Love in a Troubled Land

This is the first in a two-part series on Israel's policies toward its Palestinian minority.

It’s hard to fall in love and have a family in Israel if you're one of the country's 1.5 million Palestinians.

Last month, the Israeli Supreme Count upheld the constitutionality of the 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law, which strips Israeli Arab citizens—one-fifth of the population—of citizenship rights if they move to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip to live with a spouse; Jewish settlers, on the other hand, retain their citizenship. It also prevents spouses from the Occupied Territories (or the “enemy states” of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran) from living in Israel without going through a Kafkesque process of applying and reapplying for temporary residency. From the beginning, the law has been challenged by human rights-groups on the grounds that it is discriminatory.

By a narrow 6 to 5 majority, the Israeli Supreme Court waved that concern aside. “Human rights do not prescribe national suicide,” Judge Asher Grunis wrote for the majority.

On a recent three-week trip to Israel and the West Bank, I found just how deep into private lives the Israeli government's harsh policies toward its Arab citizens reach.

Between 1967, when Israel militarily occupied the West Bank and Gaza, and the early 1990s, Palestinians were reasonably free to move back and forth in and out of Israel, enabling them to restore familial and social ties that had been disrupted during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. This changed in the early 1990s, when Israel put greater restrictions on the movement of Palestinians. Still, between 1994 and 2006, an estimated 130,000 Palestinian spouses and children successfully applied for permits to live with their families in Israel.

In 2003, when the citizenship law was passed as a temporary security measure, spurred by the suicide bombings of the Second Intifadah, that window effectively shut. Its original aim was to prevent Palestinian terrorists from entering the country by marrying Israeli citizens, and it coincided with the beginning of construction on the security wall sealing Israel off from its Palestinian neighbors.

According to attorneys at Adalah, a legal advocacy group based in Haifa, between May 2002 and August 2008, only 3,156 out of almost 10,500 applications for family unification were accepted.

One Palestinian whose life has been disrupted by the law is Taiseer Khatib, 39, a PhD student in anthropology. I met him one evening in January at an outdoor café on Ben Gurion Road in a renovated district of the old port city of Haifa. The street was still festooned with lights in the shape of stars, Christmas trees, a menorah.

Taiseer, a tall, strikingly handsome man with short, greying hair, was born in Akka, a few miles up the coast. A secular Muslim, he attended a Christian school and at age 20, then left for Germany, where he studied in Heidelberg.

While waiting to hear about a fellowship in Canada, he returned to Israel in 2003 to do some research on refugees in Jenin, a city on the West Bank. There, he met and fell in love with Lana, a woman he met in the office of the Health Ministry. She was a graduate of the university in Nablus with a degree in economics.

His Canadian scholarship came through and he left the country, planning to come back in the summer of 2004 to get married and then return to Canada with Lana. But a month before the wedding, his mother suffered a stroke. He was her only child. He “dropped everything,” he told me, to come back and care for her.

By this time the Citizenship Law was already in effect, but Taiseer decided to go ahead with his plans to get married, because, as he explained, “she was the one I wanted to be with.” They had a big party in Jenin, and then Lana and her mother came to Israel on a one-day permit to meet his mother and get married. The next day she had to go back to Jenin.

Taiseer got a job at the Mossawa Center, a Palestinian NGO in Haifa that had teamed up with international efforts to pressure the Israeli government to soften the law. He testified before the Knesset, where he was told the law was needed to prevent suicide bombers from getting into Israel.

"I said, 'But it seems that your only concern is for the security of Jews, not Arabs. I don’t want bombers here either. I ride the buses too.'"

In 2006, when Lana was finally able to get a residency permit to join him, Taiseer resumed his PhD studies at Haifa University, and in 2007 their first child, Adnan, was born. In June of 2008 they had another child, Usura, a girl. But under the terms of her permit, Lana could not get a driver’s license and could not work. Taiseer is forced to run all the errands, take the kids to school and the doctor, take them to play. “She is dependent on me for everything,” he says, “and this causes stress and frustration for both of us. If she could only drive!”

Every year, Taiseer has to go back to a government office to renew her permit. Once an officer asked him if he was sure that the baby was his.

“I started shouting, 'Fuck you! You represent the state, how dare you say a thing like that!'”

"He said, 'you know by law I could force you to take a paternity test to prove it. Why did you marry her? Why did you do this to yourself?'

“I told him, 'None of your fucking business! You’re supposed to give me services, you’re not allowed to come into my bedroom!'”

Aroused by the insulting memory, Taiseer went on in an agitated voice: “I was in this same ministry once and saw an Israeli Palestinian woman and a man from Jordan and [the officer] had them there one hour, torturing the guy with questions: 'Are you working? Where? Who’s giving you work? Is it black?'

"'Okay,' he says to the man finally. 'Go out and I’ll speak to your wife.' And then he says to her, 'Why do you put yourself in this position? Couldn’t you find a man here?

“And you know the worst? That official was an Arab. He was speaking to her in Arabic.”

A few weeks after we spoke, Taiseer’s wife Lana’s permit was renewed for another year, despite—or because of—their active campaign online and on Facebook against the Citizenship Law. But the future uncertainty and the restrictions on her life continue.

I asked Taiseer if he hated Jews because of all this.

“Look, I grew up in a tolerant family. My father spoke German, and we had Jews and internationals in our home. After I gave an interview to an Israeli paper, I got calls from people in Tel Aviv saying I want you to know this law is not in my name. We have Jewish organizations who want to fight this with us. I don’t hate Jews, I hate Israeli policy.”

Advocates for Palestinians strongly deny that security is still the reason why families are being kept apart. According to Israeli government figures, only 54 of the 130,000 people accepted for family unification between 1994 and 2006 had been “directly involved in terrorist attacks” or prevented from carrying out such attacks. After Adalah pressed for more details, the government responded that just seven of the 54 had actually been indicted for security-related offenses, and that only two of those had been convicted. They had already completed their sentences, which suggests that the offenses were relatively minor.

On the day after the law was reaffirmed I was in the office of an Israeli Jewish lawyer in East Jerusalem. The walls were lined with shelves containing thick, mottled folders full of thousands of family-unification cases.

“This decision confirms the law as a permanent policy,” said Lea Tsemel. “It was originally a law to deal with the security situation, but now it’s about demography. Now it’s saying, we don’t want Arabs here.”

“The real question is how the world is going to react. Will the world recognize that Israel is becoming an apartheid state? Or will the world be very lenient of Israel and forgive it?”

Judging from their comments on the Supreme Court decision, members of the governing coalition in the Knesset didn’t seem concerned about world opinion.

Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) argued that if the Palestinian citizens of Israel want to start a family, they should do so “on the other side [of the Green Line].”

Otniel Schneller (Kadima) said that the ruling “articulates ... the need to maintain a Jewish majority and the (Jewish) character of the state.” If the High Court had struck down the law, he added, “it would have turned Israel into a state of all its citizens.”

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