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In 1991, the Interior Ministry canceled the citizenship of Mimi Ashto and her two children. Since then, she, her children and her husband have been in the country without status, without permission to work and without any help from the state. Last week Haaretz published a report as part of the "Who's a Citizen" series, which dealt with the unbearable ease with which citizenship can be canceled and raised questions about the propriety of the procedure canceling Ashto's citizenship, because, among other things, her four brothers are citizens. The issue is now on the High Court of Justice's docket in a petition by attorney Nicole Maor of the Israel Religious Action Center.

But irrespective of the High Court, a document has reached Haaretz showing that the Interior Ministry should have granted Ashto, and many others whose citizenship was canceled, the status of permanent residence, which is almost the same as full citizenship. So ordered then-minister Avraham Poraz in a letter he sent on April 2, 2004, to then-population registrar Herzl Gedz. As in many other cases, the registrar did not make much of an effort to obey the minister's order.

Poraz's letter said "If a person's citizenship is canceled - they will get permanent resident status - if the following conditions have been met: A. the person has a child who immigrated with them to Israel or was born in Israel or a child who grew up in Israel; B. three years have passed since the person immigrated to Israel. This will cover all those cases of canceled citizenship from the past and all the citizenship cancellations in the future."

Poraz says that "there was a need to grant status to anyone whose citizenship was canceled and met the criteria. I gave the instruction three to four months before leaving office. Maybe it wasn't executed. Some of those officials simply don't like non-Jews and simply want to get rid of them."

Between two ministers

Only on November 14, 2004, did the new population registrar, Shashi Katzir, issue an instruction not to deport parents of children whose citizenship was canceled after they had spent more than three years in the country. As opposed to the minister's letter, the instruction did not cover the citizenships that had been canceled.

But Katzir's instruction had a very short lifespan. On December 1, 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fired the Shinui ministers, including Poraz. On January 10, Ophir Pines-Paz of the Labor Party became minister. Katzir used the 40-day hiatus to cancel his instruction.

Population Registry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said Poraz's instructions were given to Katzir "shortly before the minister left the ministry." The registrar's office says Katzir did not cancel Poraz's instructions but "determined that the handling of the instruction would be done by the registrar's management and not in branch offices, through an external recommendations committee, headed by attorney Zvi Inbar."

Every year the Interior Ministry cancels the citizenship of dozens of people suspected of illegal immigration. The Population Registry proposes the cancellations to a committee and the minister approves the committee's recommendations. There is no legal procedure, and nearly always, those who are stripped of citizenship don't have legal representation and have no right of appeal.

The procedure for canceling citizenship is very clear and requires the minister's approval. Since Gedz, when he was registrar, tended to cancel citizenship without the minister's approval, Poraz issued an instruction to Gedz on June 30, 2003, a few months after Poraz became minister, saying, "I hereby inform you that all decisions about canceling a person's citizenship will only be made after receipt of my approval in writing, and not beforehand."

Last week, Haaretz quoted Poraz's statement that he was presented "forms that canceled citizenships without a committee and Gedz signed where it said `committee decision.'" That happened long after Poraz's instructions were given. This week, attorney David Goren, who was an adviser to deputy interior minister Victor Brailovsky, of Shinui, told Haaretz that he saw dozens of citizenship cancellations that Gedz approved after the minister's letter, and without the minister's signature. He said the forms were from 2003 and 2004. "I regard the fact that Gedz continued canceling citizenships after the minister gave his instructions as extremely grave," said Goren, now in the private sector as an attorney.

Poraz told Haaretz this week that the explanation Gedz gave was that the cancellations were only in clear-cut cases, such as criminals and prostitutes who arrived in the country under false identities. Gedz said he thought that in such cases the cancellation was technical and there was no need for the minister's signature. But there is no way to accept that explanation without going back to all the files to examine them.

The Interior Ministry said that in 2004, the Inbar committee decided on 20 cancellations. In one case, the alternative status of residency was granted. Hadad said that the ministry "does not intend to respond to a vague claim about `dozens of cases without the minister's signature.'"

Hadad said that "it is worth remembering that in most cases, the cancellation was because of false documentation, false information and deceit. They are brought to the Inbar committee after a professional examination of the case."

The double procedure mystery

But Brailovsky's people found that the procedure was not at all clear. Seemingly there is only one Interior Ministry procedure for canceling citizenship (No. 5.2.0016, Version 1; Starting Date May 1, 2000), which says, "A recommendation to cancel citizenship will be transferred ... to the Bar-Tov committee [up until two years ago the committee to cancel citizenship was headed by former Judge David Bar-Tov], which will conduct deliberations and make a recommendation to the minister. After the decision is made by the minister, the case will go back to the visa department." In other words, the procedure does not leave any room for doubt that only the minister is authorized to cancel citizenship.

But the Interior Ministry has an internal Web site. Brailovsky's people found that very same procedure (No. 5.2.0016, Version 1; Starting Date May 1, 2000) there but with very different language, that makes do without the minister's signature. "The recommendation to cancel citizenship will be transferred through the department to the Bar-Tov committee ... after deliberation in the Bar-Tov committee and a decision by the Population Registry, the case will go back to the visa department."

This double procedure seems very problematic, in light of the fact that it was discovered on January 9, 2003, four months after Poraz issued his explicit instructions that no citizenships can be canceled without ministerial approval.

The Population Registry's office replies: "There is no double procedure. On the contrary, there is one up-to-date procedure that is meant to prevent double work and to guarantee a concentration of the cases in one place for more efficient work on the cases. The authority to cancel status is in the hands of the minister and in necessary cases, in the hands of the Population Registrar."

Discrimination season begins

The discrimination season has begun, meaning the season for registering at ultra-Orthodox seminaries, which are the Haredi version of girls' schools.

For hundreds of families of Sephardi (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) girls, this season is a nightmare. The Ashkenazi seminaries where there is a 30 percent quota on Sephardi pupils will leave many of them out, and then the struggle will begin to find them an alternative.

David Zilbershlag, a Haredi media man, says that usually he is optimistic, but this year, as the registration season begins, he is particularly pessimistic. In recent years the campaign conducted by Zilbershlag and other people, like the head of Haredi education in Jerusalem city hall, Binyamin Cohen, and Hezi Shinalson, an adviser to the education minister, has been quite successful.

Zilbershlag says that five years ago, 300 girls remained without a seminary at the start of the school year in Jerusalem, and almost all were Sephardi. Last year, says Zilbershlag, only 30 girls were left without a seminary at the start of the school year, and half found places in institutions within two weeks.

Shinalson says that in Bnei Brak only 15 girls were left without places at a seminary. On the other hand, in recent years, it's not only Sephardi girls who are finding it difficult to get into seminaries, but also the daughters of the newly repentant and Haredi families that are not devout enough.

Shinalson, the minister's adviser, is apparently the first senior official in the Education Ministry to conduct a real war against the quota system. He uses threats and warnings, hoping he won't have to actualize them. It's said that more than once he made clear to seminary heads the price they will pay in their ties to the Education Ministry if they don't accept Sephardi pupils. Last year, one seminary had its budget stopped.

The Haredi press has lately been carrying leaked stories about the ministry considering once again requiring the seminaries to set formal criteria for acceptance. Presumably, the items were leaked to make the seminaries restrain themselves, so there's no need for criteria. Shinalson is walking a very thin line. He has to fight discrimination without the ministry being accused of intervention in Haredi education. So, he tries to earn the help of the rabbinical councils that operate on behalf of the Torah sages, and to create a situation in which they, and not he, press the seminaries.