For Israel, tens of thousands of Palestinian newborns don’t exist

When the Palestinian Authority ended coordination with Israel, it also stopped sending updates of its population registry. Now, over 30,000 babies are barred from traveling.

Standing at the Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Haya Shabaro had two options. She could either make her way back to the Palestinian city of Nablus, which she had just left with her two children; or she could leave her newborn daughter behind to reunite with her husband in the United Arab Emirates, where they currently reside.

Shabaro arrived in Nablus earlier this year to visit her parents while pregnant. She had planned to stay for a few weeks after giving birth, “so that my mother could help me,” she says. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit the occupied territories, and she could no longer leave the West Bank.

After giving birth in April, Shabaro registered her daughter with the Palestinian Authority. She made sure the baby had a birth certificate and passport, and that she was listed on Shabaro’s identification card. When travel was possible again, Shabaro made plans to leave on July 22. She applied for and received a UAE visa for her daughter, and bought tickets to fly out of Jordan.

What Shabaro could not anticipate was that, in May, the Palestinian Authority would halt civil and security coordination with Israel, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government announced plans to formally annex large swaths of the West Bank. The move meant that the PA would also end its decades-long practice of passing on its record of the population registry to Israel. That included the information of Shabaro’s daughter.

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More than 35,000 Palestinian newborns have been registered with the PA since May 20, according to Palestinian Deputy Interior Minister Yousef Harb. But for Israel, these children simply do not exist, and therefore cannot travel freely out of the occupied territories.

‘Individual Palestinians cannot be paying the price’

Israel has controlled the population registry of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since it occupied the territories in 1967. With the signing of the second Oslo Accord in 1995, Israel was supposed to transfer this responsibility to the newly formed Palestinian government in Ramallah. In effect, however, Israel merely outsourced the registry’s administration to the PA, and continues to refer to its own database as the definitive record of the Palestinians living under its rule.

Rights groups warn that Israel’s control over the population registry has likely lowered the registered Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza by hundreds of thousands of people. Over the years, Israel has also imposed various restrictions on the registry of Palestinian children, according to a 2006 report by Israeli NGOs B’Tselem and HaMoked.

After years of Israeli violations of the Oslo agreements, “annexation was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Harb. The Israeli government continues to build settlements on occupied land, and Israeli soldiers enter Area A, which is supposed to be under the PA’s full control, on a daily basis to make arrests, he adds.

“Maybe Israel thinks this is how it can apply pressure on the Palestinian leadership to reverse its decision on ending coordination,” continues Harb. “But there is no way we will undo this political decision.” 

“There is this political power game between Israel and the PA, but obviously, individual Palestinians cannot be paying the price,” says Jessica Montell, executive director of HaMoked. From a legal perspective, she adds, Israel has an obligation as the occupying power in the West Bank to ensure the rights of the Palestinian population — including freedom of movement.

After the halt in coordination, Israel bypassed the PA as an administrative intermediary and began allowing Palestinians to apply for travel permits directly with the Civil Administration, Israel’s military government in the occupied territories. But with the registry, it has taken the opposite approach, says Montell.

The population registry is “hugely significant” for Israel, she explains, because it is the state’s main mechanism of controlling Palestinians. “What is occupation? It’s not these dramatic events that happen from time to time. The day-to-day of occupation is the permit bureaucracy, and that control requires that Israel has all of the population registry details.”

A Palestinian mother and son wait to cross the Shu'fat checkpoint into Jerusalem, while an Israeli border policeman checks a Palestinian man, April 20, 2007. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
A Palestinian mother and son wait to cross the Shu’fat checkpoint into Jerusalem, while an Israeli border policeman checks a Palestinian man, April 20, 2007. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

HaMoked has sent an urgent letter to Israel’s military on Sept. 24, demanding that it allow Palestinian newborns to travel even if they don’t appear in Israel’s records. The organization has also filed letters on behalf of 15 different families with unrecognized infants.

“The idea is that through a series of individual petitions, [Israel] would then come up with some mechanism that enables everybody to travel,” explains Montell. But there has been no substantive response from the military or the State’s Attorney’s Office, she adds.

In response to an email from +972 asking whether the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) would allow Palestinians to register their children with Israel directly, the spokesperson’s unit wrote: “Despite the Palestinian Authority’s halt in civil and security coordination with Israel, registration requests filed by Palestinian residents with the relevant parties at the Civil Administration are reviewed according to procedures.”

The only newborn child that Israel has agreed to recognize since May is Palestinian-American Lourice Cooper, whose documents were submitted in a special request following an NPR inquiry. Cooper, however, wasn’t able to travel out of the West Bank with her family in time before another COVID-19 lockdown.

Only one unrecognized Palestinian newborn has been able to travel out of the West Bank so far, after the intervention of HaMoked, Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, and a journalist from Israel’s Public Broadcasting Corporation. Even though the baby was let through, it is unclear whether Israel registered the child in its records, notes Montell. 

‘I am destroyed’

Firas Barahmeh, originally from the village of Anza near the West Bank city of Jenin, has been living in the UAE since 2015, where he works as an accountant. He arrived in Palestine with his pregnant wife in March, ahead of her June due date. After she gave birth to their son — their firstborn — they registered him with the PA and listed him on both of their ID cards. But when they filed for the Palestinian Interior Ministry to issue him a passport, they were told that Israel would not let him through.

