Israel's law keeping Arab families apart

The human consequences of the decision to ban thousands of Palestinians who are married to Israelis

Raya is from Haifa and her husband Issam is from a village just 15 minutes' drive from the centre of Jerusalem, as close as Harrow to London. But he cannot live with his wife and children in their north Jerusalem home because his village lies outside the city limits. Under Israel's family unification law he cannot visit his children's school, nor even his wife when she was giving birth in hospital, because the school and the hospital are in Jerusalem and he's a West Banker.

This is the law that the Israeli Supreme Court voted to uphold last week. It applies only to Arab Israelis. Jewish Israelis are free to marry and live with anyone they like (except Palestinians). The Israelis say it's because Palestinian spouses are a security risk. Palestinians say that the motive is ethnic engineering; that the Israelis will do anything to reduce the Arab population.

When Issam married, he applied for a permit to live with his wife, but was refused on the grounds that he had worked for the Palestinian Authority. "It was just excuses when they turned me down because I worked for the PA. What's wrong with that? It's like being a civil servant. They refuse everyone they can." Indeed, of the 3,000 who applied for exemption last year, only 33 were successful.

"Ours is just one story from thousands like us. The Israelis want to achieve just one thing. They want to remove every Arab from Jerusalem. It's easier for me to go on holiday to Germany than it is to visit my children's school in Jerusalem."

Rimaz came from a small village and couldn't get a permit to live with her husband in Jerusalem, so she was forced to live as an 'illegal'. She had a job as a music teacher but could only get to school by climbing over hills and using dirt roads to avoid the checkpoints. She wasn't allowed to drive or take a bus or a taxi. Sometimes she took risks. Once she was driving the children to school when the police stopped her and asked to see her ID. She was arrested. Another time she was in a taxi and the police arrested both her and the taxi-driver and impounded his taxi.

In the end she had to give up her job. Now she has a short-term permit but no one will employ her because they know it could be revoked at any time. "I feel I am losing the best years of my life sitting at home," she says.

"They have changed this law mainly to reduce the number of Palestinian people living in Jerusalem," says her husband Ghassan. "It's been very successful."

The Supreme Court ruling - by 6 votes to 5 - has sparked off a long overdue debate in Israel about discriminatory laws. But family unification is only the tip of the iceberg. Israel uses a whole armoury of seemingly neutral bureaucratic devices - planning permission, building permits, housing densities, residence applications - to reduce the Palestinian population.

The Jerusalem Plan openly sets a target of reducing the Palestinian population from 40 to 20 per cent and a recent surge in the number of house demolitions, evictions, settlement expansion, revocation of residence permits, even the building of parks and open spaces, are all part of a strategy of ethnic engineering. Refusing to let Palestinians from the suburbs (which are in the West Bank) live with their spouses from the City (who have Jerusalem ID cards) is just one of many ways of nudging Arabs out of Jerusalem.

Racism usually takes a more brazen form. It takes a particular cast of bureaucratic mind to use building permits and housing densities as tools of racial discrimination, but the Israelis have done it. Their policies are racist in everything but name and their system is apartheid in everything but name. Indeed a particularly cruel form of apartheid which works by making people's lives miserable, wearing them down, picking them off one by one. It is inaudible and invisible to the outside world until you look at the effects it has on the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

As a country we protest to the Israelis that they breach international law - by annexing Jerusalem, by building settlements, by expropriating Palestinian land, building the wall inside the West Bank, by blockading Gaza. It is high time that we protested about this - their heartless treatment of ordinary families for no other reason than that they are Palestinian.

Martin Linton is parliamentary liaison for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD UK)

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.