After the outbreak of the second intifada at the end of September 2000, Israel imposed a blanket freeze on the processing of requests for family unification and for visitors’ permits to the Territories. This policy denies tens of thousands of Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip the right to live with their spouses and children in the Territories under a single roof. The denial of this right entails, among other violations, grave injury to the social, economic, and psychological condition of all the members of these families. This injury is exacerbated as this policy continues. As of October 2005, 72,000 families in the Territories had filed family unification applications for an immediate relative living outside the area who cannot enter the Territories, or who is already present in the area but is defined by Israel as an “illegal alien.”
The only procedure by which a person who is not registered in the Population Registry in the Territories may receive status enabling him to live permanently and lawfully in the area is an application for family unification. Such an application may only be submitted on his behalf by an immediate relative holding resident status in the Territories. The large number of such families, in which one of the spouses is a resident of the Territories and the other is a “foreigner,” reflects the ongoing affinities between the residents of the Territories and the Palestinian Diaspora, as well as the results of Israeli policies that have driven residents of the Territories to work, study, and build families outside the Territories.
The family unification procedure is closely and intricately connected with another bureaucratic procedure – the receipt of a visitor’s permit. Firstly, the registration of a person in the Population Registry and the issuing of an identity card after approval of the application for family unification are conditioned on the person’s physical presence in the Territories. Accordingly, the actual implementation of the approval granted by Israel is conditioned on receipt of a visitor’s permit enabling the person to be present in the Territories. The obligation to be present on registration also applies to the registration of children born abroad to parents who are residents of the Territories; accordingly, here too there is a close connection between the two procedures. Secondly, since the timeframe for the processing of family unification applicants has always extended over many years, many families require such permits during the waiting period in order to live together in the Territories, albeit for short periods.
This report focuses on Israel’s policy on the issue of family unification in the Territories since the outbreak of the second intifada, including the issuing of visitors’ permits, and on the ramifications of this policy. The report documents the main features of Israeli policy in this matter over the past five years, highlighting the grave injury to human rights caused by this policy, which entails the gross violation by Israel of its undertakings in accordance with international law. The current report updates and expands on the review of the situation presented in the previous report published by HaMoked and B’Tselem on this subject in 1999 (Families Torn Apart, Separation of Palestinian Families in The Occupied Territories Hebrew).
Israel claims that its policy on this issue is due to the events of the second intifada and the security situation prevailing in the Territories. However, Israel has never bothered to explain how the freeze policy is connected to the uprising in the Territories and in what manner this policy serves its security needs. Over the years, Israel has refused to consider alternatives to its sweeping policy that could limit the scope of the injury to Palestinian families. Thus, for example, Israel rejected the possibility of examining family unification applications on an individual basis according to the ostensible extent of the security risk in each case.
Under international law, Israel is entitled to consider its security requirements when determining its policy in the Territories. However, the term “security requirements” is not a catch-all phrase permitting Israel to act as it chooses and to trample on the human rights of the Palestinian population that is under its complete control. In the case of Israel’s policy on the subject of family unification in the Territories, this is exactly the situation. Given the sweeping and arbitrary character of this policy, it constitutes a gross violation of the right to family life of residents of the Territories – a right that is established both in international human rights law and in international humanitarian law.
The lack of grounds and the lack of transparency regarding the freeze policy imposed by Israel reinforce the suspicion that they reflect improper political and demographic considerations. The practical consequence of this policy is to restrict the growth of the Palestinian population in the Territories, both by preventing the entry of the partners of residents, and their children, and by creating an incentive for the migration of residents. Accordingly, this policy – even if only indirectly – serves Israel’s territorial aspirations in the West Bank in general, and its settlement policy in particular. The logic is clear: the greater the Palestinian population, the great the difficulties faced in seizing further areas in the West Bank, and vice versa.
In light of the serious injury to the human rights of tens of thousands of families created by Israel’s policy, and given the illegality of this policy, HaMoked and B’Tselem demand that the Israeli government immediately recommence the processing of applications for family unification and visitors’ permits in a manner that enables the residents to realize their right to live with their families in the Territories within a reasonable period of time.
In this context, Israel must respect the discretion of the Palestinian Authority in terms of immigration policy; refrain from applying political or demographic considerations; confine itself to strictly security-based considerations; and give full weight to all the relevant human rights.