Anna Lekas Miller
In early September, Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories — or COGAT, as it is better known — issued a new rule requiring that any foreigners traveling to the West Bank who have entered into a romantic relationship with a Palestinian must notify the Israeli military in writing within 30 days.
For many, this felt like one more example of the strict control exerted by COGAT, the Israeli Ministry of Defense unit responsible for coordinating “civilian issues” between the Israeli government, the Israeli Defense Forces and the Palestinian Authority. In the occupied West Bank, COGAT determines everything from the length of tourist visas to whether Palestinians are granted permits to cross into Israel. The latest rule caused a social media firestorm that garnered international attention. How could the Israeli military so blatantly crack down on the right to love? Wasn’t this against the most basic of human rights? Ethics aside, there were logistical questions too. What constitutes a reportable romantic entanglement? A first kiss? A third date? At what point does a casual fling become worthy of state surveillance?
In the end, the 30-day rule was scrapped and replaced by a new set of requirements that went into effect on Oct. 20. Yet for those familiar with what it means to love a Palestinian in the West Bank, it made little difference. “I knew I was making a serious choice by marrying my husband,” said Lina, a U.S. citizen who has been living in the West Bank for the past 12 years. (Given her precarious visa circumstances, “Lina” is a pseudonym.)
“I knew that I would be treated as a Palestinian,” she continued to New Lines, sharing that her entire relationship depended on the Israeli military continuing to grant her permission to live where she did — permission that, in theory, it could revoke at any time. “What I didn’t expect was the instability and the inability to stay.”
At first, Lina was able to apply for a yearlong, renewable spouse visa that allowed her to fly into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and then live with her husband in the West Bank city of Ramallah. But in July 2017, she was called in for an interview, where she was required to present dozens of documents, including, but not limited to, birth certificates for any children, a marriage certificate for her and her husband, and documentation for the house they owned together and the car they shared. After a long and invasive interview, she was granted a six-month visa for “Judea and Samaria only” visa — the Biblical term by which the Israeli authorities refer to the West Bank, where growing numbers of Israeli settlements are constructed.
This meant Lina could only travel within the West Bank and could no longer access the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem or fly out of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. She could no longer drive a car with yellow plates, which allow one to drive in both Israel and the West Bank, and had instead to drive a much more expensive car with green plates, which limit her movement to the West Bank. Every time she goes to renew her visa, which is now only given for three or six months, she wonders if her luck will run out and her family will be separated. “I wonder if the soldier working at Allenby Bridge will be in a bad mood,” she muses, sharing that the stress of depending on the whims of border officers made her sick at one point and her hair started falling out. “I have to pretend that it will all be OK — otherwise, you’re constantly worried and will never build a life here or do any kind of long-term planning.”
Lina is one of countless foreign passport holders who have traveled to work or volunteer in Palestine — particularly the occupied West Bank — and then fallen in love with a Palestinian and decided to stay and start a life with their partner, as many people do elsewhere around the world. Yet, while falling in love with a Jewish citizen of Israel would be straightforward — marrying an Israeli citizen entitles one to a residency permit and eventual citizenship — falling in love with a Palestinian Christian or Muslim in the occupied West Bank is a different story.
“Every country makes it easier [to move] if you are married to a national of that country,” says Jessica Montell, executive director of HaMoked, a Jerusalem-based human rights organization that advocates for Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
“But for the Israeli military, if you are married to a Palestinian, that is a reason to make it more difficult,” she continues, explaining that the latest requirements specifically state that anyone who risks becoming “entrenched” in the West Bank can be denied permission to enter.
“If someone comes to the West Bank to volunteer and has no ties to the West Bank, they’re a great candidate to get their visa extended,” Montell continues. “But if they have Palestinian background, a Palestinian extended family or are married to a Palestinian? Then they’re at risk of ‘entrenchment,’ which is a reason to deny a visa.”
What does it mean to be entrenched? For Jane, another U.S. citizen married to a Palestinian, it means not wanting to leave her in-laws behind. “I love my husband’s family,” she told me, describing a close-knit community that has been a part of her life for the past 20 years. “We value family and community,” she continues. “If we had to leave, that would be devastating.”
Nevertheless, Jane’s relationship has always depended on the Israeli military authorities granting her permission to enter Israel. “I would come and go and be intimidated by Israeli security at the airport,” she remembers. “I would have to come for three months and then leave, while risking not being able to come back.”
As soon as she married her husband, she lost the right to access present-day Israel — a little-known consequence of marrying a Palestinian — and had to apply for a spousal visa, which, by default, grants access to “Judea and Samaria” only. “I don’t care about Jerusalem or the airport or having a yellow-plated car,” she continues. “I would rather be completely controlled by military occupation and be able to see my family. The alternative is unthinkable.”
Still, the unthinkable — being separated from one’s partner, in-laws and potentially even children — is the reality for many, particularly those who were living in Palestine during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Even before I married my husband, I was denied entry to Israel,” says Sara, a mother of two who is married to a Palestinian, recalling how even dating a Palestinian put her on the Israeli government’s radar. She remembers long, invasive interrogations where she was pressured to disclose her connections to the West Bank, which resulted in her being banned for participating in Palestine solidarity activism.
After marrying her husband, Sara was able to visit Palestine, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, she was locked out of the country when tourism was suspended and the rules regarding spousal visas were unclear. Even when visas started being processed again, hers took so long that she had to take her case to court — and had to experience watching her husband and children cross the Allenby Bridge from Jordan to visit their family in Palestine, while she stayed behind. “We are really close to my husband’s family,” she shares. “We would love to be able to live our lives in Palestine, but we just can’t because of this instability.”
