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Denied and deported: Love and marriage in the Palestinian territories

After 28 years of entering Israel multiple times per year, Elaine Zoughbi was suddenly denied entry by an airport border agent. The reason? She had married a Palestinian.

Overlooking Bethlehem in the West Bank on May 31, 2018. RNS photo by Dan Rabb

(RNS) — Elaine Zoughbi just wants to go home.

The Israeli government says she can’t.

For the past 28 years, Zoughbi, a U.S. citizen, has lived with her family in Bethlehem, which is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

When she returned to Israel on April 3 from a routine trip back to the U.S., she was denied entry by a border agent at the airport. To her surprise, after 28 years of entering Israel multiple times per year on three-month tourist visas, she was told she would not be allowed entry or be able to return home, where she lives with her four children and her husband.

“I must be a special American, because, unlike every other American who can enter and automatically get a three-month tourist visa, I can no longer do that,” she recalls telling the agent.

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His response was blunt. Zoughbi said he told her she was no longer welcome “’because you married a Palestinian.’”

She was made to sign a paper stating that she would not return to Israel without submitting a formal request in advance and receiving approval. Based on similar cases, the odds of receiving approval are slim.

Elaine Zoughbi, center, with her husband and children. Courtesy photo

Zoughbi does not have legal status in Israel. The government denied her application for Palestinian spousal residency status early on, and in only several instances over the last three decades was she granted a yearlong visa by Israel.

“Having lived under the occupation for most of the 28 years of my marriage, I am no stranger to adversity,” she said. “But it has always been my family and our support for each other which allowed us to meet and face every challenge with steadfastness and love.”

Cases like this are frighteningly common in Israel, said Jessica Montell, executive director of HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, an Israeli nongovernmental organization.

“Israel controls the Palestinian population registry and all entry points into the Palestinian territories. For years it has refused to process requests for family unification, only granting status in the West Bank in ‘exceptional humanitarian circumstances,’” said Montell. “The desire to live with your husband or wife is not considered sufficiently ‘humanitarian’!  As a result, thousands of people live in the West Bank on short-term visas or with no legal status at all, always fearful that their family will be torn apart.”

Elaine’s husband, Zoughbi Zoughbi, has tried to draw attention to his wife’s case by talking with reporters.

There are significant risks, time and money needed to pursue legal channels, often at costs Palestinians cannot afford. Over the last few years, the small number of cases that made it to the courts have been unsuccessful.

Does the United States government condone this practice of our nearest ally in the region? Do American citizens want to be responsible for who is allowed to love and marry in Palestine?

Spray-painted biblical references and other graffiti cover the Israeli-built separation barrier that runs through downtown Bethlehem in the West Bank. RNS photo by Liz Donovan

The resilience of families like the Zoughbis inspires those working for a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to advocate on behalf of so many people stuck in seemingly insurmountable circumstances. As Montell said, “Every Palestinian has the right to live with their spouse and children without fear that their family will be disrupted.” That is certainly the most basic human right.

For now, the family is living as normally as possible in Bethlehem, given the circumstances. The Zoughbis continue to attend school and to work, in spite of the forced separation.

“We have steadfastness. We have perseverance and resilience. Our kids are aware of what is going on; it is a drain on your energy, your resources, and your sanity,” Zoughbi Zoughbi said.

Still, living for now in the U.S., Elaine refuses to give up hope.

“In every challenge lies opportunity,” she said, “and it is my hope that through my family’s adversity that we are able to take the opportunity to seek out God’s image in each other and work to afford all a life filled with love, dignity and opportunity. Denied and deported, yet hopeful and determined.”

(The Rev. Mae Elise Cannon is executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace and the editor of “A Land Full of God: Christian Perspectives on the Holy Land.” She is also co-author of “Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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