Sandra Elaine Lindower and I have a lot in common.
We are both middle-aged Midwestern American women living in the Middle East. She was born in Toledo, Ohio and was raised mainly in Indiana while I was born in Cleveland, Ohio and my family moved around the Midwest before settling down back there for most of my childhood.
She has four children, I have two.
We both have spent most of our adult lives here.
We both have, or will, celebrate a family event this year: I celebrated my youngest son’s Bar Mitzvah in February and in May Sandra will celebrate her son’s wedding — the first of her children to marry.
But that is where the similarity ends. Because Sandra is a Christian married to a Palestinian and lives in Bethlehem, and I am Jewish married to a Jewish Israeli living in Jerusalem.
That means that while I have been able to acquire an Israeli identity card and passport allowing me to work and otherwise go about my daily life in Israel as I please, for the past 29 years of her marriage Sandra has only been able to legally remain in Bethlehem with a tourist visa though she and her husband, Zoughbi Alzoughbi, founder and director of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center and a well-known and internationally respected non-violent Palestinian peace activist, have repeatedly applied for a permanent status for her ever since they were married in 1990 on the basis of family reunification. At first her visa was renewed every three months, but at the end of the first year she was asked to leave in order to get the visa renewed. Later she was permitted to remain here for a year or two before having to leave.
That means her now-adult children recall how as children they planned where and how they would hide her if the Israeli authorities came to deport her.
That means that while I barely escaped the bombing of the Kiryat Yovel supermarket some 17 years ago by a Palestinian terrorist who had a bombed strapped to her waist while I had my infant son strapped to my waist in a baby carrier, Sandra spent the second intifada fearing for the lives of her young children as bullets and missiles between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinians volleyed overhead.
That means that while I get to chose when I travel abroad, she has been at the mercy of her visa/”visitor’s permit” and the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories (COGAT), which determines when she must leave if she wants her visa to be renewed and to legally remain in Bethlehem.
That means that while my family was able to celebrate my youngest son’s Bar Mitzvah recently with plenty of time to make the arrangements and family flying in from abroad, Sandra has been denied the excitement of helping plan her son’s wedding and is unsure if she will even be able to make it back in time for the wedding though the family has been working tirelessly through various channels to have Israel allow her back in.
Because this time when she returned from her required stay abroad, she was denied entry at Ben Gurion Airport. After being detained for hours without food or water, or any explanation at the airport, she was deported back to the United States for “safety and security” reasons, charged with having overstayed her visa. She says her overstay was the result of the Civil Administration holding her passport till after her visa’s expiration date when she submitted it to them to see if her visa could be extended. Her request was denied because her husband who was abroad at the time had not accompanied her when she applied, and so she prepared once again to leave but by then her visa date had already expired.
She and her family are is still hoping Sandra will be allowed back in time to at least help with the final arrangements for the wedding and to be able to celebrate the occasion with her son and the rest of her family at the end of next month.
Sandra is just but one of the numerous foreign spouses of West Bank Palestinians whose requests to receive a Palestinian ID and a permanent status based on the right of family reunification are being denied. Essentially the opportunity for a foreign spouse to obtain a Palestinian ID through family unification has been frozen since 2009.
Since Israel controls the borders it decides which foreigners are allowed into the West Bank, including foreign spouses of Palestinians. Though officially under the Oslo Accords the Palestinian Authority was officially granted the authority to administer the population registry and grant permanent residency to foreign spouses of Palestinian residents of the Palestinian Territories, in reality Israel still controls the Palestinian population registry and determines which foreigners married to Palestinians can receive resident status in the context of family reunification, with the PA acting basically only as a rubber stamp. COGAT oversees this whole process, which according to foreign spouses has been administered in recent years with no clear criteria or explanation.
For some time family reunification has only been possible under “special humanitarian circumstances.”
So while last week I had the luxury of sitting down to a Seder meal with cousins who came in from Argentina, with some of my husband’s family, and with friends, who, like me immigrated here from the U.S., New Zealand and South Africa, Sandra was denied the opportunity to mark Holy Week or celebrate Easter with her family.
More than the sting of the bitter herbs on my tongue, the bitter irony of celebrating the Jewish holiday of freedom while Sandra and others like her are being denied the very basic freedom of family life by Israel was for me much more difficult to swallow.