Global Policy Forum

Anger at Israeli Citizenship Law


By Barbara Plett

August 2, 2004

Human rights groups have renewed petitions against a law that bars Palestinians from joining family members in Israel. The Israeli government first passed the law one year ago and recently extended it for another six months. It imposes a blanket ban on granting residency or citizenship status to Palestinians from the occupied territories who are married to Israeli citizens. Israel says this is part of security measures to combat the four-year Palestinian uprising. Palestinian and other critics say this is racist legislation that violates international law.

For a few minutes Murad and Abir are absorbed, making faces and funny noises to try and stop their baby's tears. They have been parents for two months. Their son is a joy - and a welcome distraction from the anxiety that frames their lives. Murad is an Arab citizen of Israel. Abir is a Palestinian from the West Bank. "Just because he's Israeli and I'm Palestinian, we're not allowed to be together," says Abir. "And just because we choose to be together, now we have like some kind of curse, not to be around the people that we love: his family, my family."


Palestinian human rights groups say thousands of families have been affected, but the potential is much greater. Israel has one million Arab citizens - one in five of the population. These are Palestinians and their offspring who stayed on their land when Israel was created in 1948.

Murad has lived here all his life, he was shocked by the law. "I felt that they are saying you are an Arab citizen in Israel, but you are nothing," he says. "We know that we are not equal and we have suffered these discriminatory policies since 1948, and we even get used to these things. But when they start to say you are not even a human being, you can't even live with your family, you can't choose who to marry, this is a red line."

'Blanket discrimination'

For the Israeli government, the case is clear: this is a temporary legal measure to protect its citizens. During the first three years of the Palestinian uprising, it says, 23 Palestinians who received permits to join their families in Israel have helped with attacks against Israelis.

Despite repeated requests, no Israeli official was prepared to do an interview for this report. The interior ministry offered this written statement: "The purpose of the law is to prevent the union of families. There is no doubt that this law is not a simple one but because of many terrorist acts that were discovered, the state of Israel has to defend itself. There is hope that when the peace process will get back on the desired track, the law will expire."

Activists protesting against the law say that is nonsense. The Israeli Human Rights group Adalah has denounced it as unconstitutional, and petitioned the high court to repeal it. One of Adalah's lawyers, Orna Kahn, says it is not only racist, but redundant, because Israel already has a stringent system of checks to filter out security threats.

"The [Interior] ministry has... had... all the authority they needed for security reasons," she says, "and actually thousands of families were torn apart also before this law, because the individual checking at the ministry was very harsh. So, it's not like the enacting of this law means using the only measure possible. They had very strong measures before. And they were using it."

Amnesty International has also joined the critics with a report condemning the law. The author, Donnatella Rovera, says it violates international legal principles, and is motivated more by concerns about demography than security. "The major problem with this law is that it imposes a blanket discrimination against a particular group of people based on ethnicity and race," she says. "So, having examined the situation, the practice, the existing law, it would be very difficult not to conclude that the government of Israel is trying by various means to bring about a reduction in the percentage of the Arab Israeli population of Israel."

'Determined to stay'

Last week French Jewish immigrants got a red carpet welcome here, even a personal greeting from the prime minister. Israel gives any Jew anywhere the right to become a citizen - that, after all, is the raison d'etre for the Jewish state.

But at the same time, Israel's Arab citizens are facing the most terrible of choices: if they want to live with their Palestinian partners, they may have to leave the country. For Abir deportation is a threat hanging over her head. Unusually in these cases, she managed to get a temporary injunction to stop that happening until the high court decides whether the law is constitutional.

No matter what it rules, Murad is determined to stay. "We live in our land, and if we go to any place it will be just temporary," he says. "We'll go back to our home. Here is our home, here is our land, and here is our family and our tribe and my people and my schools and my work. And I see myself here and not in any other place in the world."

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