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It is incredibly easy to revoke citizenship in Israel. No need for a decision by a court of law, no need for evidence that you deceived the state beyond any shadow of a doubt - and no right to appeal.

Only the recommendation of a committee that has no official standing and the minister's decision are required. The interior minister's almost unlimited authority to void a person's citizenship is one of the most draconian powers exercised by an official in Israel. Losing citizenship also means losing the right to work, the right to health insurance and the right to assistance from the National Insurance Institute (NII). Furthermore, the threat of deportation hovers above your head constantly like the sword of Damocles. In many respects, those who have lost citizenship have been erased, they no longer exist. Intolerable as the present situation is, it used to be even worse.

Until a few years ago, there was not even a committee, and citizenship was canceled not by the minister but by civil servants empowered by the minister to exercise this decision.

A very broad coalition of public figures has crystallized around the demand that the authority to revoke citizenship be once more delegated to the courtroom (the minister was given that authority in 1980); nevertheless, the present situation continues. Deputy Supreme Court President Justice Mishael Cheshin, for example, wrote about the matter in 2002 in the verdict he handed down in the Yegodayev case: "The revocation of citizenship is so exceptional and unusual an act that there will be those who will argue that the authority to revoke citizenship should be exercised solely by the judicial authority."

Cheshin noted that this is the situation in the United States.

The previous interior minister, Avraham Poraz, stated: "To say to a family after 10 years, `You must leave this country because it has been learned that your grandmother was not Jewish,' is not a humane act. I support the idea of transferring the authority to the courtroom." Last week, Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz informed Haaretz that he also favored the transfer of the procedure to the judicial system.

Former education minister Professor Amnon Rubinstein told Haaretz: "I am strongly opposed to the concept of revoking someone's citizenship. All people who enter Israel should be thoroughly checked. If we made a mistake, so we made a mistake. It is not the end of the world. I hope that the new minister will not authorize any cancellation of citizenship."

Ten members of Knesset representing Shinui, the National Union and Yahad respectively are signatories to three private member's bills that seek to transfer the authority to revoke citizenship to the district courts, magistrate's courts or a committee headed by a Supreme Court justice. However, in the meantime, the Interior Ministry continues to revoke citizenships at the rate of 10 per year.

Neither dead nor alive

Mimi Ashato lives in Israel's backyard. And that is not a metaphor. She resides besides a rundown, neglected apartment building in Netanya - not in the building itself, but in a small structure in its backyard. For eight years, Ashato was an Israeli citizen until the Interior Ministry revoked her citizenship, denying her and her family nearly every possible civil right. "There is an expression in Amharic," says Ashato, "that aptly describes my situation: `I am neither dead nor alive.'"

Ashato arrived in Israel in 1991 at age 17. She was pregnant at the time. Her infant son was taken from her on the grounds that she was incapable of raising him. He was put up for adoption. According to her Israeli identity card, she is Christian, although she claims that her mother is Jewish. Ashato worked in the kitchen of a cafeteria at the Wingate Institute. In 1995, she married a non-Jewish foreign worker from Ethiopia, Molona Tiroso. The couple had two children: a daughter who is now 6 and a boy now 4. In 1999, when she was pregnant, she applied to the Interior Ministry for her husband to be given official status. From that moment, her life became a nightmare.

"I went to the Interior Ministry. There I was asked, `What, are you going to marry a Christian?' I replied, `Yes, that's what fate decreed for me.' I was told, `You are a Christian, and so is he. You must leave Israel. Go back to your own country.'"

That year she was summoned to a hearing at the ministry. After the hearing, she received a letter from Sarah Krasnov, head of the visa section in the Netanya branch office of the Population Administration, who wrote her, "I wish to inform you that it has been decided to cancel your immigrant status and that your husband is not eligible to receive any official status whatsoever."

