Israel’s Residency Laws Separate Families

JERUSALEM (CNS) — Joseph Hazboun remembers when he could hop into his car in Jerusalem and drive the few miles to the nearby West Bank city of Bethlehem to see his family. It was easy enough, even passing through mandatory checkpoints, that he and his Jerusalem-born wife and children would make the trip at least twice a month.

It has been years, though, since the Hazbouns, who are Catholic, could make the 25-minute drive on their own. Now the family must take light rail, two taxis and walk across a checkpoint to get from their home in East Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The venture takes at least 90 minutes. The result: The Hazbouns have curtailed their visits to once every several months.

Israeli laws on the book since 2003 strictly limit who can obtain permanent residency status and thus enjoy the related benefits, including driving privileges. The Supreme Court recently upheld the law.

Although he is the spouse of a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem who holds an Israeli permanent resident ID, Hazboun is prohibited from becoming a permanent resident of Israel because he is from Bethlehem. Only those with permanent residency can enjoy benefits of Israeli society, including coverage under the health care system and social security benefits.

Every year the couples keep close track of their rent receipts, utility bills, school tuition payments and vaccination records. They trek to the Ministry of Interior and then to the Civil Administration in the West Bank to get the piece of paper that allows them to live together legally as a family.

They are among thousands of Palestinian couples who continue living in a state of limbo and uncertainty because they must apply for a temporary residence permit annually. “That puts us at their mercy as, at any given moment, they can rebuke our residency permit and tell us to go away somewhere. But I have nowhere else to go. Here is where my work is, here is where we have our home,” said Hazboun, 46, who has worked in the Jerusalem office of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine for 18 years. He has lived in the city since he married his Jerusalem-born wife, Rima, 17 years ago.

“I can’t understand what the security threat is to Israel if we drive,” Hazboun said. “This is just another prohibition to make our life in Israel difficult. It is a demographic war. (They think) that if they make it difficult for us we will say, Why live such a life in Jerusalem when we can move about freely in the West Bank?”

Hazboun’s wife is allowed to drive, but she has a driving phobia. She declined to be interviewed.

Hazboun said he is looking forward to next year when the couple’s oldest daughter will be eligible for a driver’s license. Under the law, their children have been registered under their Jerusalemite parents’ Israeli identity card.

The couple’s hopes for the system to be eased were dashed because of the Supreme Court ruling.

Under the law, the residency application status of couples like the Habouns has been frozen, although couples who had applied for family reunification before the statute was passed in 2003 may still apply for a temporary residency permit every year. Couples who married after the law was passed may not even do that. The end result is that they live in fear that the spouse from the West Bank will be expelled from Israel.

Since the beginning of 2012, the Society of St. Yves, a Catholic human and civil rights legal aid center, has taken on 89 family reunification cases like that of the Hazbouns, said director Raffoul Rofa. In the past, he said, the agency sometimes has been successful in upgrading a spouse’s status to resident status with full rights if the family reunification application was submitted in the 1990s.

Rofa estimated that more than 100 Christian couples are affected by the law, though no official statistics exist. The center’s staff estimates that thousands of couples remain dependent on the Israeli Ministry of Interior for the renewal of their temporary residency permits each year. Elias, 39, is from Jerusalem and has an Israeli-issued permanent residency card but his wife, Abeer, 34, is from Bethlehem and lives in Jerusalem with only a temporary resident permit.

The Catholic couple asked that their real names not be used because they fear their public comments will lead to difficulties with Israeli authorities.

The driving prohibition cuts into even the most mundane details of family life during the winter months. When it rains, as it has often since November, Abeer must either hire a taxi to take her children to afternoon activities or she must walk with them herself, even though the family car sits unused in the apartment building parking lot.

“It is a small prison here,” Abeer said, sitting in her neat two-bedroom apartment in a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Israel’s citizenship and entry laws also affects young couples who are dating, Rofa said. Before beginning a relationship, many young people first learn where their prospective partner is from in an effort to avoid getting caught in the web of family reunification, he explained. None of these complications figured into the plans of Elias and Abeer when they fell in love and married almost a decade ago.

Abeer said that if she and Elias had thought about the ramifications of their marriage, they might not have married. For now, they see that only solution to their predicament is to move abroad but they do not want to leave their family, friends and the place where they grew up. “It is part of our cross,” Elias said. “The West thinks Israel is the only democratic state in the Middle East, but having to go through all this system is very humiliating. Every day you have to prove you are not a liar and that you don’t forge documents. It makes me nervous to lose a bill or an invoice.”

Hazbound expressed similar sentiments: “We would have still gotten married and lived in Jerusalem, but after what we have gone through, my wife tells our children not to even think about getting married to someone from the West Bank. It is difficult because we know what awaits them if they do.”

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