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After coalition battle, Knesset reauthorizes ban on Palestinian family unification

Leftist Meretz, Islamist Ra’am oppose, but right-wing opposition backs law; authorities did not grant residency to most Palestinians who applied after ban expired in July

People hold a protest against the 'Citizenship Law' outside the Knesset, on June 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People hold a protest against the 'Citizenship Law' outside the Knesset, on June 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After months of coalition infighting, the Knesset on Thursday night reauthorized a law that largely bars Palestinians who marry Israelis from receiving residency in Israel.

The so-called Citizenship Law was passed in 2003 as a temporary security order. It was renewed on an annual basis until last July, when Israel’s fragile coalition — which includes leftists and an Arab party — failed to marshal the votes to pass it in a dramatic pre-dawn vote.

On Thursday, the law passed with 45 votes in favor and 15 opposed. The left-wing Meretz and Islamist Ra’am parties voted against the rest of the coalition. But right-wing opposition lawmakers — including Likud and Religious Zionism — voted in favor, easily handing the coalition the necessary votes.

Israeli politicians say the law is both an essential security measure to prevent Palestinian terror attacks and a means of preserving a Jewish majority in Israel. Israel’s High Court has twice upheld the family unification ban — both times by a single vote, 6-5.

Arab Israelis say the law is discriminatory and impedes their right to marry whom they wish. Palestinians face a complex bureaucratic maze if they wish to remain with their families in Israel, while others are not allowed in at all.

To pass the bill, the center and right-wing Zionist parties that make up Israel’s diverse coalition sought the support of the right-wing opposition. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked worked with opposition figures — particularly Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman — to cut a rare deal.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The right-wing opposition — including Rothman — voted not to renew the law last July. Rothman has long called for even tighter restrictions on the entry of Palestinians into Israel.

“Simcha Rothman immediately understood the damage done by the law’s expiring and worked with me to draft a version acceptable to both sides. Demonstrating great responsibility, the opposition helped pass the law,” Shaked said in a speech on Thursday.

After two weeks of lengthy committee discussions over the government and private bills proposed by Rothman, New Hope MK Zvi Hauser, and Likud MK Avi Dichter, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee finalized the bill this morning.

The new version of the law includes a section declaring the law aims to protect Israel’s Jewish majority and quotas on permits approved for “exceptional humanitarian cases.” It also empowers Shaked to strip permits from Palestinians married to Israelis for “breaches of trust,” such as espionage or terrorism.

“I pass the law with a heavy heart and without joy. I would like to get to a point where we do not need this law… but in the current security reality, we can do nothing but defend ourselves,” said Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben Barak, who chairs the committee.

The law also bars marriage to citizens of “enemy states,” including Lebanon and Iraq. But it is widely seen as targeting Palestinians, who constitute the vast majority of spouses to whom the law applies.

Between 1993 and 2003, around 130,000 Palestinians were given Israeli citizenship or residency through family unification, including children, according to court filings. The Shin Bet security service told the Knesset on Monday that between 2001 and 2021, about 48 were involved in terror activities.

For Palestinians married to Arab Israelis living in Israel, the past year has been a rollercoaster. While the ban fell last July — nine months ago — Israeli authorities have yet to begin treating Palestinians like other applicants for family unification.

Around 13,000 Palestinian spouses live in Israel on precarious permits obtained through exceptions to the ban. Some 9,700 of these permits are military-issued “stay permits,” while another 3,500 are temporary A-5 visas, according to the human rights organization HaMoked.

Palestinians in Israel on stay permits live precarious lives. They must constantly renew their documentation, which can be revoked at a moment’s notice. They cannot open a bank account or own credit cards, and often have little documentation that ties them to their children. If their Israeli spouse passes away or they divorce, they could become separated from their children.

When the Citizenship Law fell last year, many Palestinians married to Arab Israelis had hoped they would be able to apply for permanent residency in Israel.

“We really had hope that something would happen,” said Tayseer Khatib, an anthropologist from Acre whose wife, Lana, is from Jenin.

Israeli Arab women hold a sign during a protest ahead of a Knesset vote on renewing the “Citizenship Law” outside the parliament building in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Shaked ordered the Interior Ministry to continue acting as though the law was still in place, arguing that she intended to pass the law again as soon as possible. Palestinians who arrived at government offices to apply for residency were often told that their applications could not be processed.

After three Israeli rights groups appealed the de facto stoppage to the courts, a judge ordered the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority to craft a policy to handle the matter.

The PIBA announced a temporary policy in February under which some 130 Palestinians over the age of 50 had their residency status upgraded from military permits to temporary visas, the agency told the Knesset in early March.

But for most Palestinians married to Israelis, nothing much has changed over the past year, despite the political ups and downs, Khatib said.

“People are devastated and tired. They feel like they have nowhere left to turn, and they don’t believe anyone will look out for them,” said Khatib.

After the law passed, Shaked tweeted triumphantly that the legislation was a victory for a “Jewish and democratic state” over “a state of all its citizens.”

New Hope Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel commended the law as “Israel righting its course.” He hailed the joint cooperation between the coalition and the right-wing opposition to reauthorize the ban.

“It’s possible to work for the good of the country, when there’s a will,” Hendel said.

Left-wing Meretz parliamentarian Gaby Lasky condemned the center and right of the coalition for having “joined with the far right” to pass the law.

“The discriminatory and racist Citizenship Law has now been passed in the Knesset plenum,” Lasky said in a speech from the Knesset plenum. “Unfortunately, the coalition has joined with the far right to add a black spot to the laws of the State of Israel.”

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