Love across the Israeli divide

As couples kept apart by the Middle East conflict meet hostility on both sides, lawyers appeal for funds to reunite them
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The Independent Online

Civil rights lawyers in Israel are appealing for funds from the United States and European governments to support their campaign to help to reunite "mixed" Israeli and Palestinian couples who have been split up by the Middle East conflict.

They believe that scores of couples have been forced apart since the start of the intifada 14 months ago because of Israel's military closure of the occupied territories and other strictures.

"We need seed money for helping these people to get back together again," said Irit Rosenblum, a civil liberties lawyer and founder of New Family, an organisation in Tel Aviv pressing for recognition of "non-traditional" families in Israel. "The US took responsibility for the peace process and made people believe that it was possible to have relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. These couples are the 'doves of peace', and now they need help."

One such "dove" is 18-year-old "Yelena", a Russian who immigrated to Israel from Uzbekistan two years ago along with her Jewish father and Russian mother. On her fifth day in Israel, she met "Mahmoud", now 22, a Palestinian from Gaza. (Their real names have been altered because of the risk to the couple if they are publicised.)

They met when the Oslo peace process was still alive, and expectations were generally still high that it would lead to a final peace agreement. A fluent Hebrew speaker, Mahmoud was working in a Tel Aviv restaurant, like many young Palestinians who slipped illegally into Israel in search of better wages.

As she was newly arrived, Russian, and only 16, Yelena was less attuned to the perils and problems of the sectarian divide than most native Israelis. She liked Mahmoud at once. They became a couple, and she became pregnant. They were unable to marry in Israel. He had no documents, but could not have wed even if he had been legally resident. Marriage is the exclusive legal jurisdiction of the Orthodox state rabbinate, which does not permit marriage between Jews and non-Jews.

But Yelena's father, a fierce drinker, did not approve of the relationship. In a drunken rage he attacked Mahmoud with a knife, and is now in jail for violent assault. But he also informed the Israeli authorities that Mahmoud was in Israel illegally. Mahmoud was arrested and deported to the Gaza Strip, where he was tried and jailed for two months for "having relations with the enemy". Yelena is bringing up their child on her own.She has also been victimised by other Israelis for having an affair with an Arab. Last week, aided by New Family, she secured a significant breakthrough when Israel's Interior Ministry issued documents permitting Mahmoud to return to Israel to be reunited with the family. But they have yet to acquire similar permission from the Palestinian authorities.

The New Family organisation has gathered details on 35 cases, but there may be as many as 100, says Ms Rosenblum. "Both societies are not tolerant. These couples have no rights, no benefits. They just have each other."