“It separates us from our dear ones”

Walls and permit system keep Palestinians away from their families and land

Nebal’s love story begins like many others. Two young people meet while studying at university. Nebal was drawn to Khalil’s charisma, leadership and independence. They fell in love volunteering together. They’ve been married for almost 23 years and have four children. Their home is full of smiles, their older children doting on their new baby sibling, Guevara.

But back when they first met, Nebal and Kahlil didn’t consider the one key difference that would shape their future together: where they grew up. “When we were in love we didn’t think about these differences. We didn’t think that I’m from Jerusalem and he’s from Ramallah,” she says.

Nebal and Khalil Safi on the night they got engaged. Photo courtesy of Nebal Safi. 

The Safis got married July 15, 1995 in a big ceremony with lots of family and friends. It was a wonderful night, Nebal says. But starting with the wedding their different backgrounds impacted their plans. “The party and celebration were in Ramallah because his family and friends could not come to Jerusalem,” she says. “Me and my family had to go to Ramallah for the celebration.”

While the two cities are only about 12 miles apart, politics make the distance much greater. The Jerusalem municipality where Nebal grew up is controlled by Israelis, while Ramallah is in the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians like Nebal and Khalil need to have a Jerusalem ID to live in Jerusalem. And to even enter the city Palestinians need a permit. Having grown up in the city, Nebal and her family have the Jerusalemite ID, but as residents of Ramallah Khalil and his family do not. The difference in status, and the measures the Israeli government uses to keep the two areas apart, have shaped Nebal and Khalil’s lives. 

Separated by the wall

The story of Nebal and Khalil Safi, who had to live apart for the first five years of their marriage.
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The air feels different

The difference in Kahlil and Nebal’s residency status meant they had to live apart for the first five years of their marriage. She in Jerusalem, he in Ramallah. “The situation was very difficult,” says Nebal. “It was affecting me very badly. Especially that I got pregnant three months after marriage. I needed emotional support during this time.” They would travel back and forth to see each other, though it was difficult for pregnant Nebal to cross the checkpoints. But she knew that being apart for too long would affect their relationship.

It wasn’t possible for Khalil to get the residency ID required to live in Jerusalem. In 2003, Israel passed a law banning residency to people like Khalil who are married to a partner with the ID. While the law started as a temporary security measure, it has been renewed every year since.1

A photo Nebal and Khalil Safi’s wedding in 1995. Photo courtesy of Nebal Safi.

It’s easy to wonder why Nebal would stay in Jerusalem if her husband couldn’t join her. For someone who wants to keep their Jerusalem ID, it’s important to actually live in the city. In 1995, the year Nebal and Khalil got married, Israel introduced the center of life policy, which meant that to keep your residency status you must prove that your home and work are in Jerusalem.2

Keeping her status is important to Nebal. There are practical reasons like access to better health and education services and the ability to pass the residency onto her children. But it’s also important because Jerusalem is her home. “For me this land is my home. Not the stones and the building I am living in. When I go to Jerusalem, either where my family lives or the Al Aqsa mosque, the air feels different,” she says.

The wall

When their first son Tarek was born, things got more complicated. Tarek was born with hearing problems and he was in the hospital for a month after birth. For years Tarek needed follow-up appointments and testing. When he was 4, he received a cochlear implant which helped, but even now at 21 he still requires frequent care. The doctors and hospitals Tarek needed as a child were in Jerusalem, so it was important for the family to be in the city.

But the separation was becoming too difficult, so in 2000 Khalil moved to live with Nebal and Tarek in a rented apartment in the Shu’fat neighborhood of Jerusalem. While it meant they could live together, it also meant Khalil was navigating the division between Jerusalem and the West Bank every day to get to work in Ramallah. He didn’t have the needed permits to get back into Jerusalem, so he had to find ways to get around the checkpoints. Sometimes if he couldn’t get across or if he ran out of time, he would end up staying with his mother in Ramallah. “Every day I would wonder if he would be able to pass,” says Nebal. “Would he come home or would he not? I was not sure what would happen.” 

A stretch of the separation wall in Bethlehem. MCC photo/Emily Loewen

During this time they also watched the construction of a new, more concrete barrier to their relationship. The security fence according to Israelis. Palestinians call it the separation wall or the Apartheid Wall. Israel began construction of the physical barrier between Israel and the West Bank in 2002, saying it would provide increased security for Israelis. But the negative effects of the wall are primarily felt by Palestinians like Nebal and Khalil. (Learn more about the wall.)

