A Wall Through Arab Families

Michal Schwartz

On July 31, the Knesset amended the Citizenship Law (1952), denying citizenship to applicants who are spouses of Israelis if these spouses come from the West Bank or Gaza. The amendment will stand for at least one year and then come up for renewal. It will immediately affect more than 20,000 families, while limiting the marital prospects of many more.

NO ISRAELI LAW prevents Arab citizens from marrying Palestinians of the Occupied Territories. A new amendment to the Citizenship Law, however, makes such marriages impossible unless the Arab citizen leaves Israel. It freezes all naturalization procedures aimed toward family unification, where these concern Palestinians who have already married Arabs in Israel. It even forbids their continuing to reside in Israel as non-citizens. It does not help if the spouse has long been living here, has children here, and was well underway toward family unification.

The new amendment places such "mixed" couples before difficult choices: Either the Palestinian living in Israel must become illegal and go underground, or the family must split, or – and this would appear to be the law's hidden intent – the entire family must pull up stakes and move to the Occupied Territories.

Laundering the words

The heart of the new amendment may be found in Article 2: "During the period that this law remains in effect… the Minister of the Interior will not grant a resident of the region citizenship according to the Citizenship Law, nor will he give him a license to reside in Israel according to the Law Concerning Entrance Into Israel, and the [military] commander of the region will not give said resident a permit to overnight in Israel according to security regulations in the region."

In order to blur the racist overtones, the amendment is formulated in "newspeak". Instead of admitting that the measure singles out a particular national group, instead of saying quite simply, "Palestinians of the Occupied Territories," the legislators write "a resident of the region." The "region" is then defined as one of the following: "Judea, Samaria, or the Gaza district." The Jewish settlers there belong, however, to a separate category: in defining "a resident of the region," the legislators qualify: "except for a resident of an Israeli locale in the region."

The law serves as a means of collective punishment against all Arab citizens of Israel who may wish to marry Palestinians from the Territories. They may marry anyone else, just not those. The sanctity of the family, a value recognized in international law (in Israeli law too) as a fundamental right, here receives a peculiar pruning.

The amendment does make exceptions, however: for collaborators, that is, any resident of the region "who identifies with the State of Israel and its goals, when he or a member of his family has taken concrete action to advance the security, economy or any other matter important to the State."

The Interior Minister may also grant exceptions, at his discretion, to persons who wish to enter Israel for less than six months.

The reason is demography

The proponents of the amendment justify it on security grounds. In fact, former Interior Minister Eli Yishai already froze all procedures for family unification back in May 2002, after a suicide attack at the Matza Restaurant in Haifa. The perpetrator was the son of an Arab woman with Israeli citizenship and a man from the Territories.

A close look, however, reveals that the security pretext is false. Prior to this amendment, the procedures for gaining citizenship answered all security concerns. These procedures included many phases, lasting on average more than four years. During this application period, the authorities investigated every possible factor, security or criminal, that might be grounds for denying citizenship. (We encountered one case where the applicant underwent 38 security checks.) The lengthy waiting period also sufficed to test whether the marriage was fictive or real.

Another thing belies the claim of security: As mentioned, the new amendment does not prevent a Palestinian from entering Israel to work or receive medical treatment. Such a person is not considered a "ticking bomb". He turns into one, however – according to the amendment – the moment he wants to establish a family. Thus every Israeli citizen who enters a romantic relationship with a Palestinian from the Territories becomes, by that fact, suspect of plotting a terrorist act. Even Knesset member Ruby Rivlin, a certified right-winger, criticized the law on this point: "It says everyone is guilty until proven otherwise." (Knesset Committee of the Interior, July 21.) That did not keep Rivlin from voting in favor.

The motive for the amendment has nothing to do with security but everything to do with demography. (The Arab citizens made up a sixth of Israel's population twenty years ago; today, despite the influx of a million immigrants from the Soviet Union, they are a fifth.) Knesset member Gideon Ezra laid the demographic cards on the table at a meeting of the Interior Committee on July 29: "We are a Jewish State that wants to make it possible for the citizens of the State of Israel to live with the people they love and want. It is unthinkable that the State of Israel will be the state that takes in, while Judea and Samaria will be the state that spews out. It is unthinkable that, in the end, we will also be asked to bring back the settlers from Judea and Samaria. The State of Israel does not intend – and the government of Israel certainly not – to create here a Right of Creeping Return."

On the Road to Apartheid

Despite the attempt to clothe the amendment in the guise of security, it has come in for a storm of condemnation. Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, who is married to a woman from Tulkarem, asked if his children would lose their citizenship. The European Union sent an official protest (leading to an Israeli charge of interference in its internal affairs). The US announced it would check whether the law discriminates against Palestinians. The UN Conference against Racism called for its cancellation. The anticipation of this storm did not prevent 53 Knesset members from approving the measure (versus 25 who opposed). Its parliamentary shepherd was Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of Shinui, a party that prides itself on promoting citizens' rights.

The Association of Civil Rights in Israel has gone to the High Court in an attempt to forestall implementation of the amendment, but the court has been in no hurry to consider the matter. Its foot-dragging does not bode well.

Nor is that all. According to Ha'aretz (May 28), the Interior Ministry is preparing an additional amendment, refusing to grant automatic citizenship to a child one of whose parents is a resident of the Territories. The initiators of the new measure are Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the heads of the state security apparatus. The Attorney General, Elyakim Rubinstein, has voiced his support.

None of this need surprise us. The amendment that has already passed, as well as the one to come, fits quite neatly with the current erection of a physical barrier between Israel and the Palestinians, which Israel also seeks to justify on security grounds. In the present instance, Tibi points out, the wall passes right through families. Along with military escalation, there is also escalation in the law books. Here Israel limits the marriage prospects of a million of its citizens. If another land were to pass such a law, limiting the marriage prospects of Jews, what an outcry there would be!n

Among the surprise supporters of the amendment we find Ruth Gavison of the Hebrew University's Faculty of Law. Gavison was president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel from 1996-1999. She writes that the concept of a Jewish state, which she accepts, logically entails the new amendment to the Citizenship Law. She is correct, but the amendment precisely demonstrates the racist character of the concept.


"I live in perpetual uncertainty. It's not clear whether they'll let me be with my family or whether they'll separate us. I've become a temporary person."

Photo by Eldad Rafaeli. There is no connection between those photographed and persons mentioned in the article.

Three Instances

1. Temporary person

S. is a West Bank resident married to an Israeli citizen. They have three children. "This was not an arranged marriage," he says, "but a marriage of love." They were wed in 1997. A year later he received a temporary permit to work in Israel ("Before that I worked illegally"). In 1999 he got a temporary identity card, enabling him to live and work here. He managed to renew it four times until the freeze went into effect.

S says: "When I want to enter the West Bank to visit my relatives, the soldiers treat me as an Israeli and keep me from going in. I have to sneak around them. When I want to come back to Israel, they treat me as a Palestinian and raise obstacles. I suffer in both worlds. I live in perpetual uncertainty. It's not clear whether they'll let me be with my family or whether they'll separate us. I've become a temporary person."

2. Humiliation at the Damascus Gate

In 1990 H. of Bethlehem wed a woman from East Jerusalem, where they have lived since then. We should note that the Arabs of East Jerusalem are not citizens, rather "permanent residents". In order to maintain even this status, they must constantly demonstrate that their lives are centered in Jerusalem. This involves endless bureaucratic wrangling. They have a