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Three Countries, Two Weddings and One Couple

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This week, family and friends crossed international borders and military checkpoints and overcame the usual political bureaucracies to attend my daughter's two weddings. Why two weddings? Let me explain.

Like me, my daughter Tamara is a Jerusalemite. The bridegroom, Alaa, lives in the Bethlehem-area town of Beit Jala. It takes minutes to move between these adjacent towns, but they are kilometres away because of the 45-year-old political and military situation caused by Israel's occupation of Arab lands.

The situation is further complicated by the unilateral Israeli decision to annex Jerusalem. So, according to Israeli law (which not a single country, including the U.S., recognizes), Jerusalem became part of Israel and therefore under civilian Israeli rule, Beit Jala is occupied territory and the two are separated by walls and checkpoints. Moreover, Israel provides residency to Palestinians in Jerusalem, but not citizenship. Well, one may apply for citizenship, but it is not guaranteed that one will get it, and if one gets it, life is further complicated (as thousands of East Jerusalemites have found out) because Jordan gives temporary passport to the stateless Jerusalemites and does not allow entry if one gains Israeli citizenship as an East Jerusalemite. Israeli residency is attested by the blue Israeli ID that Jerusalemites get once they reach the age of 16. This ID allows Jerusalemites to travel in and out of Jerusalem and Israel. However, this Israeli ID card is valid only so long as one lives in Jerusalem. If one leaves Jerusalem for an extended period, one loses the right to live or even visit Jerusalem, gets treated as a tourist, and the Israelis have the right to control what to visit. Which brings me to the crossing of international borders.

As with any wedding, guests come from near and far. Visitors from the U.S. made it, but after much grueling and unnecessary interrogation at borders. At Ben Gurion Airport, my sister and her Mennonite husband had to explain why one of her sons had the Arabic name of Jamil. My brother was detained for four hours, and called a liar because he accurately told Israelis that he was born in New Jersey.

While some family members were delayed and harassed, they did finally make it. Another group of family and friends living in Jordan escaped questioning at the border. Along with a church group of 28 Jordanians, they applied for a group visa to the holy land. The tour agency regularly conducts such tours and they insist that groups apply one month earlier. They did. However, one day before the wedding (two days after their scheduled tour) the Israeli interior ministry answered by allowing only 18 out of the group of 28 to visit. Among those refused were the pastor of the Amman Christian Missionary Alliance Church and his wife (who used to come many times), a 70-year-old Jordanian, a retired woman and two of our nieces. Out of the 18, only 10 decided to make the trip, many declining to come without the spouse or relative that was arbitrarily denied entry.

But why the two weddings? Tamara, our daughter, works in Jerusalem and uses a car with Israeli yellow plates (to be accurate, my car, which she has de facto commandeered). Tamara can drive between Jerusalem and Beit Jala without a problem. Alaa, who lives in Beit Jala, is not allowed to travel or live in Jerusalem without a permit. Neither is he allowed to sleep overnight in Jerusalem, or drive the car, unless he gets a special permit. These permits are next to impossible to get if one is not a Jerusalem resident.

To apply for family reunification so that he can travel and stay in Jerusalem and Israel is very complicated. The process which used to take a few years can now take more than 10 years and permit is not guaranteed. In order to start the process of bringing a spouse to live (and drive) into Jerusalem, one needs to prove that Jerusalem and/or Israel is the center of one's life.

Lawyers strongly encourage couples to document their connectivity to Jerusalem, and marrying in Jerusalem is one such act. However, since Ala'a family and friends live in Beit Jala, this tends to be a problem, while it is possible to get a permission for some family members to attend a Jerusalem wedding, it is very hard to get permits for everyone and thus the idea came to have two back-to-back weddings -- one at 4 p.m. in Beit Jala followed by a 6:30 p.m. wedding in Jerusalem, and then back to a reception/dinner party back in Bethlehem.

Carrying out such logistical nightmare can only have been done by a film producer who can juggle four watermelons at the same time. Thankfully my son Bishara was able to do such a feat. Using the wedding invitation, permits of course were sought and received from the Israeli civilian administration in Etzion for the groom, the best man and close family members. Traveling from Beit Jala to Jerusalem was not easy. Permit holders, including groom and family, had to use the Rachel's Tomb (much longer) crossing point. Others with foreign passports or Jerusalem IDs (including the Jordanian smaller contingency) could use the much faster tunnel checkpoint (frequently used by settlers). I was on the bus using the tunnel but we were still stopped and a soldier went up to the bus and checked every single traveler. The young soldier took his time and got stuck questioning one rather good-looking female relative. When we intervened with his officer who came up to ask him the reason for the delay, he replied in Hebrew using the term mazgan (air conditioning). It seemed that in the heat of the day the soldier preferred the coolness of the air conditioned bus than the sweltering heat of the outdoor checkpoint. As we were delayed we had to figure out what the best (and cheapest) way to communicate everyone had cell phone but Palestinian's Jawwal and Wataniya cell phones don't work in Jerusalem and certain Israeli cell companies have no agreement with the Palestinian companies.

Thankfully our logistics chief has a two sim card cell phone with Jawwal and Orange and we succeeded in getting word of our delay at the checkpoint and made to the Nazarene Church on Nablus Road by 6:45. The groom being transported by a friend waiting on the other side of the checkpoint made it almost at the same time. The bride in an air conditioned car of a Jerusalem friend got to circle around the church until groom and our bus arrived and we had the second wedding and then headed back to a wonderful party that lasted till after midnight.

After two weddings and scores of checkpoints, nerves and difficulties, the happy couple decided to spend their honeymoon in Thailand. And since the groom is not allowed to use the Ben Gurion Airport, that means one more difficult crossing point: the King Hussein Bridge.