In 2000, Ashato and Tiroso were married in a Paraguayan ceremony. When they tried to register their marriage, they received another laconic letter: "In reply to your request, we wish to inform you that you must leave Israel immediately. Should you fail to do so, a deportation issue will be issued for both of you."

Not so unusual

These letters are not such an unusual phenomenon. Offering no reason and no alternative recourse, the Population Administration regularly informs many individuals that their citizenship has been revoked and demands that they cease residing in Israel and return to their native country (even though, in some cases, they have no connection with it whatsoever).

"I forged no documents. I am incapable of deceiving anyone," says Ashato. The decision to cancel her citizenship raises some serious questions, as she has four siblings in Israel whose citizenship has not been revoked. There is another major problem concerning the ministry's decision: Her citizenship was canceled although she arrived in Israel as a minor and although she and her children are not citizens of any other country.

In accordance with Interior Ministry policy, other agencies were informed that Ashato's citizenship had been revoked. As a result, the NII stopped giving her a children's allowance and a guaranteed income allowance, while Bank Tefahot stopped the subsidy for her rental payments and even demanded that she return all monies she had received from the bank. With her citizenship revoked, she cannot be officially hired by any workplace.

"I must borrow from everywhere in order simply to survive," she explains. Both my husband and I are young people. We could be financially supporting our children in a dignified manner. I have lost 15 kilograms. I am just skin and bones. I have to keep on begging people to give me food."

Ashato became pregnant but had an abortion because she felt that she could not afford the support of an additional child.

Ashato, her husband and her children applied to the High Court of Justice on April 12. They were represented by Nicole Maor, an attorney connected to the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, who demanded on their behalf that Israeli citizenship be restored to both Ashato and her children. Maor argued that Ashato's citizenship had been illegally denied her and that no substantive evidence of her having deceived the authorities had been presented. According to Maor, the Population Administration had denied "in a brutal, inhumane manner the basic rights of the members of Ashato's family."

The Population Administration's spokeswoman, Sabine Hadad, states, "The committee headed by retired judge David Bar-Tov recommended in 1999 that Mimi Ashato's official status be revoked because it had been obtained in a deceitful manner. For personal reasons unknown to us, she filed an appeal only two weeks ago with the High Court against the decision that was first sent her in August 1999. The state will present its reply to the High Court within a short while."

With the state's consent, a temporary injunction forbidding the petitioners' deportation has been issued.

Carte blanche

The wholesale cancellation of citizenship at the rate of dozens of cases per year was initiated when Eli Suissa (Shas) was interior minister, from 1996 to 1999. A senior Interior Ministry official relates that, for many years, high-ranking Population Administration officials were given the authority to revoke citizenship. If there were grounds for suspecting deception, the individual would be given a hearing and, if the officials believed that the individual was in fact guilty of deception, they would revoke his or her citizenship.

The director of the Population Administration when Suissa was interior minister, Rafi Cohen, explained at the time to Aryeh Dayan of Haaretz: "Because of the immense scale of immigration during the early 1990s, the eligibility of immigrants was not really examined." According to Cohen, although the ministry did not follow a policy of initiating the investigation of an immigrant's documents, it could not ignore cases where deception was suspected.

"The gentiles who arrive in Israel," he pointed out, "include many people who falsely present themselves as eligible immigrants. There is an almost endless number of fictitious marriages." As a result, some families that had immigrated to Israel seven or eight years earlier saw their citizenship revoked. In many cases, these people were told that they would have to waive their previous citizenship in order to become immigrants, and thus they now have no citizenship.

At the time MK Roman Bronfman (who then represented Yisrael b'Aliyah but who today represents Yahad) said: "The goal is to make life as difficult as possible for non-Jewish immigrants and thereby to force them to leave the country."

In the wake of harsh public criticism over the process of revoking citizenship, then-interior minister Natan Sharansky decided in 1999 to create an advisory committee to discuss potential cases. The committee was headed by retired judge David Bar-Tov and included two additional public figures. In its discussions, the committee based itself on files received from the Population Administration and on the summary of the hearings that the Administration held. It was not the committee's practice to summon, and hear the testimony of, the individuals whose fate it was deciding.

