Prospect of bill passing Knesset remains slim

New ‘Citizenship Law’ advances, months after ban on Palestinian spouses lapsed

Legislation pushed by Interior Minister Shaked would once again mostly bar Palestinians married to Israelis from living in Israel

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)

Cabinet ministers gave first-stage approval Sunday to a bill that would again bar Palestinians who marry Israelis from receiving permits to live with their spouses in Israel, months after an earlier ban expired following a dramatic coalition fight.

The bill — widely referred to as the “Citizenship Law” — passed a vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which allows it to be fast-tracked through the legislative process. From there, the bill goes to the Knesset, where it must still pass three votes before becoming law.

Nine ministers voted in favor of the bill. Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing Meretz party voted against it and Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai of the center-left Labor party abstained.

Introduced at the height of the Second Intifada in an attempt to prevent terror attacks, the 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law largely barred Palestinians who married Israelis from obtaining permanent residency. Exceptions were later carved out for some spouses to receive two kinds of permits that gave residency but little else.

The law 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.

But the coalition failed to renew the law last year, and it expired. Despite the fact that the law aligned with its policies, the right-wing opposition, led by Likud, voted against it in an attempt to embarrass the coalition.

The current, razor-thin Israeli coalition government includes both Meretz and the Islamist Ra’am party, neither of which is likely to vote in favor. Should the law again come to the Knesset floor, it would likely again need opposition backing to pass — but those parties have yet to indicate any willingness to change their vote.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has since repeatedly stated that she intends to bring the law to another vote, though its chances of passing remain slim. And she has ordered her office to continue to implement the ban, even though the law is no longer on the books.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks a press conference, at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, October 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

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 Ra’am abstained, denying the government the necessary votes.

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

However, the Interior Ministry is controlled by Shaked, who 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 carry on as though the law remained in force while the office “examined the implications of the change.”

The 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 rights during the 1990s, before the ban went into effect. According to the Shin Bet security service, some 155 of those people or their descendants have been involved in terror attacks since 2001.

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.

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