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Israel's Cruel Citizenship Law Is Rotten, Racist and Unredeemable

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In Israel, there's a law that actively, tangibly rips families apart and ruins people’s lives, both Palestinian and Israeli
In Israel, there's a law that actively, tangibly rips families apart and ruins people’s lives, both Palestinian and Israeli. And the new Bennett coalition seems set to prolong that suffering Credit: SUHAIB SALEM/ REUTERS
Dahlia Scheindlin
Dahlia Scheindlin

If everything wrong with Israeli politics, policy and democracy could be packaged into a single issue, it would be the Citizenship Law, beginning with its name.

In fact, the law bans citizenship for spouses of specific Israeli citizens. A common nickname, the "Family Reunification Law," belies the fact that the law restricts residency for spouses of specific Israeli citizens. The "Law to Block Family Reunification," as some news commentators say, would be better. Calling it the "Racist Family Separation Law" or "Law someone hopes will cause Palestinian couples to leave" would be the most accurate. And gaslighting terminology is just the start of what’s wrong.

The primary argument, that the law is essential for Israel security, holds little water.

When the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law was passed in 2003, there was at least a security motive. The law was intended to prevent Palestinians (expanded in 2007 to include spouses from four other Arab countries) who had married Israeli citizens - de facto, Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens – from gaining access to Israel and committing terror attacks. 2002, the height of the second intifada, was the peak year for Palestinian suicide bombings, mostly inside Israel. 

A motive is not a justification. Instead of targeting individual spouses suspected of security threats, the sweeping legislation collectively banned married couples, if they included an Israeli married to a Palestinian, from living together inside Israel. Either they forcibly separated, or they had to leave Israel – other than limited provisions for temporary exceptions. 

A Palestinian woman shows her identity card to IDF officers at the Qalandia checkpoint, which controls Palestinians’ access from the West Bank to Jerusalem.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

Facing immediate challenges based on human rights concerns, the law was amended in 2005 to allow application for temporary residency for Palestinian women over 25 and men over 35. At present, the Israeli government reports 9,200 households in which at least one Palestinian lives in Israel on such a permit. Somehow, Israel has survived. Terror has never returned to intifada levels.

Do they pose a threat? In 2018, Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, stated that since 2001, 47 Palestinians who held residency through marriage were involved in terror attacks – an average of 2.8 per year. In total, the Shin Bet reported, in those 17 years, 155 Palestinians who entered Israel through family reunification were involved in some way in terror activity – more, but still only nine per year.

Surely Israel’s much-vaunted security establishment can handle such limited numbers as individual cases, rather than targeting an entire population. Without the law, applications for citizenship or residency could be rejected on security grounds anyway.

But what if there was no law, and the number of "mixed" marriages were to soar? Then an explicit demographic engineering argument catches up with the security argument. Defense Ministry Benny Gantz married the two when he declared last week that "This law is essential for safeguarding the country’s security and Jewish and democratic character." The law’s supporters warn of facilitating a stealth Palestinian right of return through mass marriages to Israelis.

Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset chamber after the vote on a new government this monthCredit: EMMANUEL DUNAND - AFP

Consider the demographics today, 16 years after the law allows spouses to reside in Israel, but under the strict (often hellish) bureaucracy of temporary permits. When HaMoked, a human rights NGO, queried the government on figures, the Population and Immigration Authority provided not a demographic tsunami but the far-from-grand total of 9,200 households.

Jessica Montell, HaMoked’s director, estimated that the number of Palestinian individuals from the occupied territories residing in Israel through marriage or additional family members is likely just under 15,000 – or approximately 0.16 percent of Israel’s total population. 

Perhaps that number is low because the law is a deterrent. But a 2006 Court ruling (upholding the law) estimated that before the law was enacted, 135,000 Palestinians got temporary citizenship or entry during the previous eight years. The annual average would be 16,875 per year – or 0.25 percent of the 2002 population, the year before the law was passed. 

Long queues for the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority offices, responsible for enacting the Citizenship Law, in Wadi Joz, East JerusalemCredit: Emil Salman

If arguments in favor of the law fail, the arguments against it from Israel’s right-wing opposition are confounding.

For over 18 years, right-wing parties have been among the strongest proponents of reaffirming the law based on the (faulty) arguments above. Now, Benjamin Netanyahu is vowing that Likud would oppose it, because tearing down the government is more important than either long held security or demographic convictions.

To this cynical instrumentalism, Likud’s Yoav Kisch added a refreshingly honest ad hominem attack on individual leaders: "I don’t owe anything to Bennett and Shaked, two big liars." And for good measure, he added: "We won’t help them…we’ll do everything to topple them…we’ll fight them."

Personal vindictiveness and sore-loser status is no way to legislate. It is ironic, though little consolation, that the arguments that Likud is now pushing confirm the vacuousness of their security and demographic arguments. If it really was an existential imperative, they would surely swallow their pride and support the law.

A protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah in support of family reunifications.Credit: Amira Hass

If the law exposes the rottenness at the heart of parts of Israel’s legislation, it symbolizes a lie about Israel’s judicial branch too – the myth of the radical left-wing Supreme Court. Twice the Court (sitting as the High Court of Justice) has rejected petitions opposing the law on grounds of violating human rights. These rulings are not an exception – and yet the right-wing’s permanent diatribe falsely accuses the court of being left-wing, part of its campaign of judicial delegitimization.

The Citizenship Law catches Israel lying to itself about its own justifications, highlights the mendacious attacks on the judiciary, and the vote on its renewal is reviving its political crisis. But none of those are the true problem.

The real travesty is that law ruins people’s lives. Israel’s Jewish Nation State Law is also discriminatory; passed in 2018, the law elevates Jewish citizens above all others. It is particularly egregious, as an entrenched Basic Law with higher status than regular laws and harder to change. But for all the symbolic damage, the Jewish Nation State law hasn’t directly affected the daily life Palestinian citizens in Israel, nor anyone else.

By contrast, the Citizenship Law has a direct and terrible impact on innocent people.

An Israeli border police officer guards the 'humanitarian lane' at the Qalandia checkpoint as Palestinian women queue to go to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in JerusalemCredit: Majdi Mohammed / AP

Montell of Hamoked relates recent examples: a Jerusalem resident died of COVID-19, and his wife from the West Bank immediately lost her status permitting her to stay in Israel: "What’s supposed to happen with her kids?"

She noted cases in which a woman is a victim of domestic violence, but the husband holds Jerusalem residency. If such a woman complains, she explained, the man can refuse to renew her stay permit, and she’ll be deported - torn away from her family. Others have fought a multi-decade battle for status and social welfare rights against a soul-crushing bureaucracy.

Montell points out that the populations most affected (and the groups HaMoked assists) – often Palestinian women in Jerusalem – are the least empowered to fight such battles.

As the newly-formed coalition and reluctant opposition jostle for a political win, various proposals have been discussed: Reform the law; judge individual humanitarian cases favorably, or a quid pro quo deal with the Likud’s support, in return for greater support for West Bank settlements. But at its heart, this Israeli law is racist, collective, pre-emptive punishment. It can neither be justified, nor redeemed.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political scientist and public opinion expert. Twitter: @dahliasc

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