Residency & family separation

Israel's position on family unification in the occupied territories

Published: 
1 Jan 2017

As the occupying country, Israel has the authority to close and determine who may enter the Occupied Territories. The exercise of this authority, however, is permissible only in cases in which it is necessary for the security of the region or for the needs of proper administration. Israel exercised this power to prevent family unification of residents of the Occupied Territories with their spouses and children.

The position of the military government, presented by the State Attorney's Office before the High Court of Justice, is that "family unification is not a vested right" nor a "personal right that is acquired whose exercise may be demanded at any time." Therefore, approval of a request for family unification is "a special benevolent act of the Israeli authorities," and Israel is not obligated to approve such requests:

It is no longer acceptable that any male resident of one of the regions who so desires may marry a woman from outside and bring her into the region, or that every female resident... may marry a foreign resident and bring him into the region.... The decision on who enters and who settles in one of the regions (Judea and Samaria or the Gaza Strip) is a decision to be made by the authorities, and no resident, male or female, may compel the authorities to accept his or her private determination in this matter.

State representatives argued that approval of requests for family unification constitutes a problem "with security ramifications" but have never detailed the specific ramifications. In addition, only in a handful of cases did the military authorities justify the rejection on security grounds. In many cases where the requests for family unification on behalf of spouses were denied, the authorities allowed the foreign-resident spouses to enter the Occupied Territories for regular visits, without considering their entry a security threat.

Statements of Israeli officials indicate that the objective in rejecting requests for family unification is purely demographic: to prevent an increase in the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories by prohibiting spouses from immigrating to the Occupied Territories and by encouraging separated families to leave the Occupied Territories. Israel does not seek to conceal that the political-demographic consideration is one of the considerations dictating its family unification policy, with government officials at times making such declarations.

For example, Brig. Gen. Ephraim Sneh, while head of the Civil Administration in the Gaza Strip, stated in his affidavit submitted to the High Court of Justice in 1986 that, "[The policy on family unification] ultimately became a complex and problematic matter - with political and security aspects - of a means of immigration into the regions." The State Attorney's Office also argued at times before the High Court of Justice that the numerous requests for family unification raise a "complex problem with security, political, and economic ramifications." Israel has never indicated the ramifications to which it refers, has not offered figures on the scope of the immigration, and has not indicated whether the immigration of spouses into the Occupied Territories is greater than the number of emigrating residents.

The State Attorney's Office conceded that the policy of rejecting requests for family unification compels persons wanting to live with their spouses to go abroad. It suggested that those seeking family unification leave the Occupied Territories: "Families in such a situation can unite outside the region... by the local spouse leaving the region and going to where the foreign spouse is residing."

The Supreme Court rejected the vast majority of petitions relating to family unification in the Occupied Territories. The Court accepted all the State's claims and ruled that the petitioners did not have a right to family unification. The Court totally ignored the fact that the military administration's policy of denying family unification of spouses has a devastating effect on their basic right, also protected in occupied territory, to maintain a family life. The Court simply accepted the military government's argument that there are "security" consequences to allowing foreign spouses into the region, but it never examined the relevant security considerations and their weight. The actual purpose of the military government's policy was to alter the long-term demographic balance between Palestinians and Jews in the Occupied Territories. The Court did not expose this purpose, nor did it even try to expose it.