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(photo credit: AP [file])
The High Court of Justice is due on Monday to hear petitions by four mixed-marriage families living in the West Bank in which one of the spouses was born abroad in a non-Western country and cannot become a resident and live without fear of being expelled by Israeli authorities.
According to Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the B'Tselem human rights organization, these four are test cases regarding a policy introduced by Israel in 2000, after the outbreak of the second intifada, to prevent foreign spouses from obtaining legal status in the West Bank and Gaza. There are 43 other petitions whose fate will be decided by the outcome of the first four. The petitioners are being represented by Attorney Yossi Wolfson of Moked - Defense of the Individual.
According to B'Tselem, the 47 petitions filed so far asking the court to grant residency status to the foreign spouses of native Palestinians are just the tip of the iceberg. The human rights organization said that, according to a survey it commissioned in July, 21.3 percent of all Palestinians have a first-degree relative who is not registered in the Palestinian population registry. This means that 120,000 families are directly affected by Israel's policy and about 60,000 people are living in the territories without legal status.
One of the families that has petitioned includes a Palestinian doctor from Ramallah who studied medicine in Russia and married a local fellow student. The couple, Olga and Muhammad Hamdan, married in 1996 and returned to the West Bank two years later. Olga Hamdan's visitor's permit expired in March 1999. On August 31, 1999 she applied for residency status on the basis of her marriage but did not receive it because of the freeze.
"In light of the [government's] freeze policy, the petitioner fears leaving the territories," wrote Wolfson. "She knows that if she does she will not be able to return to her home, her spouse and her children. The experience gained by Hamoked supports this fear. Faced with the inhuman dilemma of choosing between her own family life and a visit with her aging parents in Russia, Hamdan is forced to pay the price of separation from her parents."
In fact, all of the spouses who petitioned cannot even travel within the West Bank, let alone abroad, unless they are willing to take the risk of being arrested by Israeli soldiers and deported.
Dr. Nidal Saleem, an oncologist at the Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center, lives in Bethlehem with his Russian-born wife, whom he met while studying in Russia. The couple returned to the West Bank in 1999. Saleem's wife lives in Bethlehem without legal status. "All my colleagues want to help, but nobody can," he told a group of reporters at a press conference last week.
Saleem added that he had treated the foreign wife of a Palestinian resident at Augusta Victoria Hospital on Mount Scopus who had pancreatic cancer and required treatment almost every day. However, since she had no identity card, she could not cross from the West Bank into east Jerusalem every day. Saleem said he arranged to give her a bed in the hospital for three months, even though his director was angry at him for occupying one badly needed hospital bed with one patient for so long.
In its reply to the petition, the state said that according to the Oslo Accords, all requests for residency status for the foreign spouses of local Palestinians had to be directed to the Palestinian Authority, which then was supposed to forward them to Israel's Interior Ministry. After the outbreak of the second intifada, liaison between Israel and the PA broke down and the Palestinians stopped forwarding such requests to Israel. The state's representatives in the petition, Attorneys Itai Ravid and Hani Ofek, admitted, however, that Israel would not have granted residency status anyway.
The attorneys also argued that the question of how to deal with this matter was a question of government policy, with which the court was not supposed to interfere.
Wolfson told the reporters that the state "is not denying the spouses' residency rights for security reasons. They say the reason is political? This isn't even collective punishment, because no one has done anything wrong. Israel appears to be waging demographic war."