JERUSALEM — Dozens of Palestinian Arabs separated from their wives, husbands, and children by Israeli occupation fired questions at an empty table reserved for invited government officials here Saturday in a dramatic gesture to underline their plight.
More than 200 other Palestinians, many of them holding up photographs of loved ones prohibited from living with them in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip, lent their support as a newly formed Committee for Family Reunification demanded the same repatriation rights for Palestinians as Israel demands for Soviet Jews.
"All the Jews in the world have the right to come and live in the land of Palestine, but we Palestinians are denied that right," committee member Jamal Barghout said in opening remarks.
The crowd applauded loudly when attorney Felicia Langer, an Israeli Jew active in pro-Palestinian causes, said, "The sanctity of the Palestinian family is at least the same as the sanctity of the Israeli family."
Appropriately, the committee chose Arab East Jerusalem's Hakawati Playhouse as the scene for its theatrical protest. Eight committee members sat on small stools behind one table on the stage while a second table to their left remained empty except for place cards identifying it as reserved for Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and four other top occupation officials.
Arab attorney Jonathan Kuttab said the committee sent notices to the five by registered mail, inviting them to appear and answer questions regarding the government's family reunification policies.
But only silence ensued when Kuttab announced shortly after the start of the meeting that "this is the time for them or their representatives to come up and take their place."
There are no exact figures on the number of Palestinian families divided because of Israeli restrictions on the population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But military sources confirm that, particularly in recent years, only a small percentage of those who apply for permission to live with their families in the occupied territories receive official approval.
In 1986, according to a spokesman for the Israeli administrator for the occupied territories, there were about 1,000 approvals. The spokesman said he did not know how many Palestinians had applied for reunification, but added that "I wouldn't be surprised" if the number exceeds the 6,000 applications estimated by Palestinian sources. The year before, 317 were approved out of 2,937 filed, according to official figures.
Israel has controlled the Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip ever since its troops captured the territories in the Six-Day War of 1967.
Three months after the victory, the occupation authorities took a census and issued Israeli identification cards to about 600,000 Arabs in the West Bank and 380,000 in the Gaza Strip. The cards entitled the holders and their children to permanent resident status.
Israel insists that because it is still technically at war with most of its Arab neighbors, and the territories are under military occupation, it is under no obligation to allow more Palestinians to take up residence there.
However, in what it describes as a humanitarian gesture, Israel established a procedure under which Palestinian residents who were not in the territories at the time of the 1967 census could apply for identification cards on grounds of wanting to rejoin their families. And officials claim that more than 50,000 Palestinians have obtained permanent resident status under this procedure.
Those officials contend that by now the original aim of the policy has been fulfilled. And they admit that in the last couple of years they have toughened their policy on admitting more non-Jewish residents to the territories. (The government promotes Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and an estimated 60,000 Jews now live among the 1.3 million Arab residents of the occupied territories.)
The Committee for Family Reunification was formed about two months ago in response to what members describe as the worsening situation for Palestinian repatriation.
"This group is strictly nonpolitical" and interested only in the problem of divided families, said attorney Kuttab. While everyone has his own political view, he said, "we're sick of talking about the macro issues when we're suffering from the micro" problems.
The committee is part of what appears to be an emerging trend here in which some Palestinians are abandoning their traditional attitude of samud, or steadfastness, in the face of Israeli rule and adopting more sophisticated forms of nonviolent protest aimed at what they see as specific injustices.
The family reunification group is being aided, for example, by the two-year-old Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence, a group that looks to India's Mohandas K. Gandhi and America's Martin Luther King Jr. for its inspiration.