Dozens of people – men and women, young and old – crowd into a big tent in the unrecognized village of Bir Hadaj. Some hold documents in plastic bags while others clutch tattered envelopes. What brought them to this village south of Be’er Sheva in Israel’s Negev desert was that the Population, Immigration and Border Authority had revoked their citizenship, claiming that it had been awarded to them in error.
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Judging by the increasing number of complaints piling up in recent months, this appears to be a widespread phenomenon among the Negev’s Bedouin residents. Hundreds if not thousands of them are losing their citizenship due to “erroneous registration.” This is the reason they get from the Interior Ministry, with no further details or explanation.
Fifty-year-old Salim al-Dantiri from Bir Hadaj has been unsuccessfully trying to obtain Israeli citizenship for years. He doesn’t understand why Israel won’t grant it to him; his father served in the Israel Defense Forces. “Sometimes they say there was a mistake in my parents’ registration dozens of years ago. Is that our fault?” asks al-Dantiri. He’s not the only one, but many of those who came to the meeting were reluctant to identify themselves out of concern that it might hurt them in their interactions with the Population Authority. Others have already given up hope.
Mahmoud al-Gharibi from the Al-Azazme tribe in the Be’er Sheva area is a carpenter who has been unemployed for a year following a road accident. He has 12 children from two wives. One is an Israeli citizen and the other comes from the West Bank. Seven of his children have Israeli citizenship but he has been stateless since 2000. “I went to the Interior Ministry to renew my identity card,” he relates. “There, without any warning, they told me they were rescinding my citizenship since there was some mistake. They didn’t tell me what it was or what this meant. Since then I’ve applied 10 times, getting 10 rejections, each time on a different pretext. I have two children who are over 18 and they too have no citizenship. That’s unacceptable. I’ve been living in this area for dozens of years and my father was here before me. If there was a mistake, they should fix it.”
Another person in the tent, who wished to remain anonymous, says that “many of these people, mainly ones who don’t speak Hebrew that well, don’t understand what happened to them. No one explains anything and all of a sudden your status changes. You go in as a citizen and come out deprived of citizenship, and then an endless process of foot-dragging begins.”
For years Yael Agmon from nearby Yeruham has been accompanying Bedouin to the Interior Ministry to help them apply for passports or update their identity cards. On many occasions, she has witnessed their citizenship being revoked. “You can clearly see how a clerk enters their details into a computer and then they instantly lose their citizenship. They then have to contend with an endless bureaucratic process. Sometimes it costs them tens of thousands of shekels in lawyers’ fees, and they don’t always get their citizenship in the end,” she says.
Salman al-Amrat came to the tent gathering because of his wife’s and oldest son’s status. The 56-year-old member of the Al-Azazme tribe is an Israeli citizen. His 62-year-old wife is stateless even though she was born here, he says. “Every time we try to get her citizenship we are met with refusal.” Al-Amrat’s oldest son, now 34, is also without citizenship even though his younger brothers ultimately received theirs. “We’ve been trying for years to obtain citizenship for him but to no avail. Every time they say some documents are missing. Now we’re trying through an attorney. It’s illogical that six of my children and I have citizenship and my oldest son doesn’t,” he says.
Atalla Saghaira, a resident of the unrecognized village of Rahma, fought for 13 years to obtain his citizenship, even though his late father served in the IDF. He started the process in 2002, when he applied for a passport and the Interior Ministry refused to give him one. “They said that my parents had become citizens but weren’t ones to begin with,” he says. He finally obtained Israeli citizenship in 2015. “I insisted on my rights and waged a campaign against the bureaucracy by myself until I obtained citizenship, but I know there are some people who give up,” he says. Saghaira’s father was a tracker in the army for several years, and left after sustaining an injury. At the time, he had seven children (including Attala), but three of them still are still stateless.
Another resident of Bir Hadaj, Abu Garud Salame, works in the Ramat Hovav industrial zone. He says that all five of his children and three of his brothers received their Israeli citizenship but he has been refused each time he requested to have it reinstated. “We’ve been living here for dozens of years. My parents registered in the ‘50s and now I’ve been deprived of my citizenship. Even if there was some mistake in the registration process I don’t know why I have to pay for it,” he says. “Why are we to blame for things that happened decades ago?”
Automatic change in status
Lawmaker Aida Touma-Suliman of the Joint List has received many appeals in recent months from people who have been stripped of their Israeli citizenship. Attorney Sausan Zahar from the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel recently appealed to Interior Minister Arye Dery and to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, asking them to cancel this policy.
According to her petition, these sweeping citizenship cancellations has been going on at least since 2010. When Bedouin citizens come to Interior Ministry offices in Be’er Sheva to take care of routine matters such as changing their address, obtaining a birth certificate or registering names, the Population Authority examines their status, as well as that of their parents and grandparents, going back to the early days of the state.
In many cases, the clerk tells them that their Israeli citizenship had been granted in error. On the spot, he changes their status from citizen to resident and issues them a new document. People who lose their citizenship are given no explanation and no opportunity to appeal. Instead, the clerk suggests that they submit a request and start the process of obtaining citizenship from scratch, as if they were newcomers to Israel.
