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The Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee is to begin deliberations today on an amendment to the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law known informally as the "illegal resident law." The amendment passed in first reading in the Knesset on the final day of the legislature's summer session. The committee is preparing the bill for the second and third readings.

The amendment would obligate anyone without a valid residency permit to leave the country for a cooling-off period of from one to five years.

Ostensibly, Amendment 19 is directed against criminals who are residing in the country illegally. In reality, since most of those seeking legal status are in the country illegally and since the Interior Ministry's Population Registry - the body that issues permits, visas and citizenship - makes it very hard for non-Jews to obtain residency permits, the amendment would affect tens of thousands of Israeli families. It would revolutionize the enforcement of immigration policy, further shut the gates of entry to non-Jews and greatly damage the right of Israelis to choose their life partners.

The broad support for the amendment from the center and right parties, with the exception of Yisrael Beiteinu, would seem to make it a shoo-in, but even if it passes, its fate will likely be decided only after protracted deliberations by the High Court of Justice.

Arabs to suffer most

A more extreme version of the amendment, which was framed by an Attorney General's Office team headed by Menachem Mazuz, now the AG, was passed in preliminary reading by the Knesset in 2004. It was submitted by MK Moshe Kahlon (Likud) as a private member's bill. The current version was proposed by the government and is supported by both the current Interior Minister, Roni Bar-On (Kadima), and his Labor Party predecessor, Ophir Pines-Paz.

Israeli Arabs who want to marry a resident of the Palestinian Authority and live in Israel with their spouses will be affected the most by the amendment, since the couple would only be able to apply for residency in Israel for the Palestinian partner on the basis of family reunification following an extended, and illegal, stay in Israel.

"It's the flip side of the Citizenship Law," MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) characterized the bill. "Today, everything aimed at hurting [Israel's] Arab citizens passes easily." He says the law will affect thousands of families in which one of the parents is a PA resident.

Anti-family

Arabs will not be the only ones hurt by the amendment. "The prohibition against formalizing the status of residents without permits will also apply to the partners of Israeli residents and citizens; the parents of Israeli minors; minor children; the elderly parents of Israeli citizens; Bedouin, whose status in Israel has never been formalized; political-asylum seekers; victims of trafficking in women and others," attorney Oded Feller of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel says. For example, an Israeli who falls in love with an illegal foreign worker will in effect be barred from realizing that love in Israel.

According to Feller, the amendment "circumvents three rulings by the High Court of Justice: In the Stamka and Oren rulings, the court rejected the state's demand that the partners of Israeli citizens leave the country as a condition for naturalization. In both cases the separation period was between one and several months, not years as in the current amendment. The most recent ruling ... on the Adalah case, 8 of 11 justices ruled that 'the legal right of Israeli residents and citizens to a family life as enshrined in the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty implies their constitutional right to formalize in Israel the status of their foreign-national partners.'"

'War on olim'

The amendment puts Yisrael Beiteinu, which recently joined the governing coalition, in a difficult position. It fervently supports the law as it applies to Arabs, but just as fervently opposes it with regard to the relatives of new immigrants. Party MK Stas Misezhnikov proposes adding a clause exempting immediate family members of new immigrants from the law.