BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK – In 2015, on the first evening of the Christian camp, Maria* and Michal met for the first time. After dinner, they peeled away from the crowd to admire the statue of the Virgin Mary that stood at the front of the church. Maria, who was 18 at the time, sat in an empty church in the West Bank, deep in conversation with a man who would soon become her husband. 

Maria and Michal grew up within a 15km radius of each other — her in Jerusalem and him in the West Bank. As they sat under the watchful eye of the mother of Christ, they talked about everything — their families, their devotion to their faith, their love for their land.

“It was so natural and easy to speak with him — we connected on so many levels,” said Maria.

The two fell in love that night and got married in July 2022. For Maria, getting to marry Michal was a victory — she had to face many hurdles to get there. 

“My dad was initially quite resistant to the idea of us getting married,” said Maria.

Maria’s father, Joseph*, 58, is a tour guide who was born in the old city of Jerusalem. His hesitancy with his daughter’s marriage steamed from hardships he faced from his own experience marrying Maria’s mother, Grace*, 53, because she is also from the West Bank.

“I did not want my daughter to go through all the hardships my wife and I faced,” said Joseph.

Both Joseph and his daughter were born in Jerusalem, which means that they have a Jerusalem identification card. This card allows them to move freely through checkpoints between checkpoints between Jerusalem and the West Bank. Grace and Michal, on the other hand, were born in towns in the occupied West Bank which means they are not entitled to a Jerusalem identification card.

To obtain one, Grace had to apply for a special residence permit through the Ministry of the Interior in Israel. However, applying for this permit is challenging. Joseph and Grace had to wait for 20 years before they finally obtained this permit. During that time, Grace had to constantly reapply for a work permit to stay in Jerusalem every few years. They managed to stay together in Jerusalem but were never fully confident that they would not be separated.

Joseph and Grace faced several ups and downs over the 20 years, but the one thing that helped Grace overcome challenges was her faith. Every week, she would go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to pray. As she kneeled by the marble slab near the entrance where Jesus was laid, she prayed for her family and for her fellow Palestinians in the same situations. For Grace, praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a blessing, and she believed that whatever she asked for will be fulfilled.

“Jerusalem is a very holy place. I have faith that it is worth staying here. I know I will be able to fulfill my life as a Christian here,” said Grace.

When Joseph and Grace got married in 1996, they moved into Joseph’s parent’s house in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem. At that time, Joseph worked in accounting and was adamant about staying in Jerusalem to maintain his own ID. While Palestinians born in Jerusalem are born with the right to an identification card, they also go to great lengths to maintain their Jerusalemite status. Those with the ID must be able to prove that Jerusalem is their “center of life”. This means that they need to remain in Jerusalem and be able to prove that they spend the majority of their time there.

For Joseph, this meant living in the same house his parents owned since he was young, collecting electricity and water bills to prove that he was using the residency monthly. He even had to ensure that his fridge was stocked with food to prove that he lived at home as Israeli government officials sometimes came to check. Despite the challenge, it was worth it. 

“As a Palestinian, and as a Christian, we must continue our presence here in Jerusalem,” he said.

Palestinian Christians currently make up around 1% of Jerusalem’s population, but the number of Christians have been slowly dwindling. For Joseph, staying in Jerusalem despite the falling numbers is his way of defying expectations and ensuring that those like him are still represented. For this reason, he became a tour guide.

“I want people to know that this place, which is so important to Christians, still has Palestinian Christians, I want them to know our history,” said Joseph. 

When Joseph and Grace got married in the late 1990s, the situation with the security checkpoints between Jerusalem and the West Bank was different than they currently are.  Even though the checkpoints existed, it was easier for Palestinians to move in and out of Jerusalem as they did not always require a permit to do so. It wasn’t until a period of unrest known as the Second Intifada in the early 2000s when security on the Israeli side got much stricter and all Palestinians were required to have a permit when moving into and out of Jerusalem.

