Living under a residency cloud in Israel

  • BY:JOHN LYONS, MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT 
  • From:The Australian 
  • May 05, 2012 12:00AM
Taiseer and Lana Khatib

Taiseer Khatib and his wife Lana, who needs a permit to visit. Picture: Sylvie Le Clezio Source: The Australian

IN the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, Taiseer Khatib and his wife Lana are part of a new frontline.

But theirs is a battle with a difference: while the conflict usually involves Israelis versus Palestinians, Palestinian Taiseer Khatib is an Israeli citizen.

Born in Akko (Acre) in northern Israel where his family goes back more than 400 years, Khatib married Lana, whose family fled Haifa, in Israel, for Jenin in the West Bank in 1948, upon the formation of Israel.

Under Israeli law, Palestinians from the West Bank are not permitted to migrate to Israel, even if they have a spouse there.

Many Palestinians who live in Israel, officially known by Israel as “Israeli Arabs”, form relationships with Palestinians in the West Bank.

The issue is a live one due to the size of Israel’s Arab population. There are now 1.6 million Arabs in Israel compared with 5.9 million Jews — 20.5 per of the Israeli population compared with 75.3 per cent being Jewish.

Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, called “Jerusalemites” by Israel, lose their right to residency if they marry a Palestinian and move to the West Bank.

Israel does not allow Palestinians living in Jerusalem to vote in national elections, and if they leave Jerusalem for three years they lose their residency.

But as “a West Banker”, Lana Khatib can only pass through Israeli army checkpoints into Israel to visit her husband in Akko if she can get a temporary visitor’s permit. She currently has a one-year permit but does not know if this will be renewed.

Israel’s complicated permit system for Palestinians has led to all kinds of anomalies: for their wedding, she was only able to get a two-day permit, so she had to return to Jenin, 30 minutes drive away, the day after the wedding.

On another occasion she had a two-day permit but overstayed. On her third day a knock at the door sent her into hiding in the kitchen, fearing it was Israeli authorities. It was a neighbour.

“We feel like half-humans,” Taiseer Khatib told visiting journalists this week. “Any immigrant who is coming to Israel from Ethiopia or Russia who is new to this city, the minute he puts his feet down at the airport, he has more rights than I have. I’m talking pure racism, which is beyond apartheid. Under apartheid, there were cases where people were allowed to have mixed marriages but she (Lana) is part of me and the state is interfering in my personal choices, getting into my bed, my own room.”

The status of her permits means Lana Khatib, 33, cannot get health insurance, social security or a driving licence. She has an economics degree but is not allowed to work in Israel. Taiseer Khatib, 39, is completing his PhD in anthropology. They have two children, aged four and three.

Israeli law prevents immigration from “enemy states” which it defines as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and territory governed by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. This means the entire West Bank, which is under Israeli military occupation.

While Israel and Hamas in Gaza continue to be in conflict, since the law was introduced in 2003 relations between Israel and the West Bank have improved dramatically.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority — which effectively replaced the PLO — have security co-operation and Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, described the PA leader Mahmoud Abbas as “my partner in peace” at the White House.

Professor Liav Orgad, from the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, a leading Israeli immigration expert, last year co-authored a paper which said: “The maintenance of a solid Jewish majority is a necessity for the country’s existence and security, a normatively justified means of ensuring the State of Israel’s survival. This is particularly the case regarding Palestinian immigrants, who join a large national minority in Israel and may at some future time undermine the ‘two states for two peoples’ solution to the Israel-Arab conflict.”

Professor Orgad now concedes the law relating to the West Bank is outdated. The director of Arab support group the Mossawa Centre, Jafar Farah, says Jewish settlers from the West Bank are turning their attentions to mixed cities in Israel such as Akko.

He says the Arab population of Israel could help bring about peace, having contact with both sides. But an Arab councillor in Akko, Ahmad Odeh, is less hopeful: “There is no co-existence here. It will explode any minute.”

He says some Arab families have been told their homes are unsafe and that unless they are prepared to pay enormous amounts of money to renovate they must leave. Many are forced to leave because they cannot afford the renovations.

He also says moves such as the council renaming the town’s main square from Aboud Square, its name for decades, to Genoa Square are removing the Arab identity. “They want to see the transfer of Arabs from Akko.”

The Jewish Mayor, Simon Lankry, rejects such suggestions, saying that while Jewish buyers have been buying homes in the Old City, they were doing so for investment reasons.

Mr Lankry concedes relations are delicate but says the council is striving to provide services equally, and the last three new schools have been for Arab students. (Mr Ohed points out that the average number of students at Jewish schools is 450 while at Arab schools the average is 700.)

Mr Lankry says he wants to avoid in Akko the situation occurring in cities such as in Jerusalem where Jewish settler groups are supporting moving Jews into Arab neighbourhoods. The question is whether the voices of moderation or extremism will prevail.

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