By 2006 the wall, made of concrete and 26 feet high, had completely closed them into Jerusalem. Khalil was cut off from work in Ramallah because he didn’t have the permits needed to get back home to Jerusalem. To stay together, they moved to a suburb called Kufr Aqab. The area is officially part of Jerusalem, so Nebal and the children can maintain their status, but it’s outside the separation barrier so Khalil can move freely from home to work. “I do not exaggerate when I say I still cry when I remember the day we moved out of Jerusalem,” says Nebal. 

Tarek, 21, plays with his younger brother Guevara in their family’s apartment in Kufr Aqab. MCC photo/Emily Loewen

While Nebal’s family, who still lives inside Jerusalem, wasn’t happy with the move, they accepted it as the only decision that made sense for her family. “It was hard for them that we left and are living behind the wall,” she says. “But it was the only way to live as a family—children with their parents. To maintain this family and to work together for this family we only had this solution.”

They may not be in the city they want, but the Safi’s home is full of love. Tarek, now 21, laughs as he watches his 10-month-old brother Guevara roam the house in his chair on wheels. Sarah and Nebal cook together in the kitchen. Everyone’s excited when Khalil comes in the door from work. They’re together. 

Sarah, 17 with her brother Guevara, 10 months, at their home in Kufr Aqab. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

Residence without services

Though Kufr Aqab is part of Jerusalem, it doesn’t look that way on the surface. The Jerusalem on the Israel side of the wall has well-maintained roads, and is lush with trees and plants. There is regular trash pick-up and access to health care and other services. The Jerusalem on the West Bank side of the wall looks very different. “When we enter Kufr Aqab where we live now, we feel sad and depressed that we had to leave Jerusalem,” says Nebal. In her new neighborhood, residents still pay taxes to the municipality but they don’t get any of the benefits. The pavement on the road outside the Safi’s apartment is uneven, full of potholes. There’s garbage on the side of the streets and overflowing dumpsters waiting to be emptied. The streets are dusty with few trees. The roofs of all the tall apartment buildings are full of the black tanks Palestinians use to store water because they only receive running water from the municipality two days a week.3

This area is mostly full of families in the same situation as the Safis. Couples where one person has Jerusalem residency and the other doesn’t. Living in the crowded neighborhood of Kufr Aqab is the only solution that allows them to keep residency and live together.

But Nebal and other residents fear that this community outside the separation wall will one day be declared no longer a part of Jerusalem and everyone living there will lose their residency status. Many Palestinians believe that would be one more step to removing Palestinians from East Jerusalem so Israelis can claim more land for Israeli citizens.

When Nebal was younger they visited the remains of the Palestinian village of Lifta, where her grandparents were from. Palestinians were pushed out of the village on the outskirts of Jerusalem by Israelis in 1947 and 1948.  Photo courtesy of Nebal Safi  

Belonging to the land

Nebal has a very visceral reaction when she looks at the wall that has cut her off from her mother and siblings, from the place she feels is home. “I feel like everything is dark,” she says. “The wall is separating us—keeping people inside and outside. It’s suffocating me. I wish I had the power and ability to destroy this wall, so people could move freely. There is malice between us and this wall, even though it is only stones. The existence of this wall is so provocative to us because it separates us from our dear ones.”

But despite the darkness she feels from the wall, Nebal also has a sense of hope for the future, if not for her than for her children. That the occupation will end. That the wall will come down. That she won’t have to cross checkpoints to visit her family.

“My hope is to go back to my land and I always planned this for my children to stay optimistic to go back to the land,” she says. And even though where she lives now does not feel like home, she’s hopeful she can one day return. “There is a physical and spiritual belonging to the land. Wherever I am, I will always have these strong feelings for Jerusalem. We will always have this hope and this wish that we will get the land back.”


1. Reliefweb, Israel must repeal the discriminatory Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law

2. Civic coalition for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, Palestinians: residence in their home

3. Al Jazeera, Palestinians in Kufr Aqab: 'We live here just to wait'

This story is part of A Cry for Home, which offers stories, videos and fact sheets from MCC on Palestine and Israel. Learn more about A Cry for Home.