Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked sent a letter Wednesday to Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, in which she called to halt the process of Israel joining the Istanbul Convention on gender-based violence.
In her letter, Shaked expressed a fear that joining the convention for combating violence against women and domestic violence would require Israel to grant residency status to foreign women who have suffered from violence and who are persecuted in their own countries, but are not entitled to residency under Israeli immigration law.
Joining the convention requires cabinet approval, and Sa’ar plans on bringing the matter to a cabinet vote at the end of the month.
The eight-page letter was headed: “Potential obstacles to Israel’s immigration policy from joining the Istanbul Convention.” Shaked wrote that she objects to sections of the convention about granting residency to these foreign women, and she thinks that if Israel does join the convention, it will be forced to expand the commitment it took on itself in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
“A real fear exists that these definitions will receive a much more far-reaching interpretation than the interpretation and practice customary for decades concerning implementation of the convention as to the status of refugees,” she wrote.
A session on the matter was to be held on Wednesday in the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, chaired by MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List).
Shaked added that the sections of the convention concerning persecution based on gender-based violence opens the door to an “unprecedented population in scope that could lay claim to refugee status or at least to protection from deportation.”
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Shaked wrote that with all due regret, “granting political asylum was not intended to and cannot provide a solution for every form of difficulty or distress that exists in less developed countries of origin, certainly not when these are broad cultural phenomena. Such a situation is of course undesirable, both from a practical perspective because this is an opening for an infinite number of asylum requests with justifications that are almost impossible to disprove, and from there to the exploitation of the Israeli asylum system.
“The experience accumulated over the past two decades from the tens of thousands of asylum requests submitted without any justification or factual basis teaches that this is not a baseless fear,” she wrote. “As is known, the State of Israel allows entry for purposes of employment, visitation and tourism from a long list of countries in which it is possible to claim that violence against women exists, according to possible interpretations of the Istanbul Convention, or to an attitude that could be considered to be humiliating. With all due regret and identification with the distress, the issue is endless and this is a result that is unacceptable,” wrote Shaked.
In its request to join the convention, Israel included three clarifications as to how it would implement certain sections of the convention. One caveat concerned Section 60 of the Istanbul Convention, which recognizes gender-based violence against women as a form of persecution, and requires granting residency to women who are persecuted in their own countries because of their gender. In the caveat related to this section, Israel referenced the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that it signed in 1954, saying it will act in compliance with the refugee convention without expanding on the commitment Israel took on itself at the time.
Shaked noted in her letter that the customary practice in implementing the 1951 refugee convention differentiates between refugees who were persecuted in their home countries and those who want to emigrate because of economic distress. “According to the definitions of the Istanbul Convention, this difference could well lose its validity, are least as far as everything concerning women,” she wrote. The Istanbul Convention does not distinguish between physical violence and psychological violence as a justification for granting refugee status, and this will make it difficult for the state to prove that the asylum seekers are not suffering from violence in the case of false claims, Shaked added.
“The Istanbul Convention uses soft language in a much more important manner [than the 1951 refugee convention], something that could very well be interpreted a significant reduction in the level of evidence required,” she wrote. “Domestic violence with only psychological harm could well, in accordance with the nature of these attacks, negate the requirement for objective proof, as well as making the possibility of disproving such a claim of harm difficult to impossible.” Shaked also criticized the oversight mechanisms of the Istanbul Convention, which she called uncompromising, invasive and strict – and brought up a fear that the convention would also be applied to residents of the Palestinian Authority – something that would force Israel to grant refugee status to Palestinian women who suffer from domestic violence.
Shaked also commented on the fact that Israel is only an observer in the Council of Europe, and not a member of the council like the rest of the signatory nations – and said that signing the convention would put Israel under the oversight of a body in which it has no representation or official status.
“It is not clear why Israel is in such a hurry to be the first country that is not a member to sign the conventions,” Shaked wrote. “It would be best to stop and consider in depth whether joining the convention serves Israel’s interests than to create a situation that will damage Israel’s immigration policy and international image that will be hard to repair … Even if steps have already been taken in that direction, stopping the process now will be much easier and simpler than leaving later.”
At the committee session, representatives of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority’s legal department discussed Shaked’s letter to Sa’ar. One of the attorneys, Orly Shmuel Dahan, told the committee: “Professionally, no one disputes that it is necessary to submit the interpretive declaration,” in other words the statement in which Israel clarifies how it will implement various sections of the convention. “There is agreement among the government ministries. What worries the interior minister is what the Istanbul Convention will not provide,” she told the committee.
Attorney Liron Gabay told the committee that “our worry is that the Istanbul Convention could very well expand de facto the implementation of the refugee convention. All [Shaked] is saying is that we need to examine it in depth,” she said.
In her summation of the committee session, Touma-Sliman criticized Shaked because of what she wrote in her letter, and called on her to retract it. “Anyone who cares about this country’s citizens, men and women, needs to work harder to build a more equal society.” Touma-Sliman called to support Sa’ar, who is leading the effort for Israel to join the Istanbul Convention – and called on him to bring the matter before the cabinet as soon as possible.
MK Michal Rozin (Meretz), who participated in the session, tweeted that Shaked’s opposition is “putting a spoke in the wheels of the fight for women’s rights and the fight against violence against women. The rhetoric of migration and refugees is irrelevant, and cannot serve as an excuse in the mouths of those who are not interested in allowing women to live in freedom and security,” she tweeted.