The Prohibition on Family Unification in the Occupied Territories

1 Jan 2011

After the occupation began in 1967, Israel declared the West Bank and the Gaza Strip closed areas. Movement into and out of them required approval of the military commander. A census was then held, and every person over the age of sixteen who was living in the Occupied Territories and present there at the time of the census was given permanent residency status in the Occupied Territories. Israel denied residents who were not present during the census their right to live in the Occupied Territories. These constituted more than 300,000 Palestinians who had been expelled from the Occupied Territories or had left them during or immediately after the 1967 war (most going to Jordan), or who had been living in other countries during the war.

Even those who were given permanent residency status were liable to lose it. For instance, Israel revoked the permanent status of residents who stayed outside the Occupied Territories for more than three years without extending their exit permit. Over the years, Israel revoked the residency rights of more than 100,000 persons on this basis.

Since 1967, state officials have claimed that approving requests for family unification would pose a problem “with security consequences.” They have never explained these consequences. However, comments by state officials indicate that the real reason for the refusal is a demographic objective: to prevent an increase in the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories by limiting immigration of spouses and encouraging emigration of families.

Denying the right of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to live in the Occupied Territories led to splitting of many Palestinian families. Marriage within the extended family continued to be common in Palestinian society, even when state borders separated the family members. A large number of marriages take place between residents of the Occupied Territories and Palestinians from their extended family living abroad, among them refugees from the 1967 war and descendants of refugees from the 1948 war. Such marriages are routine among almost every family in the Occupied Territories.

Israel has chosen to ignore this reality and to maintain a rigid policy toward family unification. Its consistent position has been that family unification in the Occupied Territories is not a vested right of Palestinians, but rather “a special act of compassion by the Israeli authorities” (HCJ 4494/9, State response). Accordingly, Israel has sparingly approved requests for family unification submitted by residents of the Occupied Territories, and has almost entirely prevented these residents from being unified with their spouses. In the Oslo agreements, the authority to approve family unification remained solely in Israel's power, even though other civil powers were transferred to the Palestinian Authority.

After the second intifada broke out in 2000, Israel froze processing of requests for family unification that had been submitted until then, and refused to accept new requests. Since then, the Palestinian Interior Ministry has accumulated more than 120,000 requests for family unification that the Israeli authorities have refused to handle. Knowing that requests are not being processed, some Palestinians have refrained from submitting requests. Therefore, the actual number of residents of the Occupied Territories married to non-residents, and requiring Israel’s approval to live together in the Occupied Territories, may be much higher.

Israel has not explained why it froze processing of the requests, saying only that, “due to the recent events [the outbreak of the second intifada], the processing of requests for family unification in Judea and Samaria has been suspended. . .”

In 2007, HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual filed dozens of petitions on behalf of residents of the Occupied Territories whose request for family unification was not being handled. HaMoked also filed a principled petition, to which other human rights organizations joined, demanding that Israel renew its processing of the requests for family unification. Following the filing of the petitions, the state announced that it would examine 12,000 requests for family unification as a “political gesture” to the Palestinian government under Mahmud Abbas. On the eve of the hearing on the petition, in October 2008, the state announced it would increase the number of requests to be processed to 50,000. The state informed the court that the Palestinian Authority had so far forwarded it 32,000 requests, of which 23,000 had been approved and the others awaited review. The court then denied the petition.

Since then, Israel’s processing of the requests, or whether it is handling them at all, has been unclear.

Given the freeze, couples in which only one of the spouses is a resident of the Occupied Territories must choose between two options. One option is that the resident spouse leave the Occupied Territories and the couple live together abroad. The other option, available when the non-resident spouse is already in the Occupied Territories, is to have the said spouse live there without a legal status. In this situation, the couple and their children must live in hiding, in constant fear of deportation, arrest, and fines.