The policy of large-scale revocation of citizenship was strongly endorsed in recent years by the then-director of the Population Administration, Herzl Gadj, who was considered a close associate of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The previous interior minister, Avraham Poraz, fired Gadj last year. According to figures the Population Administration provided to Haaretz, in 2002, when Gadj was its director and Shas head Eli Yishai was interior minister, the citizenships of 170 individuals were revoked.

When Poraz became interior minister in early 2003, he decided to replace Bar-Tov and appointed in his stead former Knesset legal adviser Zvi Inbar. For a year and a half after Inbar's appointment, the committee did not meet. When it began to convene, Inbar introduced a number of changes. He began to summon individuals who denied having used deception in order to enter the country, and, in two cases, the persons who had been summoned arrived with their lawyers. How many citizenship revocations took place during the Poraz-Inbar period? Very hard to say.

Initially, the Population Administration stated that, in 2003, 97 persons saw their citizenship revoked and that, in 2004, there were 76 revocations of citizenship.

Haaretz asked whether any citizenships had been revoked during the period when the citizenship cancellation committee hardly operated and whether those revocations, if there were any then, were thus made without the committee's convening and without approval having been issued by the minister.

Poraz told Haaretz that there was one case where he was presented with "forms that seemed to indicate that a person's citizenship had been revoked without any convening of the committee. Gadj had signed where the committee was supposed to write down its decision."

In the wake of that statement, the Population Administration's spokeswoman submitted the following reaction: "A review of the figures indicates that, in 2003, the official status of 55 individuals was revoked (through three meetings that were held), while, in 2004, the official status of 20 individuals was revoked. All of the above revocations were carried out through the advisory committees."

It is doubtful whether there is anyone, except for the state comptroller, who could provide a credible answer to the following questions: How many citizenships were actually revoked? Who precisely revoked them? Was authority given for them? Incidentally, the Inbar committee was convened five times this past year, and, according to Inbar, each committee session was devoted to a discussion of between five and 15 cases.

The bureau of the current interior minister, Ophir Pines-Paz, has stated that, since his appointment as minister, he has signed 15 revocations of citizenship authorization. Haaretz was unable to obtain an answer regarding Pines-Paz' position on the issue of citizenship revocation and on the process for its execution.

Not even a single document

One day Tatyana Levitin, a former Israeli citizen, was arrested and taken to an incarceration facility in Nazareth. She was treated as if she were a foreign worker. Only quick legal action on the part of her attorney, Yael Katz-Mastbaum, prevented Levitin's deportation. Prior to her arrest, she had a blue Israeli identity card and could work and earn a livelihood for herself and her life partner, Mordechai Azoulay. From the moment her ID card was confiscated, she could no longer officially hold a job. Nor is she able to fund a petition to the High Court to appeal the revocation of her citizenship.

Levitin is a classic example of the Interior Ministry's customary revocation of citizenship when a non-Jew has either divorced his or her spouse or that spouse has died. She had Israeli citizenship for five years. She had married Alexei Levitin, whose father was Jewish, in Ukraine in 1995. Two years later, the couple immigrated to Israel. The husband's social integration was unsuccessful, and he decided to return to Ukraine. According to Tatyana, "he worked at nights and that broke his spirit." She decided to remain in Israel. One reason for that decision was a romantic connection she had established with her employer, Mordechai Azoulay, the 70-year-old owner of a cleaning contracting company. She divorced her husband, moved in with Azoulay and even purchased an apartment jointly with him. In the meantime, Azoulay retired. He has a heart condition, his vision has become seriously impaired and he argues that he is very dependent on her care.

