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Family Unification in the OPT

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In 1967, with the onset of the occupation, Israel held a census in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Only those Palestinians who were present in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) were recorded as permanent residents in the population registry. Ever since, with the exception of children under 16, a person who is not listed in the population registry is able, allegedly, to acquire residency status only through the family-unification procedure, which only a first degree relative who is listed as an OPT resident may file for him.

Since 1967, the family unification procedure has undergone transformations and reversals – frequent changes of criteria and regulations, procedural obstacles set by the military and a policy of non response and total disregard of family unification applications. In the first period following the occupation Israel used to approve family unification applications by OPT residents, but in 1973, Israel altered its policy and since then, in reality, in all but exceptional cases, Israel has been preventing the unification of families in the OPT. The policy change was based on the conception that the residents of the OPT are not entitled to family unification and any approval granted is merely a courtesy on Israel’s part.

Following a series of petitions filed by HaMoked to the High Court of Justice (HCJ) in the early 1990's on the issue of family unification between OPT residents and their spouses, the policy of the Israeli authorities was reexamined and reformulated. The petitions were erased following Israel's undertaking, which led to the formulation of what has come to be known as the first and second HCJ populations – whereby spouses of OPT residents were given long-term visitor permits to the OPT as part of the family unification process. It was also decided that marriage to an OPT resident would constitute a valid criterion for approval of family unification applications, subject to a quota of 2,000 request approvals per year. Later on, the quota was raised to 4,000 approvals per year. The recognition of marriage as grounds for family unification was incorporated into the Oslo Accords.

Under the Oslo Accords, the powers to administer the population registry in the OPT were officially transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA), but approval of family unification applications and the issuance of visitor permits to foreigners remained under Israeli authority; Officially, in such cases the PA was to act as an intermediary, receiving applications and delivering them to Israel for approval. However, at the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, Israel froze the processing of applications for visitor permits and family unification. The military commander declined to accept applications from the PA, and discontinued processing those already accepted. Applications already approved, could not be effectuated. In April 2006, following the Palestinian parliamentary elections and Hamas' rise to power, the situation became worse when Israel announced a complete severing of relations with the PA, including population registry issues.

HaMoked asserts that Israel's freeze policy is driven by external political considerations, and lies outside the authority of the military commander. This policy leads to a substantive infringement of the rights of tens of thousands of Palestinians who wish to live with their family in the West Bank, and is in violation of the occupier's obligations under international law. The current policy of Israel dictates that by itself, a spousal relationship is not a criterion for approval or extension of OPT visitor permits, or for approval of family unification applications; this despite the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled that the right to family life is a basic right and an essential part of human dignity.

In October 2007, following a series of petitions by HaMoked challenging Israel's policy of preventing Palestinians residents of the OPT from conducting family life and living with their spouses and children therein, Israel announced its decision to initiate a process towards the approval of a certain number of family unification applications, as part of a "political gesture" towards the Abu Mazen administration. This only concerned applications on behalf of spouses who were already present in the OPT by virtue of visitor permits. The procedure suggested by Israel did not extend to applications of spouses who were then staying outside of the OPT or to any type of new application.

The state representatives relied on this one-time gesture and requested the court to erase the petitions, as if the matter was thereby resolved and as if it proved that this was a "political matter", in which the court should not with intervene. HaMoked responded that this isolated "gesture" was driven by political motives and did not constitute a real solution of the general issue, and even gave support to the claim that Israel was illegally turning the family life of the civilian population in the OPT into a bargaining chip for political negotiations.

HaMoked reaffirms that Israel is obligated to handle the family unification requests of OPT residents on a regular basis, in recognition of their right to family life. Such a position would also give relief to couples who have gotten married after the freeze – some of whom, as a result, are forced to live abroad, others live in the OPT in constant fear of deportation, and do not dare to go outside their home, afraid that they would not be able to return. It should be noted that since the "gesture" was set, Israel has refused to approve applications which do not appear on the lists sent in preparation for the gesture – including those who were already entitled to be registered under other arrangements, such as the first HCJ population, etc.

Until July 2008, Israel approved some 32,000 family-unification applications as part of its "political gesture". The Israeli elections in February 2009 and the change of government brought about a complete stop of family-unification approvals,and the entrenchment of the complete freeze policy.

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