Israeli-Palestinian couples face uncertain future as Israel limits the granting citizenship to spouses from Gaza.
Arabs find barriers insurmountable
JERUSALEM // Asma Nasar is afraid to leave her home. Like many other Palestinians married to Israeli Arabs, the 21-year-old from the West Bank city of Hebron is living illegally in Israel with her husband and two young daughters. During the four years she has resided in the central Israeli city of Jaffa, she has not worked, remains in the family's apartment for entire days and barely ventures out of her predominantly Arab neighbourhood.
Her husband, Abed, 26, who works at a shawarma stand, said he was afraid his wife would get caught by police and be sent to Hebron. "I'm dying to take her on a trip to Jericho or Tiberias, but it's not possible," he said, smoking a cigarette in the family's living room as his blue-eyed wife sat quietly nearby. "It's like carrying a large pack of [illegal] drugs on you - it's a risk." Abed and Asma Nasar are only one of thousands of mixed Israeli-Palestinian couples facing an uncertain future as a result of Israel's strict limitations on granting citizenship or permanent residency to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who are married to Israelis.
Those barriers are part of the Nationality and Entry into Israel law, which the Israeli parliament passed in 2003 as a one-year temporary measure amid the Israeli-Palestinian violence of the second Intifada. This week, the law was extended for the eighth time for another year from when it expires at the end of July. The legislation has been modified over the years. The original law called for a total ban on citizenship or residency for Palestinians. The law has been amended to grant women older than 25 and men older than 35, with Israeli spouses, temporary residency - typically for six months - that allows them to live in Israel without health or welfare rights and eventually apply for permanent residency or citizenship.
Still, Israel has also added some limitations to the law. Last year, its scope was expanded to include spouses from Lebanon, Syria, Iran or Iraq - countries Israel views as enemies. And, this week, Israel's parliament also approved an amendment that totally prohibits spouses from the Gaza Strip who are married to Israelis from getting even a temporary permit. Israel has cited security reasons for the law. Its decision emerged in 2002, after a Palestinian who married an Israeli Arab and became an Israeli citizen carried out a suicide attack in a roadside cafe in the city of Haifa, in which 15 people were killed. In 2006, Israel said 26 Palestinians who held legal status in Israel by marriage had been involved in terror activity. However, none have been indicted, according to human rights lawyers.
Critics said the law serves Israel's interest in limiting the number of Palestinian citizens, whom they claim are viewed by the state as a demographic threat to its Jewish nature. "As the years go by, it becomes clear that the security argument and the term 'temporary measure' are merely a deception aimed at 'koshering' discriminatory legislation for demographic reasons," wrote Amos Schocken, the prominent publisher of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in a recent column. He said the law had turned Israel into an "apartheid state".
The legislation has also faced international condemnation, with the European Commission expressing concern about its implications and the United Nations Committee on Racial Discrimination calling on Israel to revoke it. Like Mrs Nasar, spouses who reside illegally in Israel are trapped in their homes for fear of getting caught. "Basically, they are invisible," said Sawsan Zaher, a staff lawyer at Adalah, a legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel. Adalah last year petitioned Israel's supreme court to overturn the law on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and violates family rights for Israeli Arabs who marry Palestinians. "They live in fear that every day they may get evacuated or arrested, and be separated from their families," Ms Zaher said.
For the Nasar family, everyday life has become difficult. Because Mrs Nasar does not work and her husband earns a meagre salary, the couple lives with Mr Nasar's parents and three brothers in a three-room apartment where the living room is scattered with mattresses and sofa beds. Mrs Nasar has not learnt Hebrew, a fact her husband blames on her social isolation. Furthermore, her lack of health insurance and inability to afford private Israeli medical care forced Mrs Nasar to travel last year to Hebron through Israeli army checkpoints in her eighth month of pregnancy for an ultrasound scan the couple could afford.
Mr Nasar said he wanted to marry a Palestinian woman from the West Bank because "they show more respect and are less materialistic" than Israeli Arab women. But when his younger brother wanted a similar match two years ago, both he and his parents opposed it because of the hardships of his own marriage, he said. But even for those who obtain temporary residency, the frustrations are numerous. They are not entitled to public health or welfare services, insurance or other social security benefits and job opportunities are scant.
Several Israeli organisations, including Physicians for Human Rights, have demanded the government grant social rights, mainly health services, to those affected by the law. Most of the law's victims, the organisations said, tend to be women because they typically live in the state of their male partners in accordance with the patriarchal norms in Palestinian society. The case of Rania Jarbou shows the urgent need for such services. Mrs Jarbou was 15 when she moved to Israel from her home in the West Bank town of Bethlehem after marrying Mohammed, then a 23-year-old Israeli Arab. During the first five years, she lived illegally in Israel because her repeated requests for residency were rejected. Afterwards, she managed to obtain and renew permits for six months. Still, the complicated and lengthy bureaucracy for getting a permit leaves her without one for several months of every year, periods in which she fears venturing outside her home.
Mrs Jarbou's health started to suffer during her third pregnancy two years ago. She was diagnosed with gallstones and was urgently advised by doctors to undergo an operation to remove her gallbladder and prevent liver infections. But because her legal status did not entitle her to medical care or insurance, she was faced with operation costs of more than US$5,000 (Dh18,365) - an amount she and her husband, who works as a lorry driver, could not afford. Her health deteriorated to a state in which she was not able to leave her bed until she finally had the operation after obtaining a hospital discount and raising money through loans and donations.
As he sat in the sunlit living room of the family's third-floor apartment, located in a small Arab village some 14km west of Jerusalem, Mr Jarbou said his biggest fear was that his wife would get sick again. "If tomorrow, God forbid, something happens to her, how will I pay for it? She will die," he said with frustration. His 28-year-old wife, wearing a black abaya and black sandals and hugging her curly haired, one-year-old daughter as she sat on a brown leather sofa, said she felt she was "living in a prison". She said her permit ran out several months ago and she was afraid to go outside until she received a new one. "I want to study and work, but I can't," she said.
When their son, Salah, 12, said the family "should just go and live in Bethlehem", Mr Jarbou looked at him grimly. "The last thing I need is for all of us to live in a big prison - it's enough that my wife already lives in one," he said, referring to Israel's harsh restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org