Human Journalism – best articles from

By  Carmen Rengel / Translation: Blanca García

  • Mixed couples from Jerusalem and the West Bank risk their visas and spend their money to live together in no man’s land
  • The risk of losing their residence or their mobility permits leads them to buy houses on very expensive land, next to the wall, with no services or protection whatsoever
  • More than 60,000 Jerusalem Arabs are now stranded on the other side of the concrete wall, because of the security layout imposed by Israel

The siege on Palestine complicates even love. A West Bank citizen, his moves completely limited, who cannot go to Gaza and who only exceptionally and for a very limited time has a visa to cross over to East Jerusalem, is almost forced to find a partner in his or her hometown, in the next village at most. There is no mixture, no integration: there is endogamy, and it gets more limiting every day. The blood and friendship ties among the historical Palestinian communities are reduced. Isolation is reinforced. You have to pair up with your neighbor. And that’s it.

That or exile or drama. Some years ago, before the 700 kilometers of wall were put up to isolate the West Bank from the rest of Israel, before Gaza was blockaded because of the electoral victory of Hamas, mixed-origin Palestinian couples were common. Commercial relationships, college, public transport, bars or squares would do for the encounter. That thing about contact and affection. Now they are the exception. The separation of a people that reaches even the new forms of family and, evidently, the sense of unity, of alliance and belonging to a group. The Palestinians from the Territories and from Jerusalem are increasingly cousins more than brothers.

Beit Hanina neighborhood, in Jerusalem, which has been split in two by the wall.

Beit Hanina neighborhood, in Jerusalem, which has been split in two by the wall.

But some do resist, even with their backs against the wall, even when their alliance from years back is not enough to live in peace wherever they choose. Like Samia and Tawfik. She is from Kuber. He, from East Jerusalem. They have been married for 27 years. Each of them with their register and their rights, so different. They live in Semiramis, a neighborhood very close to the Qalandia checkpoint, the most important one in the West Bank. They are on the Palestinian side of the wall. However, the land they live in belongs to Jerusalem. The concrete wall’s maddening design has left 60,000 Arabs on the other side, disconnected from the city, paying the taxes of a downtown citizen and not getting any services. This is UN data. They have had to look for this impoverished spot, forgotten by everyone, where the PNA has no power to intervene, so they do not get separated: Tawfik has resident status in Jerusalem and if he does not prove that he has a home and expenses in the city, he loses his identification and all the rights it entails (health, education and travel visas, mostly). Samira, being from the West Bank, cannot obtain a residence permit to live in East Jerusalem, because family reunifications are the exception among all exceptions. So she cannot cross over to live on the other side either. Although technically she lives in Jerusalem, physically she is in a Ramallah suburb, within the city walls. A no man’s land where everyone meets the insane requirements, a neighborhood where, according to the United Nations, around 15,000 people live, mostly mixed families who just want to get married and live in the same house.

The problem is paying for a Jerusalem-level home with a West Bank salary. They have to pay for water, electricity, phone and municipal taxes (like the feared arnona, the housing tax, very high in Israel). The bad thing, explains Samia, is that sometimes there is neither water, nor electricity, phone nor municipal services. Nor any authority to complain to, because no government worker dares to cross Qalandia to attend the neighbors. Since Tawfik cannot live anywhere not recognized as “Jerusalem”, they have to pay these fees and “whatever the developers ask for”. A 180 square meters house with three large rooms and a balcony in a good part or Ramallah costs $150 a month. For a house half as big this couple is paying $600, plus at least $120 a month in taxes. “A ridiculous amount”, the price of complying with the bureaucracy.  Even though they know they are lucky because they both have jobs and are in a “sustainable situation”: she works as administration and finances director for the PACA (Palestinian Association for Contemporary Arts) and he, as head of a department in Birzeit University.

A boy plays in a corner in the Semiramis neighborhood, where new houses for mixed families are being built.