The couple repeatedly applied to the Interior Ministry with the request that Levitin's divorce be recognized and that the couple be allowed to marry. Instead of recognition, they received a reply in 2002 informing them that it had been decided to revoke Levitin's citizenship because her first marriage had been fictitious. Levitin and Azoulay requested that Tatyana be permitted to remain in Israel as Azoulay's life partner. However, instead of being given a reply, Levitin was arrested. She says that, if she is deported to Ukraine, she will be arrested because she has waived her Ukrainian citizenship and is thus stateless.

Levitin admits that the timetable of her immigration to Israel does look somewhat suspicious. However, she denies the claim that her marriage was fictitious. According to Levitin, she married for love and her former father-in-law, who resides in Israel, can attest to that fact.

"I showed them all the evidence, the photographs and the lease for the apartment I shared with my ex- husband as well as the document indicating that we had a joint bank account," she points out and then asks, "What possible logic is there in their argument? Would I enter a fictitious marriage in order to leave my job at a bank and come to Israel in order to clean floors?"

The Population Administration's response: "Mr. and Mrs. Levitin did not live together after they immigrated to Israel. In the end, they divorced and Mr. Levitin left the country." The Administration adds that it informed Levitin that, "in light of the fact that she is here illegally, our procedures require that she leave Israel. Only after she leaves, can her life partner's request that she be allowed to live in Israel be discussed."

What happened to the guideline?

Ostensibly, the problem should have been solved, at least partially, last year, when then-interior minister Poraz (Shinui), issued instructions that Israel would not deport any persons who have been in the country for more than three years or who have children. In a guideline from Population Administration director Sasi Katzir dated November 14, 2004, ministry officials were instructed to give persons in that category the status of permanent resident, which provides most of the privileges enjoyed by Israeli citizens. However, in a letter she sent to the Population Administration, attorney Nicole Maor claims that, a month and a half after the guideline was issued, Katzir circulated a letter that canceled it.

Maor applied to the Population Administration, requesting the identity of the person who had authorized Katzir to cancel a cabinet minister's guideline. She even wrote that "under the present circumstances, there are grounds for suspecting that an attempt has been made to make decisions `through the back door' and that the considerations behind the action that has been taken are incongruent with proper administrative procedure."

The response of the Population Administration's spokeswoman, Hadad: "The director of the Population Administration, Sasi Katzir, has decided that the guideline will be processed solely through the main office of the Population Administration, and not through its branch offices, and that the processing will be conducted by means of an external advisory committee headed by attorney Zvi Inbar."

Furthermore, the Population Administration states that the "decision to revoke a person's official status is never taken lightly. On the contrary, it is made only at the culmination of a lengthy process, in the course of which all the facts, documents and details are studied and cross-referenced with various agencies, and hearings are conducted with all relevant persons." According to Hadad, her office bases itself, in citizenship revocation procedures, "on unequivocal facts and administrative evidence whose weight has been determined in the relevant legislation. Some of the cases, such as those involving alleged fraud or the alleged borrowing of someone else's identity, are transferred to the police so that they can carry out an investigation."

Regarding the demands that the authority to revoke citizenship be transferred to the judicial system, Hadad says, "The law authorizes the minister to revoke citizenship and this is the procedure that is followed." According to Hadad, the citizenship revocation committee is "an external advisory committee serving the Population Administration and its role is to ensure that the process and the hearing are conducted in a proper fashion."

A lack of procedure

Only in rare cases does the advisory committee headed by attorney Zvi Inbar refuse to accede to the Interior Ministry's request for the cancellation of someone's citizenship. According to Inbar, formerly the Knesset's legal adviser, the "Population Registry generally brings us cases that are airtight. In some cases, we do not reach a decision and we ask for further information."

Inbar says, "The cancellation of an individual's official status does not necessarily mean that the individual will be deported. In certain cases, we recommend that the minister revoke a person's citizenship and immigrant's certificate and grant that person the status of permanent resident or temporary resident, although we have been presented with evidence that the citizenship was obtained through fraudulent means.

