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The Knesset on Tuesday approved the first reading of a government proposal to extend the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (the Temporary Order known as the "Citizenship Law"), by two years, until the end of 2008.

The law restricts reunification of families between residents and citizens of Israel and residents of the Palestinian Authority.

The vote was passed by 46 votes in favor, from the rightwing and centrist parties, while 9 MKs from Meretz and the Arab parties voted against.

The government is seeking the extension despite the harsh criticism leveled at it by the High Court of Justice. Meretz has already informed Attorney General Menachem Mazuz of its intention to petition the High Court if the bill is passed.

The government rushed to bring the bill to a vote as the current Temporary Order is only valid until January 16, 2007, and must either be extended or replaced before that date. Last month, the Ministry of Interior's legal adviser, Yehuda Zameret, issued a memorandum of the new draft law.

The bill also calls for the expansion of the law to cover several "threat states," presumably mainly Arab and Muslim countries.

The bill gives Israel the right to reject an applicant who meets all the criteria "if in the applicant's country of residency or if within his vicinity of residence activities liable to endanger the security of the State of Israel or its citizens take place."

This clause ostensibly gives Israel the right to reject any resident of the Palestinian Authority or any Arab country.

On May 2, 2002 the government decided for the first time to freeze all family reunification proceedings between residents and citizens of Israel and residents of the PA, on the grounds of "increasing involvement by Palestinians from the region [i.e. the PA - Shahar Ilan] with Israeli identification cards as a result of family reunification, who exploited their status in Israel to engage in terror activities."

In mid-2003 the cabinet resolution became a Temporary Order, which has since been extended three times. In mid-2005 certain provisions were relaxed to enable family reunification in cases where the husband is at least 35 and the wife at least 25 years old.

On May 14 of this year, an 11-justice panel of the High Court approved the Temporary Order by a vote of six to five. Former Chief Justice Aharon Barak, siding with the minority, argued that "the appropriate goal of increasing security is not justifying severe harm to many thousands of Israeli citizens."

Zameret's memorandum, on the other hand, claimed that the draft bill is in keeping with the High Court ruling according to which accommodation must be available to deal with exceptional humanitarian cases.