Defense Ministry Benny Gantz announced on Monday that Israel plans to legalize thousands of undocumented foreign nationals married to Palestinians as part of an overall Israeli strategy to strengthen the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian spouses have resided illegally in the West Bank for years with little legal recourse to obtain permits to live with their families. Israeli courts have ruled that family unification in the West Bank is not a right guaranteed by international law.
According to Gantz, some Gazans who have moved to the West Bank but retain out-of-date passes that identify them as residents of the enclave will also see their status updated. The approvals will only apply to adults and depend on the successful completion of standard security procedures.
Some 5,000 Palestinian spouses are set to be legalized for now, tweeted Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh.
The spouses will be “a first batch on the road to resolving this issue entirely, within the framework of an agreed-upon timeline,” said al-Sheikh, a close confidante of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
In addition to the recognition pledge, Gantz announced several other steps on Monday: a planned NIS 500 million loan to Ramallah, additional building permits in the West Bank where Israel administers construction, and more work permits for Palestinians seeking employment in Israel.
Gantz’s announcement came after a meeting he held the night before with Abbas, the first such public meeting between high-level Israeli and Palestinian officials in over a decade. At a briefing on Monday, Gantz called for the PA to be bolstered as a bulwark against Hamas and other terror groups.
“I told Abbas that we aren’t going anywhere and that the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere. I went to the meeting in order to build confidence and preserve the interests of the State of Israel and the important ties we have with the Palestinian Authority, which I believe we need to strengthen,” Gantz said.
Many foreign nationals married to Palestinians have waited years or decades for residency in the West Bank. During the 1990s, the Israeli government set a yearly quota for family unification approvals, peaking at around 4,000. But following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel reduced ties with the Palestinian Authority, shutting down family unification.
Israel last opened the issue as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinian Authority in 2007, examining some 50,000 outstanding requests and approving 32,000, according to court filings. But the government apparently never returned to the quota system.
Between 2010 and 2018, Israeli authorities approved just five applications, the Defense Ministry told the HaMoked rights group following a Freedom of Information request.
Meanwhile, as many as tens of thousands of Palestinians married spouses from abroad, mostly from Jordan and other Arab states. A retired Civil Affairs official told The Times of Israel that as of 2020, over 35,000 unresolved applications had gathered on the Palestinian side.
As they are legally considered to be illegal immigrants, most foreign spouses of West Bank Palestinians live tightly regulated lives. They cannot open an account at a Palestinian bank or legally work in Palestinian cities. If they leave for a family visit to their country of origin, they might not be allowed to return to the West Bank, even though their spouses and children reside there.
Frustrated by the status quo, Palestinian families affected by the issue protested for months in front of al-Sheikh’s office in Ramallah, calling for action. This Sunday, al-Sheikh promised demonstrators that good news was on the way — what later turned out to be a hint at Gantz’s announcement on Monday.
“The families are happy, of course, but we’re worried that the approvals will suddenly stop, as they did in 2009,” said Alaa Mutair, a Jordanian-Palestinian who has been applying for family unification for around a decade.
“There’s joy, yes, but it’s mixed with apprehension of the unknown. It’s not entirely clear what will happen,” Mutair said.
Israeli lawyer Yotam Ben-Hillel, who has defended Palestinians seeking residency, praised the decision to approve some applications for residency. But he said that approving a few thousand applications was not enough.
“This is a drop in the ocean. The main issue remains: Israel does not recognize the right of Palestinians to family life, as a basic right; rather it sees family life as a bargaining chip vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority,” Ben-Hillel said.