The Citizenship Law, which passed in the Knesset Thursday in a 45-15 vote, has been controversial for nearly 20 years. Following is an explanation of the practical significance of the amendment, what happens now and what its critics claim.
Why was it passed?
In 2002, during the second intifada, the cabinet suspended naturalization for West Bank Palestinians married to Israelis, citing security reasons. One year later, the cabinet resolution was extended as a temporary provision that was renewed each year. After a few years, its scope was expanded to include residents or nationals of “hostile states” – Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
What’s new about this latest version?
By agreement with the opposition, a “purpose of the law” provision was added that implies its demographic considerations: “The purpose of this law is to establish restrictions on citizenship and residence in Israel by citizens or residents of hostile countries or from the region, alongside irregular arrangements for residence licenses or permits to stay in Israel – all while taking into consideration the fact that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, and in a manner that will ensure safeguarding of vital interests for the state’s national security.”
Even though this is the first time demographic concerns were mentioned in the law, its critics have commented on it before. Oded Feller of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the issue came up in 2003, when ACRI officials met with then-Interior Minister Avraham Poraz. “He admitted that the security issue was an excuse and over the years, it was said innumerable times,” Feller stated. In February, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, told Yedioth Ahronoth: “There’s no need to mince words. The bill also has demographic reasons.” In July, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told his Yesh Atid Knesset colleagues: “We don’t need to hide from the substance of the Citizenship Law. It’s one of the tools aimed at ensuring a Jewish majority in Israel.”
What happens now?
Under the law, in the coming year the annual quota for permits or licenses on humanitarian grounds will be the same as in 2018 – 58, according to the Interior Ministry’s immigration agency. (Initially, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman sought to link it to the number granted in 2019, which was just 14). The amendment permits the interior minister to change the quota with the approval of the cabinet and the Knesset, on a recommendation by the Knesset House Committee.
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Applicants 50 or older, legally in Israel for at least 10 years with a temporary permit from a District Coordination and Liaison Office will receive a residency license that does not confer social benefits. Other temporary residents receive full National Insurance Institute and public health benefits and an Israeli ID. The new law contains a special provision for women who are in the country without authorization but who are victims of domestic violence. They can apply to a humanitarian committee for social benefits.
Most of the new law is similar to prior temporary legislation, including a provision barring men under 35 and women under 25 who marry an Israeli from receiving a residency license or permit.
The new resident status will be granted for two years, during which the interior minister will be required to rescind it if it is proved that its holder applicant committed breach of trust against the state (terrorism, espionage or treason). The minister must also report the number of licenses, authorizations and rejections.
What is the criticism of the law?
According to Oded Feller of ACRI, the need for the legislation on security grounds has not been proved. “According to figures from the Shin Bet [security service], over the past 20 years, 35 Palestinians who received [legal] status in Israel were involved in security-related activity, but it did not state what that activity was.”
The Shin Bet, he said, also did not provide a breakdown based on the age or sex of the offenders. “We know that the involvement of women has been negligible, but the law also applies to women.”
The data show that from 2015 to mid-2021, only one male spouse of a permanent resident of Israel was involved in a security incident, Feller said, and the number of such spouses married to Israeli citizens has been a few per year.
“The numbers are very low and therefore there is no justification for such a serious infringement on so many people,” he claimed. “The security connection is very weak. It’s an excuse, and we have been saying that from the first moment. It’s clear that the major fear is of Palestinians receiving legal status and from our standpoint, that is a racist issue.”
There has also been some criticism of the new law from right-wing parties. “In an ideal world, we would have a Basic Law on Immigration,” Rothman said, referring to legislation with constitutional status. “As long as there is a national struggle in the Land of Israel [involving] minorities and Arabs, we don’t need to make it possible for our enemies to enter Israel – not just Palestinians but also Iranians, Lebanese, Syrians and Iraqis, who appear in the law. There is a national struggle here over the Land of Israel, and we shouldn’t have to give a private individual the possibility of bringing more people here.”
What’s the next step in the fight over the law?
After Thursday’s vote, ACRI, the Moked Center for the Defense of the Individual and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel announced that they would challenge the law in the High Court of Justice. “The law’s infringement on human rights is grave, and therefore it is not constitutional,” the organizations stated in a letter to Shaked.
“The difference between this petition [to the court] and prior ones is that now we’re 20 years later and need to consider the significance for people who have been living that way for a long time,” Feller said. Because the way the law is worded indicates that its purpose is also demographic, it raises the question of “why it is directed only against Palestinians and residents of just four other enemy countries,” he said.
Deputy Attorney General for Constitutional Matters Raz Nizri, appearing before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the beginning of March, noted that the High Court ruled that the law infringes on human dignity and the right to a family life, but he added that such rights are not absolute. The state will have to present data showing the demographic danger involved in the applications, and it is possible that the court would require that the issue be considered in the context of anyone seeking resident status in Israel and not just Palestinians, Nizri said.