While some foreign spouses are locked outside of Palestine, others are locked inside. “We do not hear a lot of stories, because a lot of people are living under the radar,” Jane continues, saying that a number of people — particularly foreign passport holders of Palestinian descent who do not have Palestinian IDs but do have extended family or in-laws living in Palestine — are often placed in the difficult position of choosing to either overstay their visas or leave and risk being unable to return.
“I know many spouses who either left the country or gave up the chance to see their family,” says Jane, explaining that, for those who stayed, even leaving a village risked being stopped at an Israeli checkpoint and deported. “I know people who didn’t get to go to funerals or say goodbye to loved ones before they died.”
While the Israeli military’s policy of restricting entry to foreigners who risk being “entrenched” in the West Bank has recently received media attention, it is only one of several ways in which the Israeli military cracks down on Palestinians’ right to love — an issue that is as cruel and unusual as it is politically motivated.
“Every issue of reproductive politics in Palestine comes back to the demographic issue,” says Izzeddin Araj, a Palestinian researcher currently writing their doctoral dissertation on the politics of love and intimacy in Palestine, with an emphasis on Palestinian prisoners who smuggle their sperm out of Israeli jails to impregnate their wives. Like imprisoning Palestinian activists and separating them from their loved ones, the Israeli military’s policies of controlling who is able to have a relationship in Palestine affects who is able to start a family, fitting into the far-right narrative that Palestinians are a demographic threat to the existence of Israel.
“Israel has always tried to monitor the demographics of Palestine, but also to change them,” Araj continues, pointing out that making it impossible to start a family in Palestine — whether through imprisonment or banning spouses — creates the potential for the Israeli military to annex Palestinian land for settlements and pave the way for replacing the Palestinian communities in Palestine with an Israeli Jewish society, shifting the demographics of the country once and for all.
“This fantasy of the settler colonial state becomes the reality for many Palestinians,” he adds, noting that separating families and pushing Palestinians to leave Palestine helps accomplish these goals. “It is all bound up in the right to love and be together.”
Often, the crackdown on the right to love is orchestrated through the occupation’s bureaucracy, a Byzantine system that dictates rights and privileges for Palestinians based on which kind of identification document they hold, depending on whether they live in present-day Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza. Each comes with its own set of restrictions. For example, a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem might fall in love with a Palestinian living in the West Bank, only to realize that they cannot live together without moving abroad. Most Palestinians from the West Bank are unable to travel to Jerusalem without a permit from the Israeli military authorities; meanwhile, if a Palestinian from East Jerusalem can no longer prove that they maintain a residency there, they face losing their identification card altogether.
“You have these families that are called ‘mixed families’ because of their status, and sometimes they’re from the same neighborhood,” Montell adds.
A Palestinian from Gaza who falls in love and lives “illegally” in the West Bank can be deported to Gaza — even though they are still on Palestinian land. Meanwhile, a Palestinian who marries a foreign passport holder often faces pressure to leave Palestine — which, for many in this position, feels like a calculated push when interpreted in the wider context of the Israeli government annexing Palestinian land for settlements, and the land that makes up the Palestinian “territories” becoming smaller and smaller with time.
“It is so obvious that this is a way to get rid of Palestinians in Palestine,” Lina adds, remembering the numerous times that Israeli bureaucrats tasked with managing visas in the West Bank have asked her why she didn’t move her family to the United States. While Lina recognizes that having this option is a privilege that comes with holding a U.S. passport, she points out that it isn’t realistic for everyone, particularly those with family to whom they need to remain close.
“They know that they can make Palestinian lives impossible by making Palestinian spouses not able to live here.”
Every spouse with whom I spoke — almost all requesting anonymity, with as few identifying details as possible — was clear that restricting their right to enter Palestine affected not just their right to a family life, but also the future of the country they call home.
“Any discussion of these rules has to go back to the original point,” says Jane, pointing out that, according to the 1993 Oslo Accords (a series of agreements negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization intended to achieve a peace treaty aimed at Palestinian self-determination), the Palestinian Authority is supposed to arbitrate who is granted access to the West Bank without the oversight of the Israeli military. However, as it stands, the Palestinian Authority is forced to confirm the population registry with the Israeli authorities, making it impossible to make political decisions as an autonomous state.
“You cannot grow a society [simply] by having people marry in or participate through business or education,” she says, adding that, as a prerequisite for their visas, foreign spouses are often restricted from working, further excluding them from participating in the Palestinian economy and being a part of the country. Even though her children grew up in Palestine, she is facing the reality that someday they will likely need to seek opportunities abroad.
“What the Israelis are doing is a virtual siege on the West Bank, akin to what is happening in Gaza,” she continues, explaining that, while Gaza is literally besieged by a blockade, tightening access to the West Bank could cause a similar outcome. Though the most recent COGAT ordinance scraps the quota on visas for students and professors studying and teaching at universities in the West Bank, the arbitrary nature of the visa rules means that any foreign participation in the economy or civil society is tenuous at best — and the Palestinian economy has long been suffering as a result.
“Israel takes things away, then they give you back something,” Jane says, referring to the recently revised COGAT rules that still require that a COGAT official is informed of any relationship and place the power to extend or deny a visa in their hands.
“You’re so excited that you forget, and then they keep 95% of what they took away,” she says. “People forget to challenge the fact that this is an occupied zone that needs to be governed by law.”