Many, caught by surprise and without legal advice, don’t know what to do. Some submit a request for citizenship while others simply give up in despair. Zahar says that many requests are denied due to missing documents, a criminal record (not a valid reason for denying citizenship) or even the applicant’s inability to speak Hebrew. Many Bedouin women who have been stripped of citizenship fall into the latter category. One such woman filed an appeal over the cancellation of her citizenship due to an alleged error. When it turned out that her Hebrew was lacking, her appeal was rejected. She remains stateless.
Adalah’s petition to the interior minister shows that individuals who have been citizens for 20, 30 or even 40 years, some of whom served in the army, who voted and paid their taxes, had clerks cancel their status with a keystroke. As permanent residents, they can vote in local elections but cannot run for office, vote in national elections or run for the Knesset. They receive social benefits such as medical insurance and national insurance payments, but cannot receive Israeli passports. If they are out of the country for prolonged periods of time, they can also lose their permanent residency, and unlike citizens, they cannot automatically transfer their status to their children.
Among those who remain without Israeli citizenship are people born in Israel to parents who are Israeli citizens. There are families in which one child is a citizen while another is a permanent resident. Some of those affected were stripped of their citizenship when they tried to renew their passports to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, a mandatory tenet of Islam and something they now cannot do.
Registration during British Mandate
The Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee held a discussion on the issue last year, following an accumulation of requests to reinstate citizenship. During it, Interior Ministry officials confirmed that such a policy exists: When Bedouin citizens come to the ministry’s offices, clerks check the population registry for records of their parents and grandparents between 1948 and 1952.
Perhaps these years were not chosen by chance. Between the founding of the state in 1948 and the passage of the Citizenship Law in 1952, many Arabs could not register with the population authority since their communities were governed by a military administration. This included areas in the Negev which had a high concentration of Bedouin residents after 1948. In many cases, checking the records of an individual's grandparents entails looking at their citizenship during the British Mandate – a time when Israeli citizenship did not even exist.
After last year's Knesset discussion, the Interior Ministry was asked to check the extent of the phenomenon and its legality and to then update the Interior Committee. The head of the ministry's citizenship department, Ronen Yerushalmi, submitted the findings to the committee's chairman, David Amsalem (Likud), in September 2016. Entitled “Erroneous Registration of Negev Residents,” the report said that “the extent of the problem could involve up to 2,600 people with Israeli citizenship, who could lose it due to erroneous registration by the Interior Ministry.” It added that since individual cases had not been examined, the data was not precise and the numbers could even be higher.
During an earlier meeting of the committee in December 2015, the committee's legal counsel, Gilad Keren, expressed doubts regarding the legality of this process: “The citizenship law refers to cases in which citizenship was obtained based on false details, namely under more serious circumstances, not when the state has made a mistake. It refers to people giving false information before obtaining their citizenship. The law allows the interior minister to revoke citizenship only if less than three years have passed since it was granted. After that a court needs to intervene in order to revoke it. I therefore don’t understand how, when a person has been a citizen for 20 years and the state makes a mistake, that person’s status is changed.”
Adalah’s appeal to the interior minister and the attorney general demands an immediate halt to the citizenship cancellation policy. Zahar argued that the people affected by it don’t even have the right to a hearing before their Israeli citizenship is taken away from them. In addition to infringing on their right to citizenship, she wrote, the policy blatantly infringes on their right to equality. It is discriminatory based on nationality, since no Jewish citizen has had his citizenship revoked due to a mistake in his parents' or grandparents' registration under the Law of Return.
“I’m afraid that what has been exposed is only the tip of the iceberg and what hasn’t been revealed yet is even more serious,” says Touma-Suliman. She says that if Dery and Mendelblit do not resolve the issue soon, it will go to the High Court of Justice. “There is no justification for this policy,” she says. “The ministry is blatantly violating the law. It’s unacceptable that in one family living under one roof, half the children are citizens while the other half are residents or people with indeterminate status.”
Haaretz approached several former senior officials at the Interior Ministry and the Population Authority, including the agency's head until 2010, Yaakov Ganot, and Amnon Ben-Ami, its director until recently. Former Interior Minister Eli Ben-Yishai, who held the post most recently in 2013, said that if a decision had been made to revoke the citizenship of Negev Bedouin, “I don’t know about it and don’t remember holding discussions regarding this issue during my tenure.”
The Population Authority said in response that the cases mentioned above were not instances of revoked citizenship but ones of past registration mistakes, in which people had been registered as citizens but were not. It said now was the time to fix the problem, adding that the ministry held a discussion on the issue, the minister had taken a decision and the Knesset's Interior Committee had been informed. It said that “attempts are being made to address this problem legally in a manner that won’t affect these individuals' status in Israel.” The Population Authority also said the attorney general would be handling the appeal filed by Adalah.
Dery’s office insisted that the cases were absolutely not instances of citizenship being revoked but were instead situations of arranging legal status. “The minister has directed officials at the Population and Immigration Authority to handle the process involving this group of people in the easiest and simplest way possible. Minister Dery asked them to find any way possible to shorten the procedure in an attempt to avoid imposing any hardship on them,” said the office.
The attorney general's office told Adalah that the Population Authority is conducting an examination of thousands of people who have been erroneously registered as citizens instead of permanent residents. Those who are found to have been registered as such by mistake will be allowed to obtain citizenship through an accelerated process, should they meet the legal criteria, the response said.
According to the response, no one has been denied citizenship so far, and residents' rights are being maintained. Therefore the attorney general sees no reason to intervene in the Population Authority's decision, the response said.