Barahmeh decided to make the trip back to the UAE alone. “It was a very difficult decision to leave my family behind, especially with a newborn, when all I want to do is spend every moment with him,” he says. “But I had to do it, because I was worried about losing my job.”

Barahmeh’s UAE residency expires in February 2021. If he is unable to reunite with his family by then, he will have to move back to Palestine.

The uncertainty is unbearable, Barahmeh laments. His wife, who works as an occupational therapist in the UAE, has been contacted by her employers several times asking when she will be back in the country. She has not been able to give them a definite answer.

Palestinian women walk with their babies in East Jerusalem, July 15, 2008. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Palestinian women walk with their babies in East Jerusalem, July 15, 2008. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

On Oct. 2, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry published an online form to assess how many families are unable to travel with their newborns. According to documents that Ahmed al-Deek, a political advisor to the Palestinian foreign minister, shared with some of the affected families on Sunday, and which were viewed by +972, around 40 cases have been confirmed and at least 80 more are under review.

But problems were already cropping up hours after the form’s release. Of the hundreds of Palestinians who had signed up, only a few dozens seemed to have travel problems because of unrecognized newborns. Since the link to the form was public, anyone could register, and some applicants apparently hoped that filling it out could afford them an opportunity to travel as well. The system became so overloaded that it led to technical glitches.

Ameer Abide, a Palestinian who lives in Jordan, says his wife filled out the form but their information wasn’t saved in the system. Abide came to the West Bank with his pregnant wife before the COVID-19 outbreak. They are staying in the city of Salfit, where her family lives. 

“We were planning for her to give birth, to register our daughter here, and then go back to Jordan,” he says. But after she delivered the baby in June, “the world shut down. Can you believe our luck?”

In September, Abide says he received a call back from the Jordanian Embassy informing him that he and his family were all set to travel. He was told that as long as their daughter was registered on their ID cards and had a birth certificate, they would be able to cross the Allenby Bridge. Abide paid the travel expenses that same day, including COVID-19 tests for him and his wife, as well as fees to transfer their suitcases to Jordan.

“The bags made it to Jordan, but when we arrived at the bridge the Israelis directed us to go back [to the West Bank],” he says. “I asked them why, they said my daughter doesn’t show up on their system.

“‘Tell the [PA] to restore coordination and we’ll let you travel again,’” Abide remembers one Israeli officer at the crossing telling him. “He even said it in Arabic.”

Abide owns a sweet shop in Amman that has been closed since the start of the pandemic in March. His employee told him he can’t afford to wait for them to open back up, and went to look for other jobs.

“I can’t begin to describe the extent of the losses we’ve had to incur. I will have to start from scratch again,” he says. “I want to go back home [to Jordan]. I am destroyed.”

Speaking on Voice of Palestine radio, Harb of the Palestinian Interior Ministry said that the Foreign Ministry is “going to great lengths” to coordinate the entry and exit of Palestinians with Jordan and Egypt. Until a solution is found, though, the families “must be patient,” Harb told +972 in a phone interview.

‘You target women, you target a whole community’

To help push for a resolution, Barahmeh opened a WhatsApp group for affected Palestinian families to share information and advice. The group has gained more than 100 participants since it was created in August.

Most of the members are women, who often have to pay the heaviest price for Israel’s bureaucratic war of attrition under the permit regime. In much of HaMoked’s casework on Palestinian family unification, for example, it is the wives and mothers who are in the most vulnerable position, explains Montell.

A Palestinian mother and her children stand by the separation wall in the East Jerusalem village of Abu Dis, August 08, 2008. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
A Palestinian mother and her children stand by the separation wall in the East Jerusalem village of Abu Dis, August 08, 2008. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Based on the Oslo Accords, the PA has the capacity to determine who can be naturalized as a Palestinian. But the way Israel has chosen to interpret the language of the agreements leaves it with a gap it can manipulate, says Montell. Even when cases are heard before the court, Israel can absolve itself of accountability by claiming that it has not received the pertinent information from the PA, and “families are completely caught in limbo.”

“Settler colonialism in general has been proven by scholars all over the world to have particular effects on women,” says Professor Nahla Abdo, who teaches at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in Canada’s Carleton University. Abdo specializes in settler colonial and indigenous studies, and has co-authored a book on the gendered impacts of displacement in Israel-Palestine. “You know why the Israeli state targets women? You target women, you target a whole community.”

A few days after Shabaro first tried to leave the occupied West Bank, she went back to Allenby Bridge. In that time, she had made calls to anyone who could help, including HaMoked. “I left no stone unturned,” she says. Since her daughter’s birth certificate was issued days before coordination was officially stopped, she had hoped her daughter’s name would by then show up in Israel’s registration rolls.

Shabaro has been away from her husband since February, and they have been communicating via video. She says he recently injured his leg and might need surgery. Her daughter’s visa to the UAE needs to be renewed, and Shabaro’s residency expires in January 2021.

But at Allenby, Israel turned her back for a second time. “I begged them. I begged them,” Shabaro recalls, to no avail. “My daughter is about to turn seven months, and her father still hasn’t met her.”