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Citizenship Law's Expiry Is 'Window of Hope' for Arab Israelis, but a Narrow One

Jack Khoury
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Protesters demonstrating against the extension of the amendment preventing Palestinian family reunification.
Protesters demonstrating against the extension of the amendment preventing Palestinian family reunification.Credit: אוהד צוינגברג
Jack Khoury

The failure of the Knesset to extend the amendment to the Citizenship Law on Tuesday raised cautious optimism among Palestinian families seeking Israeli residency.

Abir Insasra of Lod, a mother of seven who has waited 25 years for citizenship, described the expiry of the amendment as a “window of hope.”

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Born in Lebanon to a family of Palestinian refugees that later relocated to Egypt, she moved in 1995 to Gaza and married a resident of Lod in 1996. “I heard things depend on the Interior Minister and perhaps the Defense Minister, and it’s clear it won’t be an easy route,” she said. “I hope we won’t find ourselves on a path of foot-dragging, waiting, and very lengthy legal proceedings.”

It’s clear to the families that the opposition’s defeat of the amendment extension didn’t reflect a profound change or readiness in Israeli society to recognize their rights but rather partisan politics. A day later, amid talk of another vote, their situation remains unclear.

Asmahan Jabali was one of the central figures in the protest led by such families in recent weeks against extending the amendment. She and other activists – many of whom decline to be named – said they felt a degree of relief despite uncertainty about the future.

“It’s no time for over-the-top celebrations,” said Jabali. “Everything is still vague, so we’ll have to wait and see how things play out.”

Declarations by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked on the morning after the vote about their plans to “correct the mistake” raised questions about whether their situation would actually improve.

Although the families received a lot of support from Arab public opinion and human rights groups in recent weeks, the overwhelming number of families will ultimately have to deal with the bureaucracy and legal proceedings alone.

Weaponizing the vote

The morning after the vote, it looks like Arab society was concerned with how much the amendment’s expiry would really change things for the affected families. On the political front, the Joint List has used it to bash Arab parties or legislators who supported the amendment’s extension or abstained in the vote, namely the United Arab List, Meretz, and Labor’s Ibtisam Mara’ana, despite declarations the previous week to oppose it.

“Their support for the law constitutes a new chapter in the shameful partnership in this government,” Hadash, one of the Joint List parties, said in a statement after the amendment's defeat. “The vote by Mansour Abbas and his colleagues this morning is akin to sticking a knife into the backs of thousands of Arab families and a preference for coalition unity over family reunification.”

UAL chairman Mansour Abbas said in defense of his party’s stance in an interview with Al-Shams Radio that his party’s principles had not changed. He said the understandings reached with Bennett and Shaked over an agreement would benefit thousands of families, which beats impractical declarations. He explained the party split its vote – two in favor and two abstaining – because it is part of the coalition. “I call for the families to come to us to work for their family reunification rights,” added Abbas.

A similar defense of Meretz came from Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige, who said the agreement was intended to immediately help 1,600 families, and would deal with some 3,000 other cases. “Political infighting has never led to achievements,” said Freige. “We looked for an arrangement that would benefit practically the families. This is a government that works based on mutual compromises, and I’m sure the Arab community will see our actions positively.”

Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center for the Rights of Arab Citizens in Israel, commented, “The law’s defeat is a symbolic victory in a campaign against racism and nationalist arrogance displayed against families.” There will be a conference in the coming days for representatives of families and affiliated organizations to prepare for the next stages.

Adalah, which petitioned the High Court of Justice several times against the law, also said it was necessary to ensure the families will have the fundamental right to life as a family and not have this right blocked through some other means after the amendment’s defeat. “We hope the handling of Palestinian family reunification requests going forward will receive businesslike and speedy treatment,” the organization stated.

The statements from Abbas and Freige are expected to bring them thousands of requests starting Wednesday morning from families asking for help and answers. The two will find themselves dependent on the good will and wishes of Shaked to solve them. In light of the political circumstances that led to the amendment’s non-extension and the lack of clarity about the future, it seems much too early to celebrate.

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