The Daily Star – 19 August 2003
JERUSALEM: Israel faced a stinging rebuke last week from a United Nations watchdog body for passing a law two weeks ago, days before the Knesset’s summer recess, that bans Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from living together in Israel.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Israel to revoke the law immediately, adding that it “raises serious issues” about whether Israel is violating an international human rights treaty it ratified in 1979.
The panel, comprising 18 human rights experts from around the world, is due to issue a periodical report assessing Israel’s compliance with the treaty in December but was so concerned by the new law that under emergency procedures it rushed out an early statement criticizing the legislation.
Yaakov Levy, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, responded by accusing the committee of taking an approach that was “highly politicized, demonstrating a biased approach which singles out Israel.”
But the committee’s decision to single out Israel may have reflected its view that the law is uniquely discriminatory.
Orna Kohn, a lawyer with the Adalah legal center for the Arab minority in Israel who is petitioning the country’s Supreme Court to have the legislation overturned, said she had not heard of any other country apart from South Africa during its apartheid years enforcing such a law.
“What are couples in this position supposed to do?” she said. “Maybe the state should prepare special prisons so that they can live together. Or maybe it really wants them to leave the country and seek asylum abroad.”
Under the legislation, an amendment to the Citizenship Law passed on July 31, all Palestinian applicants will be refused residency permits and access to the naturalization process that would lead to citizenship.
Thousands more Palestinian spouses who are already living in Israel – and their children – face an uncertain future. They will have pending applications for citizenship frozen or refused, and unless they are allowed residency status they too will be forced to separate from a husband or wife.
The law has already provoked universal condemnation as “racist” from international and local human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Even the American Jewish lobby group the Anti-Defamation League, distinguished usually by uncritical support for Israel, said it was troubled by the legislation and suggested Israel “explore other methods” to ensure its security needs.
The law is doubly discriminatory: It applies only to Palestinians, allowing other foreigners marrying Israelis to gain citizenship unhindered; and it violates the marriage and unification rights of the country’s 1.2 million Arab citizens, who almost exclusively among Israelis choose to marry Palestinians.
Israel’s official justification for the new measure is that it is needed on security grounds. The trigger for the legislation was a suicide bombing on March 31, 2002 at a restaurant in Haifa carried out by Shadi Tubasi, a Palestinian from Jenin who had citizenship by virtue of his marriage to an Israeli Arab. The next day the government imposed a freeze on all family unification requests from Palestinians which has only now been enshrined in law.
The government claims that 20 Palestinians married to Israeli citizens have been involved directly or indirectly in terror activities during this intifada, using blue ID cards gained with citizenship to move around freely. Gideon Ezra, a Cabinet minister, said: “Since September 2000 we have seen a significant connection, in terror attacks, between Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza and Arab-Israelis.”
However, Adalah points out that the government, when pressed by the courts in April, produced only six examples of citizens being linked to terror activities. Adalah also observes that the figure is tiny as a proportion of the thousands of applications for citizenship.
“The current law grants the government wide authority to conduct criminal and security background checks on all persons seeking to gain citizenship/residency status in Israel,” said an Adalah spokesman.
Kohn is petitioning on behalf of 14 families affected by the law, including a colleague at Adalah. Morad a-Sana, 30, an attorney living in Beersheva, recently returned from his honeymoon in Istanbul with his wife, Abir, to find that the law required them to part ways as they crossed back over the border from Jordan.
Abir, 27, a university lecturer living with her family in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, cannot now join Morad in Israel, and Morad is barred from living in Bethlehem by military regulations that prohibit Israelis from entering Palestinian-controlled areas.
“The state is making it impossible for us to be together,” said Morad. “I am an Israeli citizen and this is supposed to be my state. What other country treats its citizens in this way?”
Adalah claims that the real reason Israel wants to stop Palestinians from gaining Israeli citizenship is because it fears they will boost the number of the country’s Arab citizens – currently a fifth of the population – thereby undermining the Jewish character of the state. Both Palestinians and Arab-Israelis have far higher birth rates than Israeli Jews.
The government is reported to have been particularly disturbed by figures showing that some 100,000 Palestinians were in line for citizenship through marriage before the new law was passed.
Kohn says the treatment of existing Palestinian applicants for citizenship suggests that demographic fears were the prime motive behind the legislation. She believes the government hopes that both Palestinians and Arab-Israelis who want to marry will feel compelled to leave the country, reducing the Arab population inside Israel. This has been the stated goal of several members of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet, including right-wingers Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon.
Ahmed and Samar Farahti, for example, have been married since January 1995 and now have four children, the youngest only a month old. Distant cousins, Ahmed’s family is from Jalameh, a village close to Jenin, while Samar lives in Sulam, a village 10 kilometers away in northern Israel.
Samar, 27, has been applying for citizenship for her husband for eight years without success. Instead Ahmed, 30, has been given a series of six-month permits to stay in Israel. Only in November 2001 was his request for temporary residency officially granted, although no action has yet been taken by the authorities.
The Farahtis’ real problems, however, began in May last year, when the government froze all applications from Palestinians. This was a time when Ahmed’s permit to stay had expired and before his temporary residency had been issued.
It means that for the past year he has been in Israel illegally, although his deportation to the West Bank has been put on hold by the courts for the time being.
“We were married years before the intifada,” said Samar. “If my husband was a threat to the state, either he would have done something by now or Shin Bet (security services) would have the evidence against him.” Ahmed has not been able to see his elderly parents in Jalameh for 18 months, even though they are a 10-minute drive away.
The Daily Star – 19 August 2003