Since the signing of the Oslo agreements in 1993, some 140,000 Palestinians have moved to Israel under the family reunification clause, according to the Interior Ministry's head of the population registry, Herzl Gedz.
The Interior Ministry has processed over 23,000 requests from Palestinians who married Arab Israeli citizens and have requested citizenship. These Palestinians have received temporary resident status and a work permit, and have begun a process of gradual naturalization. According to data provided by the ministry, each of these requests includes an average of six family members, usually children.
Data on the number of Palestinians who received residency permits on grounds of family reunification have not been gathered until now, so the population registry's calculations are based only on a general assessment that the number of requests for citizenship on grounds of family reunification has risen dramatically since the Oslo agreements.
"This figure shows that through Israel's back door, the Palestinians are realizing their right of return," Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) told Ha'aretz. Yishai has said in the past that he is worried by the phenomenon of Palestinian naturalization through family reunification with Israeli Arabs, since it "threatens the Jewish character of the state."
"The new figures are surprising and worrisome," said Yishai, adding that "they will help us pass changes in legislation to stop this trend." Several months ago, Yishai asked the ministry's legal department to check ways to decrease the number of non-Jews, especially residents of the Palestinian Authority, who received Israeli citizenship through marriage.
Yishai also asked Gedz to come up with the exact number of requests for family reunification submitted since 1993. Gathering this information was not easy, since the requests have only been computerized since 2001; until then, they had been filed in folders and left to gather dust.
Gedz ordered the managers of Interior Ministry bureaus throughout the country to go through the files and present him with the figures. The data show that the largest number of requests were submitted in Jerusalem - 11,656. The Be'er Sheva bureau came up second, with 3,650 requests filed.
Gedz told the minister that the figures do not include potential requests for citizenship for families of women who married Palestinians several decades ago and had to give up their Israeli citizenship, and are now eligible to return to Israel with their partners and children. These cases should also be considered, said Gedz, since they have a good chance of being approved according to the current criteria.
In 1999, the Interior Ministry devised a new, gradual method for naturalization. According to the new guidelines, an Israeli citizen who marries a non-Israeli can file a request of naturalization for his partner, based on family reunification. After the request is submitted, the partner is eligible to receive a permit to reside and work in Israel for half a year (subject to Shin Bet security service investigations). During this period, the request is processed and checked. If it is approved, the partner receives the status of temporary resident.
This status is renewed each year. At the end of the fourth year, if there is no criminal or security offense to prevent the partner from becoming a citizen, and if he proves that he is in fact living in Israel with his partner, he is entitled to receive Israeli citizenship.
The ministry's legal advisers are proposing several changes in legislation that could make it harder for Palestinians to get citizenship in this way. According to one proposal, an annual quota will be set for foreigners who marry Israeli citizens and receive temporary resident status.
Another proposal suggests denying requests made by people who were charged in the past with illegally staying in Israel. The advisers said this would be an effective way of pinpointing the Palestinians submitting requests for family reunification, since many of them had been caught working in Israeli illegally beforehand.
The population registry also presented Yishai with figures showing a steep rise in the number of requests submitted by Arabs who left Israel in the years following the establishment of the state and are now asking to renew their citizenship. The requests include the partners and children of Israeli Arabs.
Ministry officials say this is another way of indirectly realizing the Palestinians' right of return. One proposal for blocking this wave of requests is to set a time limit on the validity of requests made by children of Israeli citizens who do not live here.