In July 2003, Yazed Abotair, a Palestinian engineer from the Gaza Strip, met his wife in Germany where she had just given a lecture at a conference on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Kifah Massarwi was also Palestinian – but a citizen of Israel – as well as an educator and community organizer. Captivated, Abotair approached Massarwi after the talk and gave her his number. Massarwi called two days later, and the two quickly fell in love.
They married that October, but, as it turned out, they were three months too late: The very month they met, the Knesset passed a “temporary” Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law prohibiting Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) from receiving citizenship or residency status – even if they married Israeli citizens or permanent residents.
The law meant that Abotair could not attend his own wedding reception or live in Israel. In violation of international law, it also denies Massarwi the right, enjoyed by other Israeli citizens, to live with her partner in her country solely because he comes from the OPT. Foreign spouses normally become eligible for citizenship after living in Israel for a minimum of four years. If Jewish, they are automatically granted Israeli citizenship. The Knesset has renewed the discriminatory law every year since.
As a result, the couple lives in Germany. Their two children, Marwan, 12, and Mai, 11, are both Israeli citizens but unable to live in Israel with their father. Massarwi spent the early months of their marriage searching for loopholes that would allow them to live together in Israel near family. She applied for a temporary visitor permit for Abotair under a 2005 amendment that allows women over 25 and men over 35 to apply, but, almost a decade and a half later, she has yet to receive an answer.
Massarwi told Human Rights Watch that the law forced her to “choose between my husband and everything else.” She chose to stay with Abotair in Germany, but it means she must spend long difficult periods away from her family, in particular her sick mother.
At least 30,000 families of Israeli citizens, almost all Palestinian, as well as thousands of Palestinians from East Jerusalem with permanent resident status, face a similar predicament, according to the Mossawa Center, a human rights group in Israel advocating for Palestinian rights. Love still often prevails, but it comes at a steep price. As Massarwi said, “I happily live with my husband and children in Germany, but there is no luxury in exile, as nothing is like home.”