Limits on Movement Around Jerusalem Frustrate Catholic Arab Family

JERUSALEM (CNS) — On Good Friday, Abeer Atallah, who lives in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa in East Jerusalem, was unable to attend a prayer service marking Jesus’ Passion and death in the Old City as she would have liked.

Her husband, Abdullah, could not drive her because he was studying for a university exam. And Abeer could not drive herself. It’s not that the social worker at St. Joseph School does not know how to drive; she’s not allowed to drive in Jerusalem.

Originally from the West Bank village of Beit Jala — a mere 10 minutes from where she lives now — Abeer came to live with her husband elsewhere in Jerusalem when they were married in 2000. That’s when she became an outlaw of sorts.

As a Jerusalem-born resident, Abdullah, 38, has the appropriate blue Israeli identity card; Abeer, 36, does not. Abeer and Abdullah have tried for more than 14 years to make her residency in Jerusalem official, but she has only been able to obtain a two-year temporary residency permit. It expires in 2016 and she must apply for a new permit.

“It is very hard to feel handcuffed and like a prisoner unable to move,” Abeer said in the apartment the couple bought in a housing project at the Latin Patriarchate. “If I want to go to the Old City, I have to think twice about how I will do it. I would like to go, but the [prayer service] starts at 6 p.m. and lasts till late and it will be hard to get back.”

In Israel, where the Jewish Sabbath is observed, public transportation does not run on Fridays and getting to the main road to meet a taxi requires at least a 30-minute walk from the as-of-yet unpaved, unlit, road leading to the housing project.

Still, Abeer and Abdullah know their situation is better than that of others, including a cousin who, they said, must live separated from her West Bank husband. The cousin must travel back and forth on weekends and holidays with her children because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not approved a family reunification application. Other couples are reluctant to talk about their situation because they are afraid of repercussions on their permit status.

Because she cannot drive and Abdullah is not home from work until the evening, the couple’s children are unable to participate in after-school activities in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, 20 minutes away.

“We can’t do things unless Abdullah is here and that is very frustrating,” Abeer said. “If they catch me driving, I will lose my permission to be here.”

Raffoul Rofa, executive director of the Society of St. Yves, a legal organization which advocates for families with Israeli officials, said government statistics indicate that from 2000 to 2013 more than 12,000 applications were filed for family reunification by couples with one spouse holding an Israeli identity card and the other spouse from the West Bank. He said that roughly half were approved for temporary permits only, while the other half were rejected outright.

As of now, the temporary permit is as good as it gets for the Atallahs.

“There is nothing more; we have reached the maximum,” Abdullah said.

Friends contemplating marrying women from the West Bank often come to Abdullah for advice.

“I won’t lie to them,” he said. “I tell them it is not an easy life, but we can’t let Israel tell us what to do with our life or who to fall in love with and who to marry.”

The temporary permit also means Abeer can enter the West Bank via one specific checkpoint, where the wait is long. Meanwhile, Abdullah and the couple’s two children, who were given Israeli identity cards through their father, can use other less difficult checkpoints. Abeer is forbidden to use certain roads as well, even if she is traveling with her family.

“It is always very hard. We have to take into consideration before we leave the time it will take us, when we will get back, if she will be allowed to get back,” Abdullah said.

On Easter, what should be a brief ride over to visit Abeer’s parents and siblings can turn into an ordeal lasting an hour or longer. One option is the Bethlehem checkpoint, where it will be less time consuming for Abeer to walk through and meet Abdullah and the children on the other side.

As West Bank residents, Abeer’s parents rarely visit the family in Beit Safafa, although at Easter they get special permits to come to Jerusalem. She said since she and Abdullah were married her parents have been able to visit two or three times. And they will be unable to attend the first communion ceremony of daughter, Janna, at St. Saviour Church in the Old City in May.

“I feel lonely here. My family can’t come here to share with my lovely moments,” Abeer said.

Moving to the West Bank is not an option for the family because Abdullah and the children would lose access to medical and Israel’s social security system.

As a successful young couple, with a new apartment and well-mannered children, Abeer and Abdullah realize they have much for which to be thankful. But something is missing, they said, and it is not something material.

“There is always a nagging, frustrating feeling,” Abeer said. “You can’t do things for yourself as a person. If we want to do something, it is not easy. We always have to do it the hard way.”

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