That is why the stand the abandoned car cemetery in the corner, completely out of control, in which it is so easy to poke yourself with a steel passing through; the lack of street lighting (it is really dark after sundown); the overflowing containers; the pipes that break. Right now the street is torn up. It has been like this for five days. Some workers went to asphalt it. Until now it was all sand and stones. The neighbors doubt that the work will be finished off: the NPA has no competences to take care of the building work and its cost, so the initiative, a neighborhood fit of rage, might end up in nothing if the permits and the funds do not arrive. Those conditions are responsible for some neighbors in a better economic position deciding to find a home somewhere else in the West Bank and renting at the same time a house in this no man’s corner, a house they visit once a week to justify the water and electricity expenses and submit the bills to the Jerusalem Town Hall. A small house will not do, no. It needs to be the size it should be for the people that supposedly live there, because Israel goes over the drafts and, sometimes, even takes aerial photographs of the houses. Others resort to the trick of being registered in the home of a relative in East Jerusalem (in Beit Hanina, in Anata, in Sheikh Jarrah…) while living on the other side of the concrete, steel and barbed wire barrier, in the home of the loved one, close to the chosen family. Survival techniques.

The West Bank wall, a few meters away from Samia and Tawfik’s home.

It is not only a question of residence. It is altering the very routine. A family divided. Samia and Tawfik have two daughters, Miral and Tamara, 24 and 22 years old. One of them studies in the United Arab Emirates. The other one has just graduated in Ramallah. The oldest one was born only a month after her mother got the residence, so the authorities refused to register her as “Palestinian” because Samia “had only been so for a very short time”. It took two years to get the little girl out of the administrative limbo she was in. Miral was born in Ramallah, so she cannot go to Jerusalem, her father’s city, despite living on its soil. Her sister, Tamara, was born in Jerusalem, because Samia’s gynecologist was on a trip and told her to go to the capital to see a colleague. In that time the border was still easy to cross. The girl is registered in Jerusalem, like her father. Two and two, two with a certain freedom of movement, two with numbered permits. They are willing to pay for their spot, for this house they do not like, so the girls do not suffer: they are in the middle of college and postgraduate courses and their chances of studying abroad or getting a scholarship might resent from permits or travel visas, which sometimes are granted for a year, or for three, or outright denied. “One of them cannot go out to Jerusalem, and the other one, if she doesn’t live there, loses her resident status… Well, if my daughter, for losing her residence permit, is not allowed to get out to study, I could kill myself, I could… How are we not going to make this effort? In my husband’s and my younger daughter’s case, you always have the fear of something happening to them at the checkpoint, because it gets more unpredictable every day. They can take away your residence permit without any explanation. You would be going to go through the checkpoint and suddenly a young soldier would grab a pair of scissors and cut up your residence permit and said “You don’t live in Jerusalem anymore”. Just like that. That is a constant risk”, regrets the woman. 14,000 Palestinians have lost this permit since the Six-Day War, according to the UN, a number an internal Israeli Defense Forces report raises to 140,000 in the period from 1967-1994, as Haaretz newspaper revealed last May.

Samia, in her home in Jerusalem, during the interview.

Sometimes it is not easy to stand firm. Sometimes principles grow weak. This married couple confesses that, sometimes, they are tempted to move to the place they want in Ramallah, giving up Tawfik and Tamara’s residence in Jerusalem, avoiding the expenses they have now, the nerves, the complications. But then they think that they have the right and that they are not going to give it up. And, they insist, that could mean the implicit surrender of East Jerusalem, the territory the PNA claims as future capital of the Palestinian state. Not being registered in Jerusalem means being stateless, because it is not easy to sort out the residence papers on the other side, in the West Bank. “You don’t exist legally anymore, you cannot even renew your driver’s license, and the PNA does not yet have the entity to help us with that. So days go by, hoping for luck and temporary permits, like the one Samia has right now, for a few months.

They know the harshness of the consequences they would face if they decided to violate the so-called “infiltration act”, that watches over who lives where. Since the blockade imposed on Gaza four years ago, a citizen from the Strip that lives outside of it can pay a fine of up to $7,000, except in family unification cases, which are very few. The average waiting time to get it is five years, according to NGO’s such as B’Tselem. There are cases of mothers trapped in Gaza because a visit to some relatives or errands left them trapped in the area, and they have not been able to see their loved ones in the West Bank or Jerusalem again. That is what comforts Samia and Tawfik, that they can be together. With weariness, powerlessness and spending lots of money, but they are. Because some loves can even break through walls.