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Tel Aviv District Court Vice President Michal Rubinstein instructed the Ministry of Interior earlier this week to determine a procedure for the handling of non-citizens residing in the country within the next four months.

Rubinstein's ruling was handed down at the Administrative Court in response to three petitions filed by non-citizens born in the former Soviet Union. The petitioners were represented by lawyer Oded Feller, of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

Rubinstein also determined that refusal to grant the three petitioners residence and work permits contradicts the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, and instructed that permits be issued. At the same time she turned down the petitioners' request for permanent-resident status.

The story of hundreds of persons, including the three petitioners, who live in Israel but lack citizenship here or anywhere else, was told in a series of articles published in Haaretz last September and October.

They are not permitted to work legally here, are denied medical insurance or the right to establish a family, and they may be arrested at any time. This, in spite of the fact that there is nowhere to deport them to.

There are estimated to be several hundred people in this situation in Israel, and they fall into three main categories: residents of East Jerusalem, Bedouin and residents of the former Soviet Union who were resident there when the new splinter nations were being formed, and did not receive citizenship. The three petitioners in the current case have lived in Israel illegally for many years. All have been held in detention for extended periods and were released only after it became clear that their countries of origin were unwilling to recognize them as citizens, and hence they could not be deported.

Oleg Vahtangov was born in Georgia, and has lived in Israel for 13 years with no legal status. "I haven't had any joy in my life," Vahtangov, who was then 37, told Haaretz five months ago. "I have no family, no wife, no children, and the years are passing." He is in love with an Israeli but cannot marry her because she is an Orthodox Jew, and the Interior Ministry will not allow him to convert to Judaism. His most difficult moment in the country, he says, was his arrest - on Tisha B'Av, of all days.

Vahtangov said on Tuesday, responding to the court's ruling: "Long live Israel! I am speechless. I am still in shock. When I heard, I cried." The first thing that he did, he said, was to call the rabbi with whom he had been undergoing conversion, in hope that he would be able to renew the process of joining the Jewish people. But it is difficult for him to rejoice, he says, because of the hard years he has undergone.

The ruling seemingly refers to all types of non-citizens. But it is unclear whether the Interior Ministry will interpret the court's decision broadly, or instead establish a procedure only for non-citizens born outside the country. In the latter case, another legal battle will have to be fought to enact a procedure for non-citizens born in Israel.

"I am of the opinion," wrote Judge Rubinstein in her ruling, "that the failure of the respondent to establish a mechanism for handling the requests of non-citizens, a mechanism anchored in a defined policy, is unreasonable. The respondent is ordered to formulate clear criteria on the issue of non-citizens."

On the failure to establish a mechanism to date, she writes: "Even after rereading the Interior Ministry's response, I have not been persuaded that the method of ignoring and rejecting is the appropriate one to use." The Ministry of the Interior, of all other entities, has a vested interested in such a mechanism, she continued, so that non-citizens will approach them at their own initiative, and the possibility of deportation to their country of origin can be considered.

The judge clarified that "at the end of the process, non-citizens will have the possibility of becoming permanent residents of the country. This, assuming that if, over the course of years, the state been unable to deport them, it should be recognized that they are indeed lacking any citizenship."

A spokesman for the ministry said that they would naturally follow the instructions of the ruling, but that it should be noted that the court had denied the requests for permanent residence.