Lawyer: 'It's breaking the law'

Months after Citizenship Law lapses, ban on Palestinian spouses still in place

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked tells ministry to keep applying policy, originally enacted as security measure in 2003, as if amendment had never expired

A protest against the 'family reunification law' outside the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A protest against the 'family reunification law' outside the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

When legislation that largely bars Palestinians from receiving Israeli citizenship or permanent residency by marriage expired in early July, Ahmad Abu Halawa hoped he would finally get a residency card.

“Everyone was thrilled — this was our demand, what we’d all wanted,” said Abu Halawa, a Palestinian physician from Hebron who married an Arab Israeli. He has five children, all of whom have Israeli citizenship, and has lived in Jerusalem on a temporary pass for over twenty years.

But Abu Halawa’s efforts to get permanent residency since the law lapsed in July have hit a brick wall. Two visits to Israel’s Interior Ministry have not got him as much as an appointment to change his status, he said.

“The employees just tell us that they haven’t received new instructions, and that’s it,” Abu Halawa said in a phone call.

Even though the legislation preventing Palestinians receiving permanent documentation to live with their Israeli spouses has lapsed, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked had ordered the ministry to continue functioning as though it were still in place, officials have said.

Tayseer Khatib, who married a Palestinian woman from Jenin in 2006, has found himself similarly stymied. Despite living inside Israel for years, his wife Lana still carries a permit issued by the Israeli military that must be renewed on a regular basis.

“The director of the Interior Ministry branch told me that they have enough documentation from us to hand us a passport right away — as soon as a new policy is set,” said Khatib, an anthropologist from Acre.

Protestors, including Joint List MK Ayman Odeh (center), hold a demonstration against the “family reunification law” outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Introduced at the height of the Second Intifada in an attempt to prevent terror attacks, the 2003 Citizenship and Entry law largely banned Palestinians who married Israelis from obtaining permanent residency. But Palestinians who met certain conditions could obtain two kinds of temporary permits, which allowed them to remain in the country but offered little else.

Around 12,700 Palestinians married to Israelis live in Israel on temporary papers, required to constantly renew their fragile status in the country. For years, most were not permitted to drive nor open bank accounts. If their Israeli spouse passes away 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.

The amendment was renewed on a yearly basis until it was overturned in a dramatic dawn vote in July. While Israel’s razor-thin ruling coalition had sought to pass the amendment again, two parliamentarians from the Islamist Ra’am party abstained, denying the government the necessary votes.

On paper, Palestinians married to Israelis are now legally no different than any other foreign spouse. Israeli law grants foreign spouses residency in the country through a process known as family unification.

The Interior Ministry is controlled by Shaked from the right-wing Yamina party, and she has instructed ministry staff to continue as though the ban were still valid until further notice. Shaked has pushed for even stricter controls on Palestinian immigration to Israel in the past.

In a letter explaining the current policy in September, a senior Interior Ministry official said that Shaked had ordered the Ministry to function as though the law remained in force while the office “examined the implications of the change.”

“Because such an examination will likely take some time, the Interior Minister ordered that the policy will continue as was the case before the amendment expired,” Population and Immigration Authority director-general Tomer Moskowitz told the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks during a conference in Jerusalem, on August 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shaked was one of the fiercest advocates for maintaining the ban on Palestinian spouses and has vowed to pass the law again. On Wednesday, she advanced a draft bill virtually identical to the previous incarnation of the law.

The decision to effectively continue enforcing the expired ban has infuriated both Palestinians seeking residency and their advocates.

“It’s been months. This isn’t just trying to get around the law, it’s breaking the law,” said Maysa Irsheid, a Haifa lawyer who specializes in helping Palestinians live with their spouses in Israel.

The Israeli government initially enacted the ban on Palestinian family unification in order to prevent terror attacks. The 2003 statute was passed after Hamas member Shadi Tubasi — who had received an Israeli identity card by marriage — killed 16 Israelis in one of the Second Intifada’s most brutal terror attacks.

Around 130,000 Palestinians were granted family unification during the 1990s, before the ban went into effect. According to the Shin Bet security agency, some 155 of those or their descendants were involved in terror attacks since 2001.

But Israeli politicians — including Foreign Minister Yair Lapid — have also increasingly defended the law as a demographic measure intended to maintain Israel’s Jewish majority.

“There’s no need to shirk from the essence of this law. It is one of the tools to ensure a Jewish majority in Israel, which is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Our goal is for there to be a Jewish majority,” Lapid tweeted shortly before the law lapsed in early July.

While the residency process remains frozen, other government agencies have sought to provide more benefits for Palestinians already present in Israel. Most were denied access to Israeli public health insurance, forcing them to spend large sums on health care, or a driver’s license.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, from the left-wing Meretz party, announced last month that Palestinians seeking family unification would also receive health care under new regulations. And a new policy finally gave Abu Halawa the right to drive, after decades of life in Israel.

“It was like a holiday for me to drive a car, to drive out with the kids to celebrate. It was an amazing thing,” said Abu Halawa.

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