Coalition rift reignites debate over law keeping Palestinian families apart

Israel says measure stopping Palestinians from becoming citizens through marriage is key for security, but critics lament toll on family life and ask if justification still holds

Palestinians and Arab Israelis protest against the 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law into Israel outside the Knesset on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Palestinians and Arab Israelis protest against the 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law into Israel outside the Knesset on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Anas al-Qadi sees his children only occasionally. He is married to an Arab Israeli woman from the northern Arab town of Wadi Ara, but as a Palestinian resident of Jericho, only has a commercial permit to enter Israel in the morning and leave at night.

“It’s hard, only seeing them once a week, every two weeks, not knowing what the future holds,” al-Qadi told The Times of Israel at a protest for Palestinian family reunification by the Knesset on Tuesday.

In the eight years since getting married, Al-Qadi has applied several times for a residency card that would allow him to live with his family, he said. But the legal path before him is convoluted, as a controversial 2003 law largely bars Palestinians who marry Israelis from receiving Israeli citizenship or residency.

The Israeli government says that the law, passed during the Second Intifada, is an important security measure to prevent Palestinian terrorism. While initially passed as a temporary order, it has been extended every year since 2003 by large majorities in the Knesset.

But this year’s push to renew the 2003 law has threatened the new government’s razor-thin hold on power. Members of the government, including the Islamist Ra’am party’s four Knesset members, the left-wing Meretz party and Labor MK Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin, have said they will not vote to renew the law in its current form.

While right-wing parties like Likud and Religious Zionism support the measure in principle, they have said they will oppose renewing the law in an attempt to spark a coalitional crisis.

“I hear hints from the ‘responsible’ coalition that has been formed in Israel that they will snag supporters from the opposition to get their chestnuts out of the fire. Some advice: Don’t bank on it,” Likud faction chair Miki Zohar tweeted.

Anas al-Qadi, a Palestinian from Jericho, protests for an Israeli ID card that would enable him to live with his family in Wadi Ara (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas has said he hopes to reach a compromise. But it is unclear whether his faction will support him, as many have taken strong public stances against supporting the law in any form.

Many of the families most deeply affected by the issue see any compromise by Arab parliamentarians as unacceptable.

“I would see that as a crime: not just for any Arab Knesset member to support such a law, but even for them to remain silent on the issue,” agreed Samah Abu Srees, whose husband Ra’id is from the West Bank city of Nablus.

Security or demography?

At the time of the law’s passing in 2003, the Israeli government said the decree was a vital security measure needed to combat Palestinian terror groups who targeted Israelis in brutal suicide attacks.

The law was contentious from the start, however. The Palestinian legal rights group Adalah petitioned the Supreme Court in 2006 to strike down the law; the court backed the state’s position in a tense 6-5 vote.

Since the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians were signed in the early 1990s, Israel had granted residency or citizenship to an average of 12,000 Arab Israelis per year for family reunification, including children.

Among them was Shadi Tubasi, a Hamas member who had married an Arab Israeli woman. In March 2002, he killed 16 Israelis and wounded 40 more when he blew himself up at a Haifa restaurant. Tubasi had timed his brutal bombing with care: the tables were packed with diners celebrating the Passover holiday, making the attack one of the bloodiest of the Second Intifada.

Authorities saw Tubasi’s blue Israeli identity card as a significant asset in his ability to carry out the attack despite heightened security vigilance.

“Family unification has served terror groups many times due to the affinity of those involved [to terror groups], their access and the ability to exploit the mobility of those who’ve achieved family unification for terrorist purposes,” Adi Carmi, a former Shin Bet official who specialized in counterterrorism, told The Times of Israel.

In the aftermath of the bombing, the Interior Ministry immediately froze the reunification process, saying that they feared further attacks by naturalized West Bank Palestinians. A year later, the stoppage was codified into a temporary law with a yearly sunset provision.

Pro-Palestinian rights groups have criticized the law ever since as disproportionate and discriminatory. Over 100,000 Palestinians received citizenship through the process, they argue, and only a tiny fraction of them were involved in terror.

