When Saleh Totah and his wife, Morgan Cooper, had their baby girl Lourice this summer, they couldn't wait to bring her to California to meet her maternal grandparents. But the couple, based in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, quickly realised they faced an unexpected challenge: according to the Israeli authorities who rule over the Palestinian territory, Lourice did not exist.
In the face of Israel’s plan to annex the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) – the interim self-government body that administers civil services in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip – did one of the few things it could to show its discontent: it severed security coordination with the Israeli government.
While the move was meant to adversely affect Israel, which relies on security coordination to stop attacks and crack down on dissenters, it has had unforeseen consequences: tens of thousands of Palestinian infants have been left off Israeli registration rolls. Being unrecognised means they cannot travel freely out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“It’s emotionally exhausting,” Cooper told VICE News. “We’ve been at this since Lourice was born. We realised her hawiye [identity card] would not be registered with the Israelis, because there’s no coordination, and that we were going to have a problem at the borders. We went to the US embassy and they were beyond unresponsive.”
Before the PA ceased security coordination it would regularly transfer the records of newborns and the names of those who renewed their passports to the Israeli authorities, which control the border crossings. According to PA figures, 24,279 Palestinian babies – 13,567 in the West Bank and 10,712 in the Gaza Strip – were born between the 20th of May and the 9th of August, and remain unrecognised by Israel.
Lourice, her four-year-old brother and her parents, all American citizens, were unable to leave the West Bank. With the help of Rebuilding Alliance, a US non-profit that advocates for Palestinians, Lourice’s parents began campaigning Congressional offices for support. They sent emails to Kamala Harris, now the Democratic Party vice presidential nominee, and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, as well as representatives from New York, where Totah has residency.
A surprise came on the 22nd of September, when an Israeli journalist covering the story reached out to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli military’s civil body that administers the West Bank. After Lourice’s birth certificate and the family’s papers were shown, COGAT managed to secure the baby’s registration and her permit to travel out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport with her mother.
Foreign nationals like Cooper can usually use Ben Gurion airport to travel, but their Palestinian spouses, regardless of what foreign citizenship they hold, cannot, and have to travel to neighbouring Jordan to use the airport there. Totah was going to apply for a permit to travel with his family from Tel Aviv, but by that point it was too late. Israeli authorities announced a country-wide lockdown because of the increasingly high number of COVID-19 infections. Cooper canceled their plane tickets, unpacked and told her mother in California that their plans were off.
“I’m tired of trying to always plan our life on possibilities, and nothing is predictable,” Cooper said. “I’ve bought and cancelled flights so many times. I don’t know what two weeks from now looks like. I’m grateful that Lourice’s records are in, but at the same time there is still no process for any of the other people who are trying to get out with a baby in this situation, so to me it’s also dissatisfying how this happened.”
COGAT did not respond to requests for comment.
Totah and Cooper’s daughter may have gotten registered eventually, but many other babies remain unrecognised and unable to move freely – even those who were born before the cessation of security coordination between the PA and Israel.
That’s the case with Laith, who was born on the 6th of May, 2019 in the West Bank. A month ago, his parents traveled to Allenby Bridge, the crossing from the West Bank into Jordan, to fly to Missouri out of the airport in Amman. At the crossing, they found out that their baby’s birth was not in the Israeli records, and they were not allowed to leave with him.
After they reached out to COGAT and to the PA ministry of interior, they were told that a “human error” had left the baby off the records that were transferred to the Israeli authorities. But because there was no coordination between both parties, the error could not be rectified.
“I packed up my house. We gave our car to a friend to sell. My husband has a Green Card, so he needs to be back in the US,” said Laith’s mother, Doa Ramadan, an American citizen. “It’s frustrating when you have the intent to leave and you and your kids are sent back. Never mind the financial cost involved. It’s a lot to deal with.”
Palestinian officials said that Israel is trying to pressure their political leadership into backtracking on its decision to stop the security coordination. Ahmed al-Deek, political adviser to the PA minister of foreign affairs, called the measure a form of “collective punishment”.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Israeli authorities are also not recognising IDs issued to Palestinians who have reached the age of 16, or anyone issued a new passport, rendering these forms of identification useless – with adverse effects on those needing to travel abroad for health, education and family unification purposes.
Like Cooper, Ramadan reached out to Rebuilding Alliance, which, in turn, helped her get in touch with her senator and representatives. The US embassy could not be of help, Ramadan was told, because it was a matter between Israeli and Palestinian authorities. She also appealed to HaMoked, an Israeli human rights group that aids Palestinians, to help her leave with her family.
“Last I checked [the 24th of September], we had about 30 families who turned to us,” said Jessica Montell, HaMoked's executive director. “It could be double that by now. We will represent about 20 of those families, and Doa Ramadan is one of them.”
In each case, HaMoked sends an inquiry to the Israeli military asking it to confirm that the baby concerned can travel. If they don't get a positive answer, they file a petition to the District Court.
“We also submitted a principled letter to the military, saying that some arrangement must be made for all babies in this situation,” Montell said. “We just don't have the capacity to file individual petitions for everyone, but the hope is that our principled message, combined with a series of individual cases, should result in some policy change that benefits everyone.”