Knesset extends law banning Palestinian family unification for another year

So-called Citizenship Law, passed in 2003 at height of the Second Intifada, introduced as a temporary security measure but since renewed annually

Palestinians and Arab Israelis protest against the 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law into Israel, on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Palestinians and Arab Israelis protest against the 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law into Israel, on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset voted on Sunday night to extend a longstanding law, reauthorized just last year amid political squabbling, that largely bars Palestinians who marry Israelis from receiving residency in Israel.

The plenum voted 20-9 in favor of a government request to extend the law by a year, until March 2024, when it will likely be brought up for another vote.

Presenting the coalition’s position, Shas MK Yinon Azoulai pointed to “dozens” of terror attacks conducted in recent years by Palestinians who received access to Israel through family unification policies.

Lawmakers from the Knesset’s Islamist and majority-Arab parties slammed the continued policy as “racist” and anti-democratic.

Ra’am MK Iman Khatib-Yasin, a social worker before joining politics, said that while Israel “prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East,” continuing this policy “is the complete opposite of democracy; it is racism for its own sake.”

The so-called Citizenship Law was first passed in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, as a temporary security order meant to prevent terror attacks. It had been renewed on an annual basis until July 2021, when Israel’s previous coalition — a fragile alliance that included a left-wing and an Arab party — failed to marshal the votes to pass it. But it won approval in March 2022 and has now been extended at least until March 14, 2024, as per the Sunday vote.

The law largely bars Palestinians who married Israelis from obtaining permanent residency. Exceptions have since been carved out for some spouses to receive one of two kinds of permits that gave residency but little else.

The legislation has been wildly controversial since its inception, as rights groups charge it discriminates against Palestinians and Arab Israelis. The Supreme Court upheld the law in a 6-5 decision in 2012 after a protracted legal battle.

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.

Khatib-Yasin stressed that Ra’am “despises” the law and “our hearts are with the people who have lived here for decades without rights, without the ability to work, to get medical insurance, to get a driver’s license.”

MK Iman Khatib-Yasin leads a Committee meeting at the Knesset, November 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Every time they have to renew their temporary residency, they are afraid of the moment they will be told to leave [Israel] and be separated from their spouses or children,” she added.

Hadash-Ta’al’s lone Jewish lawmaker Ofer Cassif criticized the security basis of the measure as “disproportionate” to the harm it creates, telling the Knesset plenum that, “Striving for ‘zero risks’ paralyzes society and sacrifices personal rights and needs.”

Around 12,700 Palestinians married to Israelis live in Israel with temporary documentation, required to constantly renew their fragile status in the country. For years, most were not permitted to drive or open bank accounts. If their Israeli spouse dies or they divorce, they could be deported — forcing their Arab Israeli children to either leave with them for the West Bank or stay behind without them.

Separately, the Knesset last month approved a law to strip convicted terrorists with Israeli nationality of their citizenship if they receive funding from the Palestinian Authority or an associated organization.

The law, an amendment to Israel’s 1952 Citizenship Law, applies to both Israeli citizens and permanent residents incarcerated following a conviction for terror, aiding terror, harming Israeli sovereignty, inciting war, or aiding an enemy during wartime, and enables the interior minister to revoke their status after a hearing.

The law enables citizenship to be revoked even if the person lacks a second citizenship, provided they have a permanent residence status outside of Israel. Once citizenship is revoked, the person would be denied entry back into Israel.

Sometimes referred to as “pay for slay,” the Palestinian Authority regularly pays stipends to convicted terrorists, and the law also applies to organizations that pay out on the PA’s behalf. The requirement to receive PA-linked money makes the law inapplicable to Jewish terrorists.

Palestinians and supporters demonstrating in front of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, against the law limiting Israeli-Palestinian family reunification on April 14, 2013. (Sliman Khader/FLASH90)

Proponents touted the bill as a deterrent to terror, amid an ongoing terror wave and two recent, high-profile security prisoner releases celebrated by Palestinians. It passed against opposition from Arab lawmakers, who labeled the law’s tailoring to not apply to Jewish terrorists as “racist.”

It also faced a warning from a Justice Ministry adviser, who counseled lawmakers against provisions that let them strip citizenship from terrorists on the basis of their holding permanent residency with the PA, even if the PA denies the connection.

Citizenship and residency would be revoked at the request of the interior minister, who would have to consult with an advisory committee and obtain the approval of the justice minister before making his recommendation to the courts.

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