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Families Torn Apart: Separation of Palestinian Families in the Occupied Territories

July 1999, Summary

  • The right to marry and maintain a proper and unified family life are recognized in international law. The immigration laws of most nations, Israel included, enable the immigration of close relatives of citizens for the purpose of family unification and provide the immigrants with a legal status in the State.
  • Israel has never recognized the right of Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories to family unification, i.e., the right of their husband or wife and their children to receive the lawful status of resident. Israel's policy has compelled tens of thousands of Palestinians to live apart from their spouse, leaving the children separated for prolonged periods from one of their parents. This separation has caused emotional and economic problems, precludes parents from raising their children jointly, and makes it difficult to develop proper family relationships.
  • Israel's policy on family unification is based on political considerations, which are an improper basis under international law dealing with occupied territory. The policy's objective is to change the demographics in the Occupied Territories. The means used is the refusal to allow spouses of Palestinian residents to immigrate there and by encouraging separated Palestinian families to leave the Occupied Territories and settle in other countries.
  • Among Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, marriage within the extended family is widespread. These marriage patterns, which continued after 1967 and remain in practice, have led to a high number of marriages between residents of the Occupied Territories and Palestinians residing in other countries, among them refugees of 1967 and the descendants of refugees of 1948. Israel chose to ignore this reality, imposing a rigid policy regarding family unification that conflicts with the normal manner of life within Palestinian society.
  • In conducting its rigid family unification policy, Israel provides three possibilities to Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories who are married to non-residents:
    • living separately, where the spouses live apart and the children reside with one of the parents;
    • maintaining a truncated family life and spending time with their spouse only during visits to the Occupied Territories, which are short and subject to Israeli approval;
    • moving elsewhere, abandoning their home, parents, and homeland.

Because of the obstacles inherent in each of these possibilities, most non-resident spouses decided to remain in the Occupied Territories illegally after their visitor's permit expired. In doing this, they are compelled to live an underground existence, forever fearful of deportation and fines.

  • Over the years, Israel has modified its policy regarding family unification in the Occupied Territories:
    • 1967 to 1973: limited allowance of family unification for war refugees;
    • 1973 to 1993: almost total refusal to approve requests for family unification and deportation and threats against non-resident spouses who remain in the Occupied Territories without a valid visitor's permit;
    • August 1993 to November 1995: family unification allowed for spouses up to a quota of 2,000 families a year, while compelling the families to remain separated during the prolonged period prior to receiving approval;
    • November 1995 to the end of 1997: the family unification procedure is frozen because of Israel's refusal to meet the demand of the Palestinian Authority to either increase the annual quota or revoke it;
    • 1998 to the present: re-implementation of the family unification procedure, applying the same quota as that of 1993.
  • Following intensive legal activity by human rights organization, most notably HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, in the early 1990s, the authorities allowed thousands of Palestinians to live together in the Occupied Territories. This was done by means of long-term visitor's permits the authorities granted to the non-resident relatives. This arrangement was applied arbitrarily only to a limited number of families, and was insufficient to change the overall policy denying the right of family unification to all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. In addition, the arrangement was frequently violated in its execution.
  • In spite of the undertakings mentioned in the interim agreement "to promote and upgrade family reunification" in order to "reflect the spirit of the peace process," the Oslo Accords did not significantly solve the problem of family separation in the Occupied Territories. Even following implementation of the agreements, Israel continues to have decisive authority over unification and separation of every family in the Occupied Territories. Israel unilaterally established that family unification in the Occupied Territories would continue to be subject to the annual quota set prior to the interim agreement, even though the quota is woefully inadequate.
  • Israel and the Palestinian Authority currently have more than 13,000 pending requests for family unification in the West Bank. If the quota remains as is, it will take until the year 2006 to meet these requests. Requests filed now will take almost a decade to receive approval. Consequently, a Palestinian who marries a non-resident today will be able to live with his spouse in the Occupied Territories only ten years from now, if ever.
  • Over the years, the bureaucratic procedure for handling requests for family unification has been convoluted, prolonged, secretive, and replete with harassment and high financial cost. The authorities have never taken the trouble to solve thoroughly these problems, leading to the suspicion that this refusal is part of the policy to place every possible obstacle before persons requesting family unification in order to reduce the number of applicants.
  • Until November 1995, Israel refused to register in the Population Registry Palestinian children whose mother is not a resident of the Occupied Territories, even if the father is a resident. The only avenue available for the fathers to register their children was by requesting family unification on their behalf, which requests are rarely approved. Since November 1995, the Palestinian Authority has been allowed to register every child up to the age of sixteen one of whose parents is a resident of the Occupied Territories. However, there is no procedure for registering children between sixteen to eighteen, and to accomplish this, their parents must submit a request for family unification on behalf of their children.
  • The Supreme Court has rejected the vast majority of petitions filed concerning family unification in the Occupied Territories. The High Court of Justice adopted the State's position and ruled that the petitioners are not entitled to family unification. The Court totally ignored the fact that the government's policy, which denies family unification for spouses, severely prejudices their fundamental right, applying also in occupied territory, to maintain a family life. The Court adopted as assumed the State's contention that there are security ramifications in approving entry of foreign spouses into the region, but has never examined the relevant security considerations and their significance. The Court did not expose, or even try to expose, the actual objective of Israel's policy - to change over the long run the demographic balance between Palestinians and Jews in the Occupied Territories.
  • The relationship between Occupied Territories' residents and the Occupied Territories is like that between a citizen and his country, even though they are not citizens of the Occupied Territories. They grew up there or lived there for many years after arriving as refugees; most are not citizens or residents of another country and are not immigrants who came to the Occupied Territories from another country, so they have no other homeland to which they can go to live with their family. Their right to maintain a proper family life in the Occupied Territories is their basic right, which Israel may not deny.