Erez, Israel – Agzaya al-Karan held her son Salamah in a tearful embrace moments after passing through the Beit Hanoun border crossing into Israel from Gaza.
Three weeks ago, the 51-year-old had been deported to the blockaded Gaza Strip after 32 years of living in Israel, leaving behind her 12 children, the youngest of whom is eight years old.
But for now, Agzaya is heading back home to the Bedouin community of Khashem Zanneh near the city of Beersheba after the Israeli authorities backtracked on their deportation order following media attention on her story.
Speaking at the border crossing, called Erez in Israel, Agzaya said on Monday that she was tired after her ordeal, which began when she was stopped by an Israeli officer at a checkpoint on August 6 and asked for her identification card. She could not produce one, she said, because her ex-husband burned her documents and she was unable to renew the temporary permit the Gaza-born woman had used to stay in Israel.
Agzaya married a Palestinian citizen of Israel in 1993. Agzaya said she suffered from domestic abuse and her ex-husband would beat their children. Since he abandoned their family several years ago, she has had the sole responsibility of raising their children.
Salameh said the past few weeks had been “very hard” for the family.
“If anyone loses their mother, it’s hard for a week to pass by. It’s hard for a day to pass by,” the 22-year-old said. “She was our life at home. She raises the kids.”
“She prepares all the food and gets us ready to leave the house for work and school,” he added. “I’m happy. I can’t describe it. I missed her more than anything.”
Agzaya had been heading to work on a farm, accompanied by her sons Osama, 20, and Tamer, 15, when she was stopped at the checkpoint.
As she struggled to understand the officer, who was speaking in Hebrew, she was bundled into a police car after being unable to produce an ID card. She was taken to a police station where she continued to be questioned in Hebrew.
She was taken to Gaza the next day, without being given the opportunity to say goodbye to her children or, she said, to contact a lawyer.
Agzaya had the opportunity to reunite with her family members in Gaza, which she had not visited for 30 years.
Speaking from Gaza on Sunday night, Agzaya told Al Jazeera that the atmosphere at home with her family there was “very nice”.
“They rejoiced and welcomed me warmly, and many relatives came to greet me and see me,” she said. “It was an opportunity for me to meet my family in Gaza after a long absence, but at the same time, my heart is with my children. I was very afraid for them. I’m the only one responsible [for them].”
A reprieve came after the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a story on her ordeal last week.
“After the Haaretz article, I got a call that said to come to the [Gaza-Israel] border [the next day],” Agzaya said. There, she was given a residency permit and told to go to the Israeli Ministry of Interior to sort her legal status out.
In response to a request by Al Jazeera, a spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories commented: “In consideration of this case’s uniqueness, it was decided to allow the resident to complete the relevant processes at the Ministry of Interior. Accordingly, she was permitted to enter Israel so that she could legalize her standing.”
In the decades since her marriage and arrival in Israel, the country’s laws towards “family reunification” have undergone several changes, making it more difficult for Palestinians to marry and live with spouses who hold Israeli citizenship within Israel.
Michal Luft, an Israeli lawyer who specialises in immigration law, explained to Al Jazeera that prior to 2003, “every Israeli citizen could apply for their spouse from any country in the world to live with them,” gaining residency and eventually citizenship.
However, in that year, “Israel passed a law differentiating Palestinians [from other nationalities].”
According to the new law, Palestinians could receive residency status in Israel but without the final possibility of receiving full citizenship.
In 2008, Luft said, a new government decision, not a formal law, was passed, removing the option of “family reunification” altogether for residents of the Gaza Strip, who are no longer eligible for residency or citizenship in Israel.
When the decision was challenged before the Israeli Supreme Court, the court sided with the government, determining that its policy was reasonable in light of “security concerns” and the possibility for Israeli citizens to live with their spouse in Gaza fulfills Israeli legal commitments to support families.
Luft called the ruling a “shameful decision” while noting that some Gaza residents have managed to enter Israel on a non-family-related permit and found ways to stay together.
Agzaya’s case is far from resolved. Given that she is no longer living with her husband, the option for family reunification – which covers only spousal and not parental relationships – may no longer be available.
In that case, Luft said, she may be eligible for a humanitarian request to stay on the basis of her young children’s welfare, but such a process is lengthy, costly and most requests – especially involving Palestinians, according to Luft – are denied.
For now, Agzaya is hopeful that things will work out and she will be able to settle back down to life in the Negev desert.
Her home there, she said, has no electricity because of how expensive it is.
Palestinian Bedouin villages in the Negev are often unrecognised by the state and receive little assistance.
“Public electricity is not allowed, and it is forbidden to build with stone. My son’s house was demolished twice when we built it for him to get married,” she said. “The Israelis tried to buy this land from us, but we refused, and they constantly harass us.”
Despite these issues, it is Agzaya’s home, where the children who rely on her are.
“I want to be happy with my sons and daughters,” she said. “That is the most important thing for me in the world. … I want to rebuild my house, so it had electricity like people do, and to live a happy and stable life.”