Ministers May Ease Citizenship Terms for Palestinian Spouses

Pines-Paz proposal would ease rules for about half of Israeli-Palestinian couples; Livni wants minimum.

The ministerial committee for legislation is set to approve Sunday proposed changes in the Citizenship Law that would allow dozens of mixed Israeli-Palestinian couples to continue or begin family unification procedures to acquire Israeli citizenship for the Palestinian partner.

Disagreement is expected in the committee between supporters of Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, who proposes an easing of the rules that would affect about half the families, and those of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who believes that only a bare minimum of cases should be processed, affecting about 30 percent of the families.

It is anticipated that Livni, whose version of the bill is expected to gain a majority, will ask the committee to propose a bill with minimal easements acceptable to the Shin Bet security services.

The law freezing family unification procedures began as a cabinet decision in May 2002, after which the Interior Ministry stopped accepting new applications or processing those that had already been filed. In July 2003, the Knesset transformed the decision into a law, in effect for a limited period of time. Since that time, the House has extended the law twice, and it is due to expire at the end of May.

The law was passed to take effect for a limited time because Attorney General Menachem Mazuz believed that was the only way it would pass the scrutiny of the High Court of Justice, which otherwise could be expected to rule that it discriminated against citizens married to Palestinians.

The cabinet recently appointed a committee headed by Pines-Paz to examine Israel's immigration policy and draft new immigration laws. In order not to leave a vacuum until such laws are on the books, the cabinet will ask the Knesset for another extention of the freeze, until the end of the year. Mazuz has stated that the law as it now stands, preventing any family unification, cannot be extended - hence the cabinet decision to relax certain elements.

The original version of that relaxation, as prepared by the Interior Ministry before Pines-Paz's tenure, would allow unification of families where the Palestinian man is over 35 or the Palestinian woman over 25, which is believed to include about 40 percent of the women and 20 percent of the men asking for unification, or approximately 30 percent of the families involved. These criteria were based on data provided by the Shin Bet security service showing that involvement in terrorism declines with age. The Shin Bet, which at first opposed any change in the law, finally agreed to this proposal, as did the National Security Council.

However, Pines-Paz has presented a different proposal to the committee, which would allow women older than 20 to submit or advance their application for citizenship, which would encompass 80 percent of the female applicants and almost half the families. Pines-Paz's bureau said that according to the data available, no Palestinian woman who has became a citizen through family unification has been involved in terrorism. Sources close to Pines-Paz said they were surprised that it was he "and not Livni who was taking the more judicial approach."

A clause in the original proposal whereby family unification could be withheld not only from those who were security risks themselves, but also from those who had a first-degree family member who was a security risk, does not appear in the Pines-Paz proposal.