Unexplained bureaucratic error could leave thousands of Negev Bedouin stateless

Unexplained bureaucratic error could leave thousands of Negev Bedouin stateless

Israel reportedly stripped hundreds of Arab citizens in the south of their citizenship; Interior Ministry says it’s fixing a decades-old mistake in population registry

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Bedouins from the town of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev, southern Israel, seen in the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, November 20, 2013. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Bedouins from the town of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev, southern Israel, seen in the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, November 20, 2013. (Flash90)

Hundreds of Bedouin in southern Israel have been stripped of their Israeli citizenship and thousands more face a similar fate  due to bureaucratic errors by the government that occurred decades ago, according to officials in the Interior Ministry and a rights group fighting against the process.

According to an appeal against the measures by Adalah, a legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, since 2010, hundreds of Bedouin citizens have already had their citizenship stripped because either their parents or grandparents were erroneously given citizenship decades ago.

A report by the Haaretz daily published Friday showed how Bedouins in the Negev, of all age groups, some who were citizens for up to 40 years, and including former soldiers and children of soldiers, suddenly had their citizenship status taken away after heading into an office of the Interior Ministry for a routine activity, such as getting a passport renewed.

Low-level clerks would simply change their statuses from citizens to permanent residents, making them effectively stateless, without any formal procedures.

Sawsan Zaher, the attorney working on the case of Adalah, told The Times of Israel that Negev Bedouin have become fearful of entering any Interior Ministry office, lest they exit stateless.

The Bedouin village of Hura in southern Israel (CC BY-SA, by Romayan, Wikimedia Commons)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri has argued that Israel in these cases is not stripping citizenship because these residents were never legally citizens. Rather, he argues, his ministry is taking a chance to rectify the mistake made decades ago when residents were somehow erroneously registered as citizens.

No one has explained how the error occurred in the first place.

Without citizenship, one cannot vote in national elections, national health insurance is more expensive, and one cannot apply for a passport to travel abroad. The local authority will also not receive money for those without citizenship.

In December 2015, the Knesset’s Internal Affairs committee, at the behest of MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List), held a discussion on the issue. During the discussion, according to the appeal sent by Adalah to the Interior Ministry, a copy of which was given to The Times of Israel, officials in the ministry confirmed that there was a policy for clerks to check whether the parents or grandparents of Bedouins were registered as a citizen between the years 1948 and 1952. It was agreed at the end of this discussion that a committee would look into the matter.

Eight months later, Ronen Yerushalmi, head of the Interior Ministry’s citizenship department sent a letter to the committee’s chairman, MK David Amsalem (Likud), with a list of findings from the committee. In his letter, Yerushalmi wrote the committee estimated that around 2,600 Bedouin had erroneously been given citizenship. He added, however, that this number was not exact, and that a far more meticulous survey would need to be carried out in order to understand the scope of the problem.

Arab Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yerushalmi, in his letter, added that Interior Minister Aryeh Deri decided the best course of action was to do a more complete and precise survey, and then to invite individually each person who was registered incorrectly as a citizen for a meeting to inform him/her of the situation. The individual would then be quickly put through the naturalization process.

In an October 2016 response to a formal request for information from Touma-Suliman, Interior Minister Deri said 60 Bedouin had lost their citizenship due to this policy since 2010.

Deri wrote that out of the 60 who lost citizenship, 18 applied to get it back. But out of those 18, 12 were refused citizenship, while six had their applications approved.

The reasons for the rejections, according to the letter, were that either the applicants could not prove their center of life is in Israel—this takes a wealth of documentation, including years of bills, bank and vaccination records— they had a criminal record or their Hebrew wasn’t good enough.

Deri also argued it was incorrect to say the Bedouin who had been citizens were having their status downgraded. Since their parents were not Israeli citizens, legally speaking, neither were they, he argued.

