Israel Sees Palestinian Family Reunification as a Demographic “Threat”

In 2015, the Hebrew-language novel Gader Haya (published in English as Borderlife) was banned in Israeli high schools by the Ministry of Education. The book, a winner of Israel’s Bernstein Prize for young writers, portrays the story of an Israeli translator and a Palestinian artist who meet in New York and fall in love. Ultimately, the pair split up, as the translator goes back home to Tel Aviv, and the artist returns to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Geographically, the cities are a mere hour apart; in reality, they are essentially different worlds. The book was loosely based on the experience of the author, Dorit Rabinyan, and on her brief relationship with Palestinian artist Hassan Hourani. According to an Israeli Education Ministry spokesperson attempting to justify the book ban, “Intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews are viewed by many in society as a threat to separate identities.”

It is not surprising that a society that fears the mere suggestion in a work of fiction of romantic love between Palestinians and Israelis would eventually enshrine in law policies that prevent such relationships in real life. In March 2022, Israel passed a law that denies naturalization to Palestinians from the occupied territories who marry an Israeli citizen, formalizing a decree that had been enacted in 2003 and renewed annually. Spouses from other “enemy states,” including Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, are also barred from family reunification with Israeli citizens and residents. Although the law applies to Palestinians who are married to both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, it is clearly the latter at whom it is predominantly targeted, and the law’s goal is quite plainly to keep the Palestinian population in Israel from growing. This was made explicit by then Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who told an Israeli newspaper, “We don’t need to mince words, the law also has demographic reasons.” And the Knesset member who brought the law forward also made the intention of the law quite clear, telling the Knesset before the vote, “The State of Israel is Jewish and so it will remain….Today, God willing, Israel’s defensive shield will be significantly strengthened,”

A country cannot be a democracy, a place for all of its residents, while simultaneously enshrining the supremacy of one group of people over others.

Since its creation in 1948, Israel’s existence has been predicated on its insistence that it exists first as a Jewish state and second as a democracy. Its pursuit of the former goal, however, contradicts the latter. A country cannot be a democracy, a place for all of its residents, while simultaneously enshrining the supremacy of one group of people over others. This, however, is exactly what Israel does, and it does so explicitly. For example, newly reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently stated that, in his view, “The Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel.” In those same remarks, he also stated that his government “will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel,” including the West Bank. And current Knesset member and Minister of Culture and Sport Miki Zohar recently complained that, “The Arabs are taking over the country,” further highlighting the Israeli government’s concern about the demographic composition of Israel.

Approximately 20 percent of Israel’s population is Palestinian. Israel also remains the occupying power of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where an additional 5 million Palestinians live under Israeli control. Despite the success of Israel’s settler colonial expansion, with an estimated 620,000 Jewish settlers living on occupied Palestinian territory, maintaining Israel’s character as a Jewish state requires not just Jewish immigration to Israel, but the restriction of the Palestinian population’s ability to grow. Israel has thus levied the significant control it possesses over the movement and administration of Palestinians to further regulate the most basic of human interactions: the ability to build and maintain a family.

The Demographic “Threat”

Starting from the initial establishment of the state, policymakers in Israel recognized that, being a minority population at the time, their control of the land would be problematic, both logistically and in terms of the perception of the international community. This is where viewpoints like that of Bezalel Smotrich, once on the relative fringes of Israeli politics but now Israel’s finance minister and the minister in charge of the Israeli Civil Administration (the component of the defense ministry that administers the West Bank), are rooted. Just two years ago, Smotrich stood in the Knesset and told his Palestinian Arab colleagues, “You’re here by mistake, it’s a mistake that [Israel’s first Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.”

It is this racist ideology that underpins much of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, including its long-standing refusal to even entertain the possibility of the right of return for Palestinian refugees who were forced to flee their homes in 1948, even for those with family members who remained. However, in recent decades, the acknowledgement of what is often referred to as the “demographic threat” has become more overt, and has become less tied to the plight of Palestinians abroad and more to the fate of those who remain in Israel and the occupied territories. Comparing the birth rates of Palestinian and Jewish Israeli women has been seen in Israel as a legitimate form of argument on this matter, with higher Palestinian fertility rates labeled by Israeli officials as not just a personal family issue, but as a threat to security. From this viewpoint, it is not enough to merely keep Palestinians from returning; policies must also be put in place to keep their population from expanding. As one Israeli professor and historian argued in Israel Hayom, the country’s most widely distributed newspaper, “The demographic race between Jews and Arabs is at the heart of the national conflict in Israel….Our strategy has to be demographic expansion and blocking Arab-Muslim migration to Israel.”

For residents of East Jerusalem who marry residents of the West Bank, the barriers to family reunification are cumbersome and the process takes ten years on average.

