It was the moment he had been dreading his entire life. Maen Abu Hafez, 24, and his friends’ car was stopped by Israeli soldiers at a flying checkpoint on their way home from Tulkarem city to his hometown, Jenin, in the northern occupied West Bank.
When the soldiers asked for their IDs — which Palestinians must carry on them at all times in case they are stopped at a checkpoint — Abu Hafez told them he didn’t have one. Within a few hours he was at an Israeli detention center.
Two days later, he was taken to the Givon Prison in central Israel — a prison that holds mostly undocumented asylum seekers from Africa — where he has been held for 20 months as an “illegal alien,” while the Israeli government waits to deport him to Brazil.
Abu Hafez was born in Brazil to a Palestinian father, from the Jenin Refugee Camp, and a Brazilian mother. His family of six moved to the Jenin Camp when he was three years old, where he has lived ever since. Neither he, his two brothers, nor his mother, have Palestinian ID cards, giving them no legal status in the occupied territory.
“There is no proof that he has any legal status in Brazil and the Brazilian authorities are, rightly, refusing to take in the young man against his will,” Israeli Human Rights Organization Hamoked, who is handling Abu Hafez’s case, said in an October press release.
“Israel has held Maen in detention for the past 20 months in an effort to pressure him to agree to his own deportation,” the group said.
“My father had never gotten registered for an ID, and because he had been living out of the country for too long, the Israelis refused to give him one,” Maen’s brother Ghaith Abu Hafez, 30, told Mondoweiss.
“So myself, Maen, our brother Mahmoud, and my mom, none of us were able to get IDs,” Ghaith said, adding that all of the family’s applications for residency rights have been denied.
“My sister is the only who has a West Bank ID, which she got after she married a Palestinian man with residency here,” he said. “But when I got married to a Palestinian woman and attempted to file for family reunification, I was denied.”
“Maen was just going for the day to visit Tulkarem with his friends, he usually never leaves Jenin, none of us do. He knew the risks but he just wanted to enjoy a day with his friends,” Ghaith said.
“And now he is facing deportation to a place he doesn’t even know. He has no family, no friends there, he doesn’t even know the language. We are devastated.”
Stuck in bureaucratic limbo
In mid October, Hamoked filed an appeal against Abu Hafez’s detention, saying that “Israeli authorities are punishing him for their own failure to legalize his status.”
Hamoked stated that the group filed an appeal on his behalf that he be released from custody to the Supervisory Court for Remanded Illegal Aliens.
The Court, which for the past 20 months has signed off on the continued detention of Maen each month, once again rejected the request for Maen’s release. The next day, HaMoked appealed to the District Court,” the statement said.
According to Hamoked, despite meeting the definition of a “resident of the area,” Israel views him as an “illegal alien” in the West Bank, due to the country’s restrictive policy regarding family unification in the occupied Palestinian territory.
“Israel does not approve any such requests, excluding the most exceptional humanitarian cases,” the statement said, adding that “Israeli authorities are punishing Maen for their own failure to legalize his status.”
Despite being Palestinians and living in an area under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the lives of the Abu Hafez family, and hundreds of families like them — a Palestinian married to a foreign spouse and their children — are in the hands of the Israeli government, who has control over the Palestinian population registry.
“We have exhausted every avenue we can think of with the PA,” Ghaith said, “but they always tell us there is nothing they can do. It is in the hands of the Israelis.”
Ever since Israel froze the review of Palestinian “family unification” requests in 2000 — with the exception of “exceptional humanitarian cases,” which do not include spouses and children — the foreign spouses and children of Palestinians have been living in the West Bank with short-term visitors’ permits, which are hard to come by, or with no legal status at all.
The policy has been criticized by rights groups as discriminatory and unlawful, and has affected the daily lives of hundreds of families, who without IDs, cannot obtain drivers licenses, are excluded from higher educational institutions and jobs that require ID registration.
Above all, the policy has left such families living in constant fear of encountering Israeli forces and inevitably being separated from the ones they love.