In 2003, the state told the High Court that 23 Palestinians who had received citizenship or residency through family reunification had “provided meaningful assistance in hostile activity against state security” during the Second Intifada.” According to the Israeli government, 45 Israelis were killed and 124 Israelis were wounded in attacks in which those Palestinians were involved.

But critics have long charged that the decree’s true purpose is not to counter terror but to advance the demographic goal of preventing thousands of Palestinians from gaining Israeli citizenship. For Israelis, maintaining a Jewish majority is key to fulfilling the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state.

“This was seen as a demographic threat — the Palestinians were increasing, and their birthrate is high, so they wanted to control it. The goal was never security, it was always to control the number of Palestinians,” said senior Adalah attorney Sawsan Zaher.

Some of those involved in shaping the law have also come to doubt its necessity. Former interior minister Avraham Poraz (Meretz), who oversaw the 2002 freeze and the 2003 measure, backed the law at the time as a necessary evil.

“When you’re fighting terror, there are a number of options at your disposal. But it was decided to stop [family unification] specifically because there was evidence some were involved in terror activities, especially the children of mixed families,” Poraz said in a recent phone interview.

Former interior minister Avraham Poraz in 2004. (Flash90)

Since the law was passed, Israel’s security situation has improved and the terror rationale no longer holds, says Poraz. He now believes Israelis should be free to marry Palestinians from the West Bank, though Gazans should still be barred from becoming citizens, as the blockaded strip is ruled by the Hamas terror group.

“Back then, the law was justified — but not today,” Poraz said. “At the end of the day, what’s at stake is the demographic issue. It remains largely unspoken because it sounds bad. But people just don’t want to ‘import’ Palestinians and give them Israeli citizenship.”

Some on the Israeli right have begun to publicly emphasize the demographic angle themselves in recent years.

“It’s worth protecting the Jewish majority even at the cost of harming rights,” Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said of the family unification ban at a 2018 conference, according to the Haaretz daily.

Legislation which would enshrine the family unification ban in a Basic Law “is necessary to maintain the Jewish character of the state,” Likud parliamentary leader Zohar tweeted last Friday.

Simcha Rothman, an MK representing the far-right opposition Religious Zionism party, said security and demographics were one and the same.

“Security is not just a question of whether someone will put on a suicide vest and blow themselves up. It’s a question of the ability to protect our borders and the existence of our country… demography is also part of security,” he said.

Stuck in place

The 2002 family unification ban largely ended the ability of Palestinians to receive citizenship or permanent residency in Israel by marriage. In the years since, thousands of Palestinians have been able to receive temporary permits to stay in Israel through a series of exemptions passed by the Interior Ministry in 2005.

Men over 35, women under 25, and special humanitarian cases married to Israeli civilians can receive such permits, among others — although the government is under no obligation to provide them.

But life on a permanent temporary pass still means feeling constantly insecure, Palestinians say, as permits can be canceled at a moment’s notice.

According to the legal aid group HaMoked, around 12,700 Palestinian residents in Israel have received temporary status in Israel since 2003. Around 3,500 of them are Palestinians with temporary residency cards that entitle them to state benefits.

The majority — around 9,200 — hold military-issued stay permits, which grant the ability to legally work but little else. Palestinians holding a stay permit cannot drive a car, open a bank account, get a credit card, take out a mortgage or receive public health insurance, and they often possess no Israeli documentation that proves their children are their own.

Palestinians and supporters demonstrating in front of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, against the law limiting Israeli-Palestinian family reunification on April 14, 2013. (Sliman Khader/FLASH90)

Samah Abu Srees, originally from the southern Bedouin town of Tel el-Saba, met her husband Ra’id while both were studying economics at Al-Najah University in Nablus.

“It was love, love, love, so we said, alright, let’s get on with it and get married,” said Abu Srees, who now lives with her family in the Arab Israeli city of Taybeh.