Touma-Sliman as well as Zaher, who is working on the lawmaker’s behalf, say that Deri’s numbers are grossly inaccurate. They also charge that in the past year and a half they have personally met hundreds of Bedouin who have been stripped of their citizenship in recent years.

Deri also wrote in his letter that the “in the last few years the procedure of [citizenship status] correction no longer occurs.” However, in the next sentence, he said that Bedouin are still stripped of citizenship, but then put on a quick track to naturalization.

Touma-Sliman said she believed what she has uncovered is “only the tip of the iceberg,” and promised to lead “a huge investigation” to know how many have been affected or could be affected by this policy.

In her appeal, Zaher demanded all those who have lost their citizenship due to this policy to have it reinstated, for the policy to be canceled, and for clear guidelines to be written to prevent the policy from being implemented anytime in the future.

Touma-Sliman said she would take the case to the Supreme Court if the Interior Ministry did not agree to these demands.

Low-level clerks replace Supreme Court

Touma-Sliman said that when she first heard of the problem in 2015 from one of her constituents, she didn’t believe the man.

“In the beginning, I thought he might be mistaken. The law is very clear about these things,” she said.

“No one in the Ministry of Interior has the right to cancel citizenship. Only the Supreme Court can,” she added.

Yet after seeing enough IDs of former citizens that were changed into permanent residency cards, she said she finally understood there was a clear policy.

Portrait of Interior Minister and chairman of the Shas party, Aryeh Deri, at his office in the Interior Affairs Ministry, on May 24, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

During the December 2015 Knesset discussion on the issue, the committee’s legal counsel, Gilad Keren, voiced her clear opinion that the policy was illegal.

“In cases where citizenship was received on the basis of false information, meaning a more serious case than those at hand, the law permits the Minister of the Interior to revoke his citizenship only if three years have passed since the citizenship was acquired,” she said.

She added, “After three years have passed, even if that person has given false information, a court is needed to cancel his citizenship. Therefore, I do not understand a case when the state has made a mistake and a person was a citizen for 20 years, how this person can have his status changed.”

Zaher argued in her appeal to the Interior Ministry and the Attorney General’s office that the policy is illegal because it discriminates against Bedouin, as no Jewish citizens have had their citizenship taken away due to the status of their parents or grandparents. She also argued it contravenes international law, which prohibits governments from making people stateless.

No one knows how the error began

Touma-Sliman said no one has been able to explain to her how the issue of erroneous citizenship registration came to be.

“They only say there was a mistake and they are putting things in order,” she said.

A view of Bedouins at a well in Palestine from the late 19th century (photo credit: public domain via Library of Congress)

Zaher said she tried to find the origin of the error but couldn’t figure it out. However, she highlighted the fact that between 1948-1952, the years the Interior Ministry employees are allegedly checking to see if the parents or grandparents of present day citizens were also citizens, Arab Israelis were under military rule.

Thus, while the early Israeli state called for Arab inhabitants to sign up for the registry, those Bedouin in the Negev may not have known about it, or may not have been granted permission to travel out of the area they were confined to by the military, she argued.

Attorney General: ‘We see no need to intervene’

The Attorney General’s office said in a letter sent to Adalah on August 16, 2017, that it sees “no reason to intervene” in the current policy of the Interior Ministry.

The letter, seen by The Times of Israel, explained that the ministry is reviewing the cases of a few thousands who were erroneously registered as citizens. Since 2016, the letter said, the ministry has individually summoned these people to deal with the matter directly, rather than unexpectedly changing the status of those who entered the ministry’s offices for services.

Those summoned were informed of their status, and put on an expedited path to citizenship, as long as their were not any legal impediments, such as a criminal record, the letter said.

The letter added that since the new 2016 policy, none of those mistakenly listed as citizens had their applications for naturalization rejected. And therefore, since there “procedural rights are preserved,” the office sees no reason to interfere.

The letter, however, did not specify how many of the erroneously registered as citizens have completed the naturalization process since the new policy was enacted.

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