Sam Bahour

Sam Bahour of of the organization Right to Enter
Like many young married couples across the world, Claire and her husband have a five-year-plan. But instead of their main concern being how to deal with the imminent arrival of their first child, Claire's family is facing the very real possibility of expulsion and exile.

Like scores of other foreigners married to Palestinians in the occupied territory, Claire - whose name has been changed to protect her identity, like all other women interviewed for this article - has struggled to navigate the labyrinthine Israeli bureaucratic process to obtain the necessary paperwork to reside in the West Bank with her husband.

While foreign spouses, both Arab and non-Arab, have long described the process as opaque, the situation has worsened for Western spouses since 2016 with more and more women and men being denied visas, leading many to fear for the fate of their families amid ever-increasing Israeli policies targeting both Palestinians and foreigners standing in solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

'Destroying my family in the span of 30 minutes'

Despite the Palestinian Authority (PA) being the ruling power in the West Bank on paper, Israel remains in charge of giving foreigners residing there visas - a power which foreign spouses told Mondoweiss has been increasingly abused in the past two years.

Spouses interviewed by Mondoweiss spoke of being issued ever-shorter visas ranging from two weeks to six months instead of the usual one-year visa, dragging them into a near-constant process of visa renewals, appointments with Israeli officials from the Israeli Civil Administration, and administrative fees - every new application costing some 450 shekels ($128), and security deposits reaching up to 50,000 shekels ($14,215).

The financial burden of repeated visa applications, coupled with lawyer fees for those appealing visa denials, is only compounded by the fact that many spouses have been told that working - even in Area A of the West Bank, which is officially under full Palestinian Authority control - could constitute grounds for rejection.

Numerous spouses mentioned being pressured into signing documents written only in Hebrew despite them not speaking the language, or being asked to provide a number of seemingly irrelevant documents, such as medical certificates of pregnancy or children's school reports, only to see their applications denied over clerical errors or reasons they said were inaccurate or outright wrong.

"There are enough cases for us to deduce that there is a change in policy happening, and it is much more restrictive for foreign nationals to get visas or visa renewals," Sam Bahour, an activist with the Right to Enter campaign that notably fights for the right to family reunification in the occupied Palestinian territory, told Mondoweiss.

Julie, a foreign spouse, recounted how she spent almost two years living on tourist visas while trying to regularize her situation, forced to leave with her baby every three months, "each time not knowing whether we would be allowed back."

For the past two years, her case has been bogged down in appeals, leading Julie to reside in the occupied Palestinian territory without any residency documents.

"To be 'illegal' is not a lifestyle choice for me. I wasn't given a choice," she said. She deplored the "dehumanizing" treatment during interrogations, mentioning one particular instance with a female Israeli official.

"Her questions, her way of interrogating us, it was very clear that she thought she was doing her national duty, but at no moment did she see in me a woman like her, a mother, someone who just wants to live a normal life." Julie said. "She was completely destroying my life and my family in the span of a 30-minute meeting, but I'm sure that thought did not occur to her and that she slept well that night."

Anna, another foreign spouse, told Mondoweiss that Israeli officials would regularly accuse her of lying or yelling when she asked for clarifications about her case.

"They throw 'You're lying' at you to see how you will react. It's psychological warfare," she said.

"When they find out that you are associated with Palestinians, they look down on you," she added. "I've asked them 'Why are you going after me?' and I was told: 'You're associated with the enemy, what else do you expect?'"

Left in the dark

Throughout the whole ordeal, spouses have said that at no point were they given a clear set of instructions to follow in order to obtain a visa.

"They told me 'Don't cross the line,'" Claire said, recalling one instance when she was allowed back in the occupied West Bank after being refused entry for several months. At no point was Claire told exactly where that line stood.

The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the subsection of the Israeli Civil Administration responsible for the occupied Palestinian territory, remained vague when contacted by Mondoweiss.

"We work in a variety of ways in order to make the permit and approval process more efficient, while preserving the security as first and foremost a priority alongside assisting the population in Judea and Samaria," a COGAT spokesperson said.

COGAT did not respond to requests for further details on what documents were necessary to confirm their status, or if certain factors, such as whether a foreign spouse was employed, would affect one's ability to obtain a visa.

COGAT also declined a request by Mondoweiss to interview the Israeli official in charge of spousal visas in the West Bank in the past two years, Diana Ben Haim, who several spouses have speculated could be one of the main reasons why the visa process has become much more arduous since 2016.

"Diana has become the poster child of the Civil Administration as it relates to foreign visas," Bahour of Right to Enter said. "People have begun to ask themselves whether a Diana policy or Israeli policy is being applied. But as far as we're concerned, she's an employee of the Civil Administration. It's the state of Israel's policies that we are worried about."

Meanwhile, the stress of the situation has taken a psychological toll on the foreign spouses and their families.

"Israeli bureaucracy is a crushing machine," Julie said. "It crushes Palestinians first and foremost, and I can see at a smaller scale the consequences it has on my couple, my family, and my mental health."

"The situation has certainly made me stronger, but at a price: lots of anxiety, lots of fear and tension," Anna said.

Diplomatic letdown

Many spouses expressed disappointment and anger towards the PA and their respective consulates for their apparent inability to assist them throughout the process or to intercede on their behalf with Israeli authorities.

"They'll tell us this sucks but there's nothing they can do," Claire said of her own country's diplomatic services in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. "I feel that applies to all the embassies here, they don't really sympathize."

"It's an incredible violence for our own consulate to say that they can't do anything for us," Julie said. "You are basically given the choice between staying illegally or leaving your children behind."

But members of the international diplomatic community told Mondoweiss that they too were being left in the dark by the Israeli government.

"There isn't necessarily information transparency for us either," an official for a Western consulate told Mondoweiss on condition of anonymity. "It is frustrating for government workers when there are limits to how effectively we can intercede."

Spouses also said that PA officials gave them contradictory information on how to proceed with the visa process, on at least one occasion telling a spouse that she needed to apply for visa renewal three weeks prior to her current document's expiration, despite her only having been given a two-week visa.

Pressuring families out of Palestine

Without answers, the spouses and their families are left guessing as to what the desired outcome of such policies might be.

"They're targeting anyone for anything. They just want to find any little thing and kick you out, because if we stay here and keep making babies, there's more Palestinians here," Claire said. "But if we aren't allowed to stay, we're gone, and hopefully we'll take our families with us."

"An Israeli official told me that it would get easier once I gave birth - but will it be easier for me to stay, or easier for them to kick me out?"

Bahour pointed out that while "separation of family is a crucial humanitarian issue," the recent crackdown "falls in line with the larger Israeli policy regarding the (Palestinian) 'demographic threat.'"

Recent reports of visas petering out for NGO workers, BDS activists, and journalists seeking to work in the occupied Palestinian territory, in addition to spouses, are likely, in Bahour's view, tied to other longstanding policies such as the revocation of East Jerusalem Palestinians' residency.

"I think the entire policy is to empty Palestine of its brains, of its capacities, in a voluntary manner," Bahour said. "One family at a time has to take the decision that's it's too costly or too volatile of an environment from an administrative point of view to be worth staying here."

Bahour said that Right to Enter was launching a new campaign in November to denounce the crackdown and get foreign countries to take a stand for their citizens, a move that spouses believed could be their only hope to resolve their situation.

"If we don't do anything, they will get bolder and bolder," Anna said. "They count on our fear and silence."

Chloé Benoist Chloé Benoist is a French journalist based in the Middle East since 2011, and currently working in the West Bank, where she focuses mainly on political, social, and cultural issues.