Over the years, Israel has changed its policy on family unification in the Occupied Territories. After 1967, Israel allowed family unification among war refugees in limited numbers. In 1973, Israel began to deny almost all requests for family unification. In 1993, Israel granted partial recognition to the right to family unification for spouses, but simultaneously imposed a restrictive policy that in fact compelled prolonged separation. This policy was implemented until power over the population registry was transferred to the PA in November 1995.
1967 - 1973: Shortly after the 1967 War, Israel initiated a procedure enabling residents of the Occupied Territories to submit requests for family unification for their relatives who had become war refugees. This policy lasted for some five years, during which it is estimated that, following the approximately 140,000 requests, 45,000 to 50,000 refugees returned to the Occupied Territories for family unification.
1973 - 1993: In 1973, new and harsher criteria were established for approval of requests for family unification. The criteria remained confidential because the military government opposed their publication. Because of the stricter criteria, the number of approvals fell sharply. According to Meron Benvenisti, the authorities approved between nine hundred and twelve hundred requests per year from 1973 to 1983.
At the end of 1983, the authorities reevaluated the policy of family unification in the Occupied Territories. Following the reevaluation, the authorities adopted a policy whose declared intention was "to reduce, as much as possible, the approval of requests for family unification," which are "a means of immigration into the area." The new policy greatly reduced the possibility for family unification of Occupied Territories residents and their non-resident spouses and children, leaving residents the option of leading a single life in their homeland or emigrating and establishing their family unit abroad.
After implementation of the stricter policy, approvals for family unification fell by one-third. Israel did not publish official figures on the number of requests for family unification that were submitted and approved each year. Partial figures, published by various sources, indicate that, after 1984, only several hundred requests were approved annually. The Palestinian population at the time amounted to more than 1.3 million persons. This policy remained in effect until August 1993.
Following intensive legal activity by human rights organizations, most notably HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, in the early 1990s, the authorities allowed - by granting long-term visitor's permits to the non-resident relatives - thousands of Palestinians to live together in the Occupied Territories. The authorities applied this arrangement arbitrarily only to a limited number of families, thereby maintaining the overall policy of denying the right of family unification to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Furthermore, the authorities frequently breached the arrangement.
1993 - 1995: In August 1993, following a number of petitions filed by HaMoked relating to deportation of relatives from the Occupied Territories, the State Attorney's Office informed the High Court of Justice that, in the context of the peace talks, Israel had decided "to implement a new, more lenient, policy on requests for family unification in the region." In the framework of this policy, it had been decided to take the following measures:
All requests for family unification of spouses and children who received long-term permits to stay in the Occupied Territories will be approved.
- An annual quota of approvals for family unification will be set. The quota will be divided into two categories: requests for family unification of husband and wife, and requests based on humanitarian reasons.
The State Attorney's Office's notice of August 1993 indicated a significant change of conception, and in adopting the quota policy, Israel recognized for the first time that the marriage relationship justifies family unification. However, the State Attorney's Office made it clear that the new policy did not constitute a waiver or change in the State's fundamental position which holds that "family unification is not an entitlement," but "a special act of benevolence."
The annual quota was set at 2,000 requests, with each request able to include one's spouse and their children under the age of sixteen. The size of the quota would be subject to annual review. The initial quota was divided into 1,200 approvals per year for the West Bank and 800 approvals for the Gaza Strip. The quota for the West Bank was broken down into 900 requests in the "spouse quota" category and 300 in the "humanitarian requests" category. These categories were divided among the districts. The requests were handled according to their date of submission in the relevant category, When the quota in a specific district was met, subsequent requests from that district were relegated to handling as part of the district's quota for the following year.
B'Tselem received no reply to its request to the authorities for data on the number of Palestinians who had submitted an application for family unification since implementation of the quota system began. However, review of the policy's implementation shows clearly that the quota was too small and did not meet the needs of the population.
November 1995 to the present: The quota policy was in place for more than two years up until the transfer of population registry matters to the Palestinian Authority in November 1995. Israel demanded that the policy remain intact even after the Oslo Accords. The PA demanded an increase in the annual quota or its cancellation. The dispute led to the freezing of the quota policy in the West Bank until the beginning of 1998 when the quota-based family unification policy was reinstituted. In 1998 and 1999, the quota stood at 2,000 requests per year. In 2000, the annual quota rose to 4,000 requests.
The great delay in responding to the requests for family unification had grave consequences for the separated families. In 1985, Israel initiated a regulation which provided that "visits in the region are not allowed by persons for whom a request for family unification had been submitted, until decision on the request for family unification has been made." How long the waiting period would last was unknown, and they had no option but to wait without being permitted even a short visit in the Occupied Territories. The authorities explained this decision on the grounds that "a visit, particularly during pregnancy, would create a factual situation through which the applicant would seek to bypass the request for family unification and force its approval." Furthermore, residents could not stay with their families outside the Occupied Territories for a prolonged period because of the fear that the request for family unification would be rejected. The fear was based on Israel's policy of rejecting such requests on the grounds that the residents moved their "center of life" to a location outside the Occupied Territories.
Residents with these difficulties chose not to apply for family unification. In order to see their families in the visitation framework, they were compelled to settle for short, broken visits and repeatedly face separation between visits. These visits depended on the Israeli authorities' granting a visitor's permit, which was generally given during the summer for a period of up to three months. When the permit expired, the visitor was required to leave the Occupied Territories. Children who entered with their visiting parent were required to leave with them. Once the visitor left, he or she had to wait at least three months before being allowed to visit again. In many instances, the authorities did not approve a new visitor's permit even after the waiting period had passed. The "center of life" criterion was also applied in determining whether to grant permits to visit in the Occupied Territories: residents living outside the Occupied Territories with a non-resident spouse were denied visitor's permits for their spouse, the officials alleging that "they had transferred their center of life" to another location and that they do not live in the Occupied Territories.
Families living under these regulations had no fixed framework for their lives. Their family life was characterized by the constant and repeated separation of husband from wife, and of the children from one of the parents. This way of life also entailed tiring and difficult journeys and delays at border crossings, which were especially hard on the elderly, pregnant women, small children, and infants.
Because of these difficulties, and since there was no other way to prevent separation from their families for prolonged periods, in many cases family members remained in the Occupied Territories after their visitor's permits had expired. The military authorities considered these persons to be "lawbreakers," and since 1989 have used various means - from threatening them financially to deporting them from their homes in the middle of the night - to make them leave.
The bureaucratic process relating to requests for family unification has consistently been characterized by complexity, delay, secrecy, harassment, and great financial cost. The authorities have never acted to thoroughly solve these problems.