Practice's legality in question

Knesset demands answers after some Negev Bedouin have citizenship revoked

Community says in recent years Interior Ministry downgraded status of many to mere permanent residency, citing registration errors — removing right to vote, ability to travel

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Illustrative: A Bedouin shepherd watches his sheep in the Judean desert on October 26, 2019 (Sara Klatt/Flash90)
Illustrative: A Bedouin shepherd watches his sheep in the Judean desert on October 26, 2019 (Sara Klatt/Flash90)

Salim al-Dantiri, a Bedouin man from Israel’s southern Negev desert, used to regularly vote in elections. As a young man, he served in the Israel Defense Forces, as did his father, his brothers and his sons.

Then, around 20 years ago, he visited an Interior Ministry office for a routine matter, only to be told by a clerk that he was in fact merely a permanent resident, that the citizenship he had enjoyed to date had been given “by mistake” and that he would have to reapply for citizenship status. He did that, so far to no avail.

“My entire family has citizenship except for me,” Salim, from the the village of Bir Hadaj, told a Knesset committee last week.

“For years, I’ve been giving [authorities] documents from the school, the military, the sheikh, the village — and they tell me to wait a year and then reapply. I wait a year and pay them another sum of money and apply, and they tell me to wait two years.”

Salim al-Dantiri addresses the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee on August 11, 2020. (Screenshot)

The main difference between being a citizen and a permanent resident in Israel is that the latter is not eligible to vote or obtain a passport.

Around 370,000 Bedouin live in Israel, some 250,000 of them in the Negev. Unlike most Israeli Arabs, some Bedouin, like the Druze, serve in the IDF.

Salim is an example of what the Interior Ministry confirmed in 2016 is a policy to correct “ministry mistakes” in registration. The ministry insists that it is not removing citizenship — that would evidently be illegal.

Clause 11 of the 1952 Citizenship Law states that the Interior Minister may annul a person’s citizenship only if it was obtained on the basis of false information, and was given within the previous three years. If three years have passed, an annulment can only be decided by a court.

Nobody actually knows what “mistakes” specifically were made, because the Interior Ministry has not published the information. But they apparently relate to the way in which the Population Authority initially registered the Bedouin in the chaotic, early years of the state, compounded by typing errors when clerks later computerized hand-written personal files in the 1980s.

Military rule imposed on all Israeli Arabs between 1951 and 1967 meant that movement was subject to permits and that not everyone could get to the Interior Ministry to register, if they even understood that they needed to do so.

The registration “mistakes” seem mainly to apply to groups within the al-Azazme tribe, who live in the Negev Highlands, from south of Beersheba down to Mitzpe Ramon.

Last week, MK Said al-Harumi of the predominantly-Arab Joint List party, a member of the al-Azazme himself, told the Knesset Interior Affairs and Environmental Protection Committee that beginning around 2002, efforts to review the rights to citizenship of Negev Bedouin were stepped up. That year also marked the point when the government decided to freeze providing citizenship to Palestinians on family reunification grounds.

Joint List MK Said al-Harumi. (wikimedia, Sami Abed Elhamed, CC BY SA 3.0)

From that point on, some Bedouin visiting Interior Ministry offices for any number of services, from passport renewal to replacement of lost documents, began to experience such purported “corrections”: Walking in as citizens and leaving as permanent residents. Ministry clerks simply changed their status on the computer, with no explanations given and no opportunity to explain or appeal.

“When they take a person’s citizenship away, a long journey begins without answers,” al-Harumi said. “It causes terrible suffering.”

People who lost their citizenship were unable to move beyond Israel’s borders, for example to visit Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage, he said. Nor could they exercise their right to vote.

“If their fathers or grandfathers registered in this year or that, why should they have to pay the price 70 years later?” he said.

Fellow Joint List MK Sondos Saleh added that the policy was only deepening community distrust toward authorities.

The issue first came to prominence in 2015, when Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman visited Bedouin villages in the Negev as chairwoman of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. Many there told her that they had had their citizenship taken away. In some families, one child was a citizen and another only a permanent resident.

MK Aida Touma-Sliman leads a Status of Women and Gender Equality Committee meeting at the Knesset, on November 21, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At a Knesset Internal Affairs discussion in December of that year, the Interior Ministry confirmed the policy, while the committee’s legal adviser, Gilad Keren, challenged its legality in reference to the 1952 Citizenship Law.

Last week, at a second Knesset committee meeting held to examine whether such “corrections” were still being made, Keren said that his position had not changed.

To committee members’ bewilderment, a legal adviser to the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority maintained that “This is not about cancelling citizenship, because these people did not acquire citizenship. [For example,] a person’s file will say that he is a permanent citizen born to permanent citizens, but on the computer, he’s been mistakenly registered as a citizen.”

Ronen Yerushalmi, Head of Citizenship at the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, addresses the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee on August 11, 2020. (Screenshot)

Senior officials from the authority admitted that Bedouin with Israeli identity cards who were found to have been descended from permanent residents would not be able to apply for a passport.

Committee chairwoman Miki Haimovitch retorted: “If you don’t issue a passport, that means you’re canceling their citizenship… There’s something twisted about people who have been citizens for years having to prove that they’re citizens. These people have not broken the law.”

Ronen Yerushalmi, Head of Citizenship at the Population and Immigration Authority, said research into the status of Negev Bedouin with citizenship had turned up 2,626 cases of questionable status. Of these, 2,124 had been confirmed as citizens, while the remaining 500 had “failed to meet the conditions” for citizenship because when they were born, neither of their parents had been citizens.

Yerushalmi said that the interior and justice ministers had agreed to deal with the issue by speeding up the citizenship application process for those who would need to apply. Out of the 500 summoned to ministry offices for the purpose, 362 had received citizenship “very quickly.” Of the remaining 140, 134 failed to respond, while six have not yet been given citizenship “for other reasons.” A Justice Ministry official insisted that “there have been no refusals so far.”

Oded Feller, director of the legal department at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, proposed that the Interior Ministry should use its authority under Clause 9 of the Citizenship Law to fix the situation. The clause enables the minister of the interior to grant citizenship for special reasons to people such as Righteous Gentiles or outstanding athletes, and to do so retroactively.

MK Ram Ben-Barak. (Assaf Feuerstein)

MK Ram Ben Barak (Yesh Atid-Telem), a former deputy director of the Mossad and former director-general of the Intelligence Ministry and the Strategic Affairs Ministry, said: “Without doubt, there is a sense of discrimination on racist grounds… In the case of the Negev Bedouin [in general], the state should first of all feel shame.

“They should be dealt with like all citizens, by whichever ministry is relevant. We’re in 2020. There are nine million citizens here. All are equal and need to be related to in an equal way,” he said.

The committee instructed the Interior Ministry to provide it with the relevant written regulations or guidelines, while Touma-Sliman vowed to build up an alternative database of cases to check whether the Population Authority figures were correct.

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