JERUSALEM, (AFP) — When Sana, who comes from the West Bank city of Hebron, married her Jerusalem-born husband Mohammed 13 years ago, she never imagined their union would lead to a life of fear and hiding.
At first, their different residency permits — hers for the West Bank, his for Jerusalem — weren’t much of an issue. She could live with her husband in Arab east Jerusalem with a temporary permit, and movement between the city and the West Bank was still fairly easy.
But, with the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, travel restrictions gradually tightened until in 2003, Israel effectively stopped issuing Jerusalem residency permits to Palestinians in what caught Sana and Mohammed in an impossible bind.
Without an Israeli permit, Sana can’t live in Jerusalem with her husband and children. But if Mohammed moves to the West Bank, he risks losing his Jerusalem residency and all access to the city of his birth.
Palestinians say it has never been easy to get a residency permit to move from the West Bank to east Jerusalem.
But in 2003, as the intifada raged on, Israel passed an emergency measure which effectively ended the process of “family reunification”, citing security concerns.
Around the same time, Israel was also building a vast barrier through the West Bank which has since cut off most of Arab east Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied territories, making access to the Holy City without a permit even harder.
In 2005, when Sana’s permit ran out, she received an order expelling her from Jerusalem.
“Since then, I’ve been living illegally with my husband and children in Jerusalem,” the 31-year-old told AFP.
“I left Jerusalem for a short period, but then I snuck back in and began living in hiding with my husband and children, who have permits,” she said.
Her life, she says, has become a nightmare of constant fear. Turning the corner in a certain neighbourhood could bring her face-to-face with a security official who could send her back to Hebron, separating her from her children.
“I barely leave the house,” she told AFP. “I only go out to go to the doctor or to meet my children’s teachers. When I’m near an area with police or soldiers, I feel terrified.
“I’m constantly worried — afraid that the police will raid our neighbourhood and find me in the house and arrest me, expel me and keep me from my children,” she said.
Hassan Jabareen, the founder of Arab-Israeli rights group Adalah, says the situation for people in Sana’s position has worsened dramatically since 2003.
“A law was passed that prevents Israeli citizens from living as a family if they marry Palestinians from the occupied territories or citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria or Lebanon,” he explained.
“The situation now is much worse than in the past. We petitioned the Supreme Court years ago but have yet to receive a ruling.”
The emergency legislation has never been repealed and this past week, Israel’s cabinet extended it for a further six months at the request of Interior Minister Eli Yishai.
The legislation affects two groups: Arab-Israelis married to Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, and Jerusalem residents who marry spouses without permission to live in the city.
In a 2006 report, Israeli rights group B’Tselem found that Israel had refused to process more than 120,000 requests for family reunification. The group accused Israel of using the policy “to prevent the further increase of the Arab population in Israel in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state.”
For Sana, the policy has meant missing both happy and sad family moments, including when her mother became sick with the cancer that would eventually kill her.
“I didn’t go to visit her when she was ill with liver cancer because I feared losing my children if I couldn’t come back from Hebron. I only went when she died,” she said.
“My brothers got married and I couldn’t go to their weddings. And when my father was admitted to hospital a month ago, I also didn’t go to visit. He died a week ago and I only went on the day of his death. It was devastating.”
She snuck back into Jerusalem by taxi, using back roads that are regularly patrolled by Israeli troops.
“On the way back I was feeling two things — sorrow over my father’s death and fear at the thought the soldiers might shoot at us,” she admitted.
For Bethlehem-born Huda, 33, the life described by Sana is a familiar one.
She married her husband in Jerusalem 16 years ago, and was initially issued a yearly residency permit that allowed her to stay in the city.
But 10 years later, her husband was convicted by an Israeli court for his activities with the Palestinian political group Fatah and sentenced to five years in jail prison.
“They stopped issuing my permit and instead issued an order expelling me,” she said.
Since then, Huda has been living illegally in Jerusalem, and speaks of having to “smuggle” herself back home after rare trips to Bethlehem to see her family.
“One time I was with a group of women in the mountains and we ran into an army patrol. They forced us to go back to Bethlehem… and they mocked us as we walked back, making herding noises like we were sheep.”
Like Sana, she has been forced to keep her distance from her West Bank hometown.
“I don’t visit my family except in cases of serious illness or a death because I know what I will face on the road. It’s tragic, my family lives 20 minutes away by car and I can’t visit them,” she said.
“We live isolated. Neither my brothers nor my sisters visit us, whether the occasion is happy or sad.”