Israeli Supreme Court Rules the State Can Revoke Convicted Terrorists' Citizenship

The legal saga over the extent of the state's power to render its own citizens stateless is decades-old, but was reinvigorated in 2017 when then-Interior Minister Arye Dery asked the courts to strip an Umm al-Fahm resident's citizenship over a stabbing attack that left four wounded

Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit
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עלאא זיוד בבית המשפט בחיפה, 2015
Ala'a Ziwad at the Haifa District Court, in 2015.Credit: Rami Shllush
Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state is allowed to strip citizenship from people convicted of treason, terrorism or espionage, clarifying that there is no constitutional barrier to prevent the state from doing so, a potentially precedent-setting decision in a long-running saga over the power to render someone stateless.

In its ruling, the court clarified that if the person at-risk of losing their citizenship "would be left without any other citizenship, he will be given license to reside in Israel."

However, the court also blocked two court rulings that sought to strip two Arab Israelis' citizenship, Ala'a Ziwad and Mohammed Mafarja, both convicted of carrying out terror attacks.

An Israeli district court had in 2017 initially approved then-Interior Minister Arye Dery's request to revoke Ziwad's citizenship in a precedent-setting move. Ziwad, a resident of Umm al-Fahm, was sentenced to 25 years after carrying out a hit-and-run and series of stabbings, wounding four people in 2015 in a kibbutz in northern Israel. But by October of that year, the Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction halting the annulment of his citizenship, sending Dery's request into limbo until Thursday's ruling.

In the second case, which was tried in 2018, the Central District Court overruled a request to revoke the citizenship of Mafarja, convicted of a 2012 bus bombing in Tel Aviv.

In 2018, the Central District Court overruled a request to revoke the citizenship of Mohammed Mafarja, convicted of a 2012 bus bombing in Tel Aviv.Credit: AFP

In Thursday's ruling, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said that she is "of the belief that a declaration to the effect that there are certain acts that a citizen cannot commit against his country and remain a citizen of it certainly serves an appropriate purpose."

However, the judges point out that the possibility that a person who does not hold another citizenship will be left without one does provide a challenge and is in conflict with numerous aspects of international law. According to Justice Yitzhak Amit, "Many countries hold the authority to revoke citizenship, and it's even done in practice. But in none of the developed countries can a person's citizenship be revoked if they have no other citizenship. The solution of granting a permanent residence permit is a sustainable interpretation that brings Israel closer to what is happening in other democracies."

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut declared that "there are certain acts that a citizen cannot commit against his country and remain a citizen."Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Prior to 2008, the country's interior minister had complete authority to revoke citizenship, but it was used in very rare cases. In 2008, the Citizenship Law was amended to ensure that any request by the interior ministry to strip the citizenship of an Israeli involved in terrorist activities was first approved by the court system and attorney general.

In response to the Supreme Court's decision in the Ala'a Ziwad case, the Adalah legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel stated that "this decision is dangerous even though no citizenship was revoked and the Supreme Court upheld the principle that a person cannot be left without status."

They claimed that such a mechanism runs "contrary to the principles of international law – whereby a person is not made stateless, and it was given despite the ruling itself confirms that there is no such arrangement in any country in the world," they said. "Current experience shows that the mechanism permitted by law to revoke citizenship is discriminatory and is used only against Arab citizens."

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