international humanitarian law and the express prohibition set by Israel ‘s Supreme Court.
Of course, Israel may, under international law, take into account its security needs in establishing policy in the Occupied Territories . But the claim of security needs does not entitle it to do whatever it wishes, or to trample on the human rights of the Palestinian population. This is precisely what Israel does in implementing its family unification policy in the Occupied Territories .
The government of Israel must begin immediately to process requests for family unification and visitor’s permits so as to enable the residents to exercise their right to live as families in the Occupied Territories within a reasonable period of time. Israel must ignore political and demographic considerations, and weigh only its security needs, while fully respecting the human rights involved.