Things became a lot more challenging for the couple after that — Grace had to constantly reapply for a work permit to stay in Jerusalem and was in constant fear that she could lose it at any moment. Palestinians without an ID also undergo much more scrutiny when crossing checkpoints than those with an ID.

Whenever Grace and Joseph would drive through a checkpoint, Grace was required to step out of the vehicle and walk through a separate line with body scanners while her husband and kids were able to pass through the checkpoint in the comfort of their car. Once she passed through the other side of the metal detectors, she usually had to trek a couple of kilometers on foot past the intimidating barbed wires to where Joseph and the kids were waiting for her.  At times, the officers manning the checkpoints would take a break, and those in line would be stranded for hours, hoping that someone would return so they could cross to the other side.

“It was so humiliating and dehumanizing,” said Grace. “Having your kids watch you go through is something I wish no one has to go through.”

This process still stands today. Whenever Maria and Michal cross the checkpoint into Jerusalem, Michal has to get out of the car while Maria stays in the vehicle. 

“We try to avoid going into Jerusalem because of the checkpoint,” said Maria. The pair currently lives in Kafr Aqab, a neighborhood at the edge of Jerusalem designed for couples where one has the Jerusalem ID and the other does not.  

Grace also avoided crossing the checkpoint as she was fearful of the process. During the 20 years she lived without an ID card, she visited her family maybe a handful of times. She would long to go back to Ramallah to see them during Easter and Christmas, significant times of year for her as a Christian, but often opted out because of fear and embarrassment.

“One year, I just chose to stay home because I knew I would not be able to get through even though I wanted to go with my kids and see the lights,” she said. “I remembered just crying that entire night knowing I could not experience it.”

In late 2003, Grace’s father fell gravely ill. However, Grace’s work permit had expired and as she waited for a new one, she knew that she would not be able to visit Ramallah and then return to Jerusalem to be with her kids. Though it was an incredibly painful decision, she could not leave Jerusalem to visit her family. She did not get to see her father during his last few days and was unable to attend the wedding.

“It is something I still think about, and it makes me really sad,” said Grace.

In addition to difficulties at the checkpoint, the cost of living in Jerusalem was another struggle for Joseph and Grace. As a Jerusalemite, Joseph had access to healthcare from Israeli institutions, but Grace did not. They had to opt for private insurance for her, which was incredibly expensive.

For Joseph, practicing his faith gave him strength to face the hardships. He thinks of the story of resurrection whenever things get challenging.

“Jesus rose for us. It gives me strength because I will continue to rise and keep going,” said Joseph.

In 2013, Joseph and Grace approached a lawyer who was working with several other families who were also trying to obtain a Jerusalem ID card. The process cost them around $8,000 USD.  In 2016, Grace finally obtained her identification card.

“I was so happy. The first thing I did was take a picture and send it to my sister,” said Grace.

The second thing she did – drive through the Hizma checkpoint, a checkpoint she said she was never able to get past when did not have her Jerusalem ID card.

After reflecting on her experience, Grace’s tone grew somber thinking about what her daughter must undergo.

“I want an easy life for them. I don’t want them to suffer how I had suffered,” said Grace.

Maria and Michal want to apply for the special permit but must wait until Michal turns 35 because the application mandates that men must be at least 35 years old before applying. As of March of this year, the Knesset passed the Citizenship Law, which denies Palestinian naturalization into Israel. Under this new law, Palestinian couples can obtain a residency permit which lasts for up to two years. However, this residency permit can be revoked at any point in time on security grounds. 

Though Maria is worried about this new law, and knows that the road ahead for her and her husband will not be easy, she is not ready to give up just yet. 

“Religion was the most powerful engine that helped my parents stay in Jerusalem.”  said Maria. “I hope it will help us, too.” 

* The sources requested that we publish only their Christian first names to avoid being identified because they feared retribution by the Israeli government.