"Generally speaking, if there is a child who was born here or who has been here seven or eight years, we recommend that an alternative status be authorized."

However, according to figures the Population Registry has submitted to Haaretz, very few individuals whose citizenship has been revoked are given alternative status: 16 in 2002, six in 2003 and four in 2004.

The committee Inbar heads was appointed by then-interior minister Avraham Poraz on July 10, 2003 but its first meeting was held only in December 2004. Inbar's contract is for seven meetings and the committee has met once every two weeks. He is now awaiting a new contract.

Other members serving on the committee are Dr. Natan Patlas, a Russian immigrant, and Shlomo Mulah, an Ethiopian immigrant. Inbar says he has no idea why it took a year and a half to convene the committee for the first time.

Does the committee summon the immigrants in order to hear their version?

"In cases where the facts are crystal-clear and there is no room for doubt, the committee relies on the hearing held at the Interior Ministry or on evidence gathered by the police. In such cases, the committee does not summon the immigrant. In many instances, the person is a prostitute who was caught at her workplace and who has confessed to having obtained citizenship in a fraudulent manner, which means either forged documents or a fictitious marriage. Whenever the man or woman in question insists that entry into Israel was not obtained through fraudulent means or through forged documents, we summon the individual. We inform the immigrants that, if they have a lawyer, the lawyer may also appear."

In how many cases have the immigrants appeared with their lawyer?

"Two."

Inbar relates that the "work pace of the committee ranges between five and 15 cases per session, each of which lasts between three and four hours, depending on the complexity of the cases." It can thus be concluded that the discussion regarding the cancellation of a person's citizenship lasts on average 20 minutes.

Would it not be a good idea to follow a more judicial-like procedure?

"I try to conduct a procedure that is very similar to a judicial one. Each case is accompanied by the minutes of the discussion in which I record all the considerations and recommendations. Generally speaking, the minutes take up a page or two."

Is there a special procedure for canceling someone's citizenship?

"I know of no such procedure. There should certainly be a set procedure. That would be a very good idea but that is something that the minister must establish. I personally have felt no particular need for a set procedure, because I am very clear as to what I must do on the committee. When I was appointed, I announced what the procedure should be."

Would it not be a good idea to set a time limit on fraudulent entry into Israel, just as there is statute of limitations on every offense?

"There is a statute of limitations for criminal offenses. But here we are not dealing with criminal offenses. What we deal here with is a person's civil status that was obtained through fraudulent means. The law says that the minister is authorized to cancel citizenship obtained through fraudulent means. The law does not include any statute of limitations. However, the amount of time an individual is here in Israel does have a decisive weight in our recommendation concerning the granting of an alternative status."

Are you not troubled by the fact that the state cancels the citizenship of people who have been living here for a long time?

"No, I am not troubled by that fact. After all, they have been here for many years because their fraud was successful. The fraudulent obtaining of citizenship and an immigrant's certificate, together with all the benefits accompanying such documents, is a serious business."

Should there not be an appeals court to which petitioners could apply to challenge the committee's decision?

"The court of appeals is the minister. Some of the cases reach the High Court and then the Interior Ministry must justify its decision."

Why should the decision not be in the hands of a court of law?

"The procedure in my view is adequate because there is a buffer between the professional mechanism and the minister: the committee."

What the law says

Section 11(c) of the Citizenship Law reads: "The interior minister is authorized to cancel the citizenship of an individual if the minister believes that the citizenship was acquired through fraudulent means. Furthermore, the minister is authorized to decide that the cancellation of citizenship may also apply to the said individual's child, if such a child is a minor."

Section 11(b) reads: "The interior minister is authorized to decide, if there are reasonable grounds for such a decision, to cancel the immigrant's visa and immigrant's certificate issued in accordance with the Law of Return, 5710-1950, if said documents were obtained by fraudulent means."