‘We have lived our entire lives in fear’
Ghaith Abu Hafez works as mechanic at an auto repair shop in Jenin. He says despite getting adequate scores on his high school metric exams, he was unable to register for university, because he didn’t have any residency papers.
His brother Maen dropped out of school at 16, knowing he would encounter the same problems his brothers Ghaith and Mahmoud did when they tried to register for university. He was worked at a car wash ever since.
“None of us have been able to find higher-paying jobs or pursue our studies because of we are undocumented,” Ghaith told Mondoweiss.
“We can’t go to the bigger cities like Ramallah to find better jobs because we rarely ever leave Jenin,” he said. “So we are restricted to whatever jobs we find here.
Their undocumented status has affected every single aspect of the Abu Hafez family’s lives, from lack of job and educational opportunities, to freedom of movement.
“In general, we never leave the city of Jenin,” he said. “The risk is too high. There is an 80 percent chance that we could get stopped by Israeli soldiers or police on the way,” he said, adding that young Palestinian men are disproportionately more likely to be stopped than women or senior citizens.
According to Israeli rights group B’Tselem, as of 2017, there were 98 fixed Israeli military checkpoints scattered across the occupied the West Bank and along its borders with Israel and occupied East Jerusalem.
Fifty-nine are internal checkpoints, situated well within the West Bank. These do not include “flying checkpoints,” like the one Maen was stopped at, which are erected by Israeli forces randomly at any given time on West Bank roads.
In the areas around the Jenin governorate alone, there are six permanent military checkpoints.
“When the Israelis stop you, the first thing they do is ask for your ID,” Ghaith said. “If the Israelis stop us and we don’t have IDs, and they decide to look up our names on their computers, they will find that we are not registered on their system and we will be in a terrible situation. Like what happened to Maen.”
The psychological toll that their residency status has had on the Abu Hafez family, Ghaith says, is overwhelming.
“We are always scared, we have lived our entire lives in fear,” he said. “And our worst fears came true when Maen was detained.”
The most terrifying times for the family are at night, when Israeli forces raid the Jenin Camp looking for Palestinians who have a warrant out for their arrest by Israeli authorities, typically for political reasons.
It is also not uncommon for soldiers to perform reconnaissance operations, in which they raid several, if not all, of the homes in the camp to document the locations of the homes and all the information of who lives inside.
“When the soldiers raid the camp in the middle of the night, we always fear they will raid our house and ask for IDs,” Ghaith told Mondoweiss. “And if they see we don’t have any, they will arrest all of us.”
Twenty lonely months in prison
As Maen languishes in Israeli prison awaiting his fate, he has been unable to see any of his family members, as they cannot travel past the Israeli checkpoints to visit him.
“We can’t visit Maen because none of us have IDs, we can’t even send him any clothes or money,” Ghaith said, adding that his mother has been most affected by the situation. “She wants to see him so badly, but it is too risky. So we just have to wait for his phone calls from jail.”
He added that the family filed a request for visitation by extended family members, but the request was denied by Israeli prison authorities.
“They said only immediate family members are allowed visitation. So not even my cousins or my uncle can go see him,” Ghaith said.
“It is devastating, to watch your younger brother in this situation. Maen is scared and alone, and there is nothing we can do to help him,” he said, adding that as far as he knows, there are no other Palestinians in the prison with Maen.
“This specific prison is where they keep all of the African asylum seekers and other refugees who came into Israel illegally,” he said, “so he doesn’t even have any other Palestinian companions, someone he can talk to or relate to. He is totally alone.”
“Maen is Palestinian, this is his home. And he is being held and threatened with deportation as if he is someone who has no right to be here,” he said. “He is a refugee, and now the people that made us refugees are trying to displace him all over again.”
Maen, Ghaith said, is consumed by the fear that he will be deported to Brazil, a land he has no knowledge of or connection to.
“If he gets sent to Brazil, we will never be able to go there, and he will never be able to come back here,” Ghaith said, “our family will be torn apart forever. We just pray to God that he will bring Maen back home to us.”