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In mid-2002, the cabinet decided to freeze family reunification between Israelis and Palestinians. A year later, that decision was secured in the Knesset when a temporary suspension order was passed. The cabinet and Knesset decisions were based on data from the Interior Ministry Population Administration, which said that in the past nine years it approved more than 20,000 applications for the protracted family reunification process. Because the process was frozen, these statistics should not have changed significantly since that time. But this April, the Population Administration presented data to Haaretz indicating that only 5,000 applications approved during the last 11 years are now being processed - in other words, roughly a quarter of the ministry's initial figure. It is hard to imagine an explanation for this discrepancy other than that one or both reports are incorrect.

For many weeks, Haaretz has been asking the Population Administration to explain this variance and to specify which set of statistics is correct. The administration insists that both sets of statistics were accurate at the time they were published, and offers a series of explanations that might explain a difference of several percentage points, but not a quarter of the total. This suggests the more likely possibility that Israel's immigration policy (more accurately, the impulsive decisions that have replaced an immigration policy in recent years) is based on completely distorted statistics. It is strongly recommended that the Pines and Rubinstein committees, now investigating the immigration policy, obtain accurate statistics before making revolutionary decisions.

In May 2002, the Population Administration, led by former director Herzl Gedz, published a position paper that served as the basis for reinstating the temporary order that froze the process granting citizenship and permanent residence status to Palestinian Authority residents married to Israelis. According to the paper, 16,000 family reunification applications were approved in Israel, and 5,300 were approved in East Jerusalem, bringing the total to 21,300.

Unanswered questions

How can we be sure that the East Jerusalem statistics are in addition to the total statistics for Israel, and not part of that total? It is impossible to conclude that from the paper, but in a Knesset Interior Committee meeting held in July 2003, both Gedz and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz (then deputy attorney general) claimed that the data were cumulative. It is important to emphasize that these statistics do not include individuals who have already been granted citizenship or permanent residence, but only those enrolled in a process that takes many years, and occasionally ends before it is complete.

What period do the statistics reflect? In this case as well, the paper is unclear. One might conclude from a graph in the paper that the relevant period includes 1993-2001. This is also what Gedz told the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee in the July 2003 meeting regarding the temporary order. The Population Administration conducted an investigation in 2002 that revealed that the 5,300 East Jerusalem applications led to the changing of the status of 32,000 individuals (non-Israeli parents and their children).

The Population Administration did not have statistics on the number of children within Israeli boundaries who were included in the report, but they calculated this figure based on the same ratio. According to that calculation, 97,000 children in Israel, not including East Jerusalem, were granted a new status, bringing the total figure to 129,000 children. Mazuz emphasized in the meeting, "97,000 plus 32,000." In other words, these are cumulative statistics. These statistics, by the way, completely neglect the fact that children of Israeli citizens are entitled to citizenship by law, and should therefore not appear in these calculations.

Very similar numbers appeared in a paper published by the National Security Council in April and presented to the cabinet. The council obtained its data from the Population Administration. According to that paper, between 1993 and 2001, 21,150 individuals were registered by the Population Administration (their applications were approved and they began the process of altering their status). This number is nearly identical to the total statistic, including Israel and East Jerusalem, in the Gedz paper.

The council based its recommendation to severely curtail Israel's immigration policy on that figure. This included recommendations that approval criteria include economic status, age and affinity to Israel. The council also advised that spouses who had resided in Israel illegally be required to wait several years before becoming citizens. The cabinet approved these recommendations, in principle, and decided to establish the Pines Committee to formulate immigration policy in this spirit.

Manually gathered statistics

Last April, as part of Haaretz's "Who is a citizen?" series, I asked the Population Administration for updated statistics, including the number of applications for family reunification. On April 20, the Interior Ministry reported that there were 5,400 applications registered between January 1, 1994 and December 31, 2004, including 1,400 citizenship applications and 4,000 residency applications. No matter how one examines these statistics, they represent a fourth of the number reported to the Knesset and the cabinet.

I asked the Population Administration to explain the discrepancy and to identify the correct set of statistics. The ministry provided several explanations, but none of them sufficiently account for the enormous gap. One explanation was that the 2002 figure includes data from East Jerusalem. In other words, from 1993 to 2001, only 16,000 applications were approved, including 5,300 from East Jerusalem. This claim not only contradicts the Interior Ministry's data, as published by the National Security Council this year, it contradicts real-time statements by Gedz and Mazuz, when the temporary suspension order was deliberated in the Knesset.

In any case, if one accepts the claim that these are not cumulative statistics, the statistics reported in 2002 are still three times larger than those reported this year. Moreover, as far is known, the Pines and Rubinstein committees rely on the larger figure of 21,000 applications rather than the smaller 16,000 figure. Another explanation by the ministry: The 2002 figures reported by Gedz included residents of all Arab nations, while current statistics include only PA residents. But the Interior Ministry admits that applications from the PA comprise the lion's share of all applications, and that applications from Arab nations contribute minimally to these statistics. Haaretz requested that the Population Administration provide an updated figure including applications from residents of Arab nations. After many weeks, Haaretz received a reply that did not include the figure.

Another reason for the discrepancy: While this is a bit hard to believe, 2002 statistics were completely based on a manual count. Only East Jerusalem statistics were gathered by computer at that time. All of the data gathered in 2005 came from computers.

According to the Population Administration, the digitalized data did not include applicants who had been granted citizenship or permanent residence. These applications are not included in the new figure. An attempt to identify the number of these completed applications did not yield a response from the ministry.

Due to the lengthy nature of the reunification process and the 2002 freeze on applications, it is reasonable to conclude that this figure is not large. The Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel claims that almost no one has completed the process and obtained permanent status.

Two other possible explanations for the variant data suggested by the writer: Applicants for family reunification often applied more than once. It is possible that multiple applications counted in the original data were consolidated by the computer.

There is an additional explanation: The new statistics reported by the ministry do not include the year 1993, but they do include 2002 to 2004. That reduces the number of applicants who received permanent status by a few hundred. All of these explanations combined might explain the discrepancies between the Population Administration data reported in 2002, 21,000 applicants granted permanent status; 16,000, the administration's current answer to what it meant in 2002; and 5,000, the ministry's current figure.

However, all of these statistics do not answer the question of why public discourse continues to be based on the 21,000 figure, counted by hand, rather than the updated figure, which is based on computerized data.