Supreme Court Paves Way for Stripping Terrorists of Citizenship, but Impact Will Be Limited

Interior Minister Shaked asked the Shin Bet security service for a list of terrorists who can be deprived of citizenship, but the Justice Ministry’s criteria limit her freedom of action

Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit
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Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, last month.
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that there is nothing preventing the government from revoking the citizenship of those who have breached their "allegiance to the state," understood as acts of terrorism, espionage or treason — the decision appeared a major breakthrough in a debate that has been in legal limbo for years over the extent of the state's powers.

In its decision, the court gave its approval to a 2008 law that provides for such a procedure, but criteria developed by the Justice Ministry will limit the extent to which the procedure is actually carried out. The court also ruled that if stripping a person convicted of terrorism of Israeli citizenship renders them stateless, the terrorist must be given some other kind of permanent resident status in Israel.

The expanded panel of Supreme Court justices headed by court President Esther Hayut ruled that Israeli citizenship can be revoked at the request of the interior minister for a range of offenses including treason, terrorism and espionage. The standards developed in 2020 by the office of Avichai Mendelblit, the attorney general at the time, require that the interior minister consider a number of factors, such as the gravity of the offense, the number of those affected by it and the extent of harm caused.

“The act must be sufficiently serious to demonstrate that the offender turned his back on the State of Israel,” Mendelblit stated. “Not every act that formally involves a breach of allegiance would necessarily justify use of means so severe as revocation of status [citizenship].

Palestinian demonstrators hurl stones at Israeli forces during a protest near the Jewish settlement of Qadomem, in the village of Kofr Qadom in the West Bank, in 2019.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

In addition, according to the attorney general’s criteria, the interior minister must “take into account the use that the individual made of his status and how such status contributed to carrying out the act.” With regard to terrorist attacks, the criteria also requires the minister to consider people's individual roles in the attack, their age, how much time has passed since the attack and whether they have expressed remorse.

Oded Feller, the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel's legal department, said even though the Supreme Court is permitting the revocation of citizenship for violating one’s allegiance to the state, “that doesn’t mean that the citizenship of every stone thrower or someone who publicly expresses a lack of allegiance to the state can be revoked.”

Feller represents Ala’a Ziwad, who had been convicted of carrying out a 2015 attack at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel that wounded four people. The Supreme Court had actually initially reversed the Haifa District Court’s decision to strip his Israeli citizenship due to legal errors in the proceedings but gave the state the opportunity to submit a new revocation request.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Despite certain restrictions on the revocation of one's citizenship, Feller is concerned that the interior minister’s political views will largely decide its use. And in fact, on Monday, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked issued a statement to Haaretz saying that she intends to increase efforts to revoke the Israeli citizenship of terrorists who hold it.

“[She] is studying the court ruling, and although she can only regret that the court ruled that terrorists must be given alternative status, she will use all of the tools at her disposal to revoke the citizenship of accursed terrorists – now all the more so,” the statement said.

Several months after taking office last year as interior minister, Shaked asked the Shin Bet security agency for a list of terrorists who met the criteria. Any request that she would make to revoke a terrorist’s citizenship would still be subject to court review, and in some instances would also need the approval of the attorney general.

Another issue that emerges in such a process is the prospect of disparate treatment of Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. If the ministry seeks to revoke citizenship for Israeli Arabs for past terrorist acts, it would have to explain why it is not also doing so for Jews convicted of identical crimes.

A relative holds up a photo of a one-and-a-half year old boy, Ali Dawabsheh, in a house that had been torched in a suspected attack by Jewish settlers in Duma village near the West Bank city of Nablus, in 2015.Credit: AP

In this connection, Feller raised two cases involving the killing of Palestinians by Jews – the 2014 kidnapping and murder of East Jerusalem teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the 2015 killing of three members of the Dawabsheh family in a firebombing of their home in the Palestinian West Bank village of Duma. “The murderers of the Dawbsheh family and Mohammed Abu Khdeir would, to the same extent, also have to be stripped of their citizenship,” Feller said.

Feller called the prospect of rendering terrorists stateless "beyond what is accepted in international law" and emphasized that no other democratic country upholds this practice. "Its significance is that there will be people who will be forced to go around the world without being citizens of any country,” Feller said.

Realistically, the potential statelessness of terrorists is mainly symbolic. As permanent residents of Israel, anyone stripped of citizenship would be entitled to the vast majority of rights that an Israeli citizen has, including social service and National Insurance Institute benefits and public health-care coverage.

Ala'a Ziwad at the Haifa District Court.Credit: Rami Shllush

Revoking people's citizenship is mainly a shaming process, Feller suggested. It deprives them of two rights: the right to vote for the Knesset and be elected to parliament (though they could still vote in local elections) and the right to an Israeli passport. Those without an Israeli passport could still travel with a so-called laissez-passer, but they'd need to obtain a visa even to enter countries with which Israel has close ties, Feller said.

Since Israel’s citizenship law was amended in 2008, 33 Israelis have had their citizenship revoked. Shaked’s predecessor as interior minister, Arye Dery, was responsible for three of the cases. But two of the three – Ala’a Ziwad and Mohammed Mafarjah – had their citizenship restored at least temporarily as a result of the Supreme Court's ruling on Thursday that there were flaws in the revocation process. And Dery’s third revocation request, against an Israeli who joined the Islamic State group, was withdrawn after it was believed that he had died.

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