A German Affair, Not Just a Love Story in Palestine

Why does Israel discriminate against foreign citizens who marry Palestinian residents of the West Bank?

Diplomatic representatives of Germany, France, Spain and the United States attended an Israeli Supreme Court hearing last Thursday, even though the petition being heard related to a German citizen and her right to live with her Palestinian spouse in their own home in Hebron. The couple, whose request for family unification was rejected by Israel, are Josefin Herbach and Abdelrahman Salaymeh. “I was very tense during the hearing,” said Salaymeh. “For the judges this was just another file, for us it’s our entire life.”

The diplomats did right to attend the hearing, since this individual case is tied to a general matter of principle: Why on earth does Israel forbid citizens of these countries to live peacefully and securely with their Palestinian spouses in Bethlehem, Ramallah or Jenin? Why does Israel discriminate against U.S., South American and European citizens, in comparison to other citizens of those same countries, only because they married Palestinians who are residents of the West Bank (and Jerusalem), and not Jews?

This question is addressed to all countries that have diplomatic, military, economic and cultural ties with Israel: Why the hell do you consent to Israel turning some of your citizens, who are equal before your law, into citizens who are inferior to your other citizens, devoid of the right to determine their family life? Why do you accept such discrimination, which is based on ethnicity, if not on racist considerations?

Spoiler: The hearing was short. Justices Uzi Fogelman, Anat Baron and Yosef Elron decided not to discuss the petition, since this is what the state asked for. The state is still in the process of formulating a new policy, the judges and petitioners were told for the hundredth time. Thus, there was no discussion of the individual case of Herbach and Salaymeh or of the principle raised by the petition, namely the blatant state intervention in the family lives of Palestinians. It was agreed that Herbach’s visa would be extended by another six months, with the state updating the court on September 1 with regard to any new policy.

A reminder: Herbach and Salaymeh met and fell in love in 2015, while she was studying Arabic in Hebron, where he was her teacher. They got married in November 2015. Israel controls all borders, determining which foreigners get entry or residence visas for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In January 2016, Israel extended Herbach’s visa by only six days, demanding that she leave when it expired.

Since then she has been living in her house under a temporary injunction issued by the High Court of Justice in response to a petition filed by attorneys Yotam Ben-Hillel and Leora Bechor, requesting a stay of her deportation. Her residence visa is extended every few months, but she’s restricted to the West Bank only, forbidden to enter Israel. On the eve of the latest hearing she was given a one-day entry pass into Jerusalem.

In June 2017 the state refused the couple’s request for family unification, namely, the granting of permanent resident status in the West Bank to Herbach. Israel controls the Palestinian population registry in the West Bank and Gaza. It alone determines to whom the Palestinian Authority can issue a resident identity card, meaning a resident status. The reason given for denying Salaymeh’s request for family unification: “This is a political issue. According to current policies and in accordance with the standpoint of political echelons, requests for family unification in this area [the West Bank] are approved only in exceptional cases or in special humanitarian circumstances.”

A couple who fall in love and want to live together is not a humanitarian case, and definitely not an exceptional one. If Herbach were to marry, for example, a settler in Kiryat Arba, which is built on Hebron land, the attitude towards her would be quite different. She would obtain permanent resident status, possibly citizenship, and until that happened, her visas would get extended without her heart rate jumping beforehand and without her needing to run to the High Court. When the request was denied, attorneys Ben-Hillel and Bechor composed a new petition.

As mentioned, the debate on the individual case and the principle involved was deferred. “There is no point in arguing the merit of the case since the state has no position,” explained Justice Fogelman on Thursday. “The issue requires an extension due to the period we’re in [election] – this issue has wider aspects.”

Ben-Hillel explained that West Bank families in which one spouse is a foreigner live in legal limbo; on one hand, the state makes it difficult for that spouse to obtain a residence visa, or it shortens its duration. “Once you could get a visa for a year, now, if you’re lucky, you get one for three months,” he said. On the other hand, family unification is only approved in rare and exceptional humanitarian circumstances, with no details given as to what these are.

Sharon Hoash-Eiger, attorney for the state, asked that the petition be struck from the record and that should a new policy, if formulated, leads to another denial of the request for unification, the couple could submit a new petition. Ben-Hillel rejected this. The judges decided not to strike the current petition.

“It makes it a bit easier to know that we’re not the only ones,” said Salaymeh, referring to at least 30,000 other families whose requests for unification are gathering dust after Israel froze any processing of these cases. Because according to Israel, the family life of Palestinians is a political issue, not a legal one, and definitely not a fundamental human one.