This strategy has been enacted in multiple ways, through physical, medical, and political means. For example, Netanyahu has admitted that Israel’s illegal separation wall, the justification for which was initially grounded in security, would also help to prevent the “demographic spillover” of Palestinians from the West Bank. Although Israel bans polygamy, the law is rarely enforced, and the few times a criminal case was brought occurred in instances where the marriage was with a Palestinian woman from the occupied territories. And just recently, an Israeli physician decried the growth of the “problematic population” in Israel while addressing former Minister Shaked, calling for a fine on the fifth child that emerges from “the Arab womb,” as he phrased it, and arguing, “We have to figure out something.”

And indeed, Israel has. Not satisfied with restrictions on Palestinian family reunification for Israeli citizens, just months after the passage of the citizenship law the Israeli Defense Ministry proposed additional restrictions, even on foreigners who begin relationships with Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank. Not only did officials expect foreigners to inform the ministry if they fall in love with a Palestinian, but if the two married, the ministry wanted to require the foreign spouse to leave the West Bank after 27 months for a “cooling-off period” of at least six months. After significant international outcry (and perhaps more importantly, due to a long-standing Israeli desire to join the US visa waiver program), Israel backed off on some of these measures. But it still kept others that affect Palestinian families, such as maintaining the power to ban individuals with citizenship from Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, South Sudan, or Jordan (where at least 60 percent of the population is of Palestinian origin) from entering the West Bank.

For residents of East Jerusalem who marry residents of the West Bank, the barriers to family reunification are just as cumbersome, and the process takes ten years on average, if an application is even successful at all. From 2000 to 2013, 43 percent of family reunification applications from East Jerusalem were rejected. Children born in East Jerusalem to parents from the West Bank, meanwhile, face an entirely different procedure, and thousands of children have been rejected from registering in East Jerusalem despite being born there. These children are thus forced to live in the city without legal status, a situation that limits their access to health care and education. Furthermore, Israel has created an additional onerous burden, requiring that East Jerusalem residents must prove their “center of life” is in the city in order to ensure residency. Thousands of East Jerusalem residents have had their residency revoked due to arbitrary “violations” of this provision, leaving many hesitant to ever leave the city, even to briefly visit family in the other occupied territories, for fear of having their residency status revoked.

Residents of the Gaza Strip face even more dire circumstances. They are essentially barred from leaving the territory at all, even to visit family, attend to their land, work, or study in the West Bank and abroad. Israel’s prevention of Palestinians from entering or leaving Palestinian territory demonstrates the level of control exacted on this population. Palestinians from Gaza who already happen to live in the West Bank or abroad and who were not registered in Gaza face significant difficulties in entering the territory. Human Rights Watch, for example, recounted the story of a man who was studying in Egypt when Israel conducted a census in Gaza. He and others not included in the count were then denied the right to return to their homes, at best being able to request entry permits for a maximum of three months. And at the time that the man subsequently applied for residency, Israel had temporarily stopped processing applications, and thus his request was delayed. Eventually, Israel entered him and two of his children in the registry, but excluded his wife and another child.

Fragmentation by Design

The 2003 Nationality and Entry into Israel Law, in retrospect, should have been seen as a harbinger of how Israel views Palestinian family reunification in general. As with many of the state’s racist policies, the initial kernel of the law’s justification was born from Israel’s claim that such restrictions are security-based. The idea that the mere ability of a Palestinian to enter Israel, or worse, to attain legal status there, is dangerous, was thus normalized. According to human rights organization B’Tselem, this was also the first Israeli law “that explicitly denies rights on the basis of national origin.” And of course, if the national origin of a spouse was not Palestinian, then there was no issue and family reunification applications were permitted. Such couples did not have to live separately from their spouses, or risk breaking the law if they lived in Israel. Only for Palestinians was there a distinction.

It is estimated that tens of thousands of family reunification cases are waiting for resolution, forcing applicants to live in constant fear of deportation and family separation.

In the time since the law was first enacted, Israel has occasionally approved batches of family reunification applications from Palestinians. For example, in July 2022, the Palestine Liberation Organization announced that 5,500 such applications had been approved by Israeli authorities. However, families waiting during the uncertain approval process face significant stress and strain, as well as potential legal ramifications if they are found in violation. While exact numbers are impossible to report, it is estimated that tens of thousands of family reunification cases are waiting for resolution, forcing applicants to live life in the “double prison” of living under military occupation and living in constant fear of deportation and family separation. Furthermore, Israel’s intermittent approvals run afoul of agreements in the Oslo Accords, which set an annual quota that Israel has not met since the year 2000.

Respect for family life and the right to family reunification are enshrined in international laws and norms. Adding to the long list of human rights violations that Israel continues to exercise on the Palestinian people, Israeli policies on family reunification have consistently divided Palestinian families ever since the state of Israel was created. The barriers that Israel creates to family reunification are further evidence of its purposeful fragmentation of Palestinians, isolating them from both their land and from each other. As with so many of its policies that restrict and control the lives of Palestinians, Israel abuses a “security first” argument on this issue, one that is inexplicably accepted by the same international community that subsequently condemns the harsh humanitarian conditions that are the obvious outcome of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Again and again, and in so many ways, it is Palestinian families that pay the price.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Ryan Rodrick Beiler