The two were married in 2002, just a few months before the freeze on family unification came into place. At the time, Ra’id held a temporary residency permit, which they assumed would be enough to tide them over until his request to live in Israel was approved.

Ra’id Abu Srees, a West Bank Palestinian married to Arab Israeli Samah Abu Srees, sits with his children at their home in Taybeh (Credit: Samah Abu Srees)

Since the ban, the Abu Srees family has spent endless hours at the Interior Ministry renewing Ra’id’s temporary status in the country, which they must do on a yearly basis. Their children are registered in Samah’s name alone, as their marriage is not legally recognized by Israel.

“I had no idea how hard it was going to be. My mother is from the West Bank, and everything was fine for them — but not for us,” said Abu Srees. “You live in the constant sense that you’re in danger, that something will happen and your family will be split apart.”

For some Palestinians, the situation can approach the Kafkaesque. Ahmad, a Palestinian doctor from Hebron, already held a work permit that enabled him to stay in Israel around the clock when he married his wife, an Arab Israeli from Ramle, in 1997.

“They’d already decided I wasn’t a threat. But for years, I wasn’t allowed to receive even a temporary permit that would allow me to live inside Israel,” said Ahmad, who worked at a Jerusalem hospital for nearly two decades and has five children with Israeli citizenship.

Ahmad told The Times of Israel that just a few months ago, his stay permit was suddenly withdrawn after one of his relatives in the West Bank became sick with coronavirus. At the time, Ahmad had already been vaccinated against the virus due to his work as a doctor.

“I don’t live there anymore, but we were returning from a family event in Hebron…it turned out they’d placed an automatic ban on my [West Bank] family re-entering. It took a month of struggling to get my permit back because it had been totally withdrawn from the system,” said Ahmad, who found himself trapped in the West Bank for weeks.

The insecurity in status leads to constant visits to the Interior Ministry, where the amount of time and paperwork quickly adds up.

“Since I’ve moved here, I haven’t thrown out one receipt,” said Asmahan Alian, originally from the West Bank town of Abu Dis but married to an East Jerusalemite with Israeli residency. “We’ve lost so many years to this bureaucracy.”

The red tape can entangle even those with legal recourse. After 23 years of living in Jerusalem, Nada Sandouka was arrested on June 21 for residing in Israel without a permit.

After a hearing three days later, Sandouka was deported by night across the West Bank security fence to her registered address: the Al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah. Her husband Daoud, an East Jerusalem Palestinian, and their eight children remained on the other side of the barrier.

“How are we supposed to look after the children without her?” said Daoud, who lives in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Gathering piles of documents he will now need to prove his wife lived in Jerusalem, Daoud told The Times of Israel he had renewed his wife’s stay permit for several years. But in 2014, he despaired after an Interior Ministry official told him he had arrived too late to apply again, he said.

“Part of it is my own neglect, and she’s paying the price,” he said, acknowledging he could have done more to fight it out in the courts.

Daoud Sandouka gathers documents in an attempt to restore his wife’s residency in Israel at his East Jerusalem home on Thursday, June 23, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

But Daoud also blamed the layers of complex legal requirements, which he said made it difficult for even long-time residents such as Nada to maintain a foothold in the city.

Right-wing politicians hope to replace the exemptions with a permanent law plugging those gaps. Rothman criticized even the smaller influx of Palestinians, which he argued could be a slippery slope to the de facto cancellation of the law.

“As soon as you allow such exceptions they quickly become the rule,” said Rothman, who has put forward legislation that would close the gaps.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman at a Knesset Arrangements Committee meeting on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The Arab nation is trying to expel us from here. So these stories are sad, they’re tragic. But we don’t make policy based on tragedies,” Rothman added.

Abu Srees scoffed at the idea that her family was built on a desire to expel Jews from Israel.

“In this country, citizens are entitled to choice and dignity in their lives — or at least, that’s what they teach my children in school. This law is the furthest thing from what ought to be in a democratic or free country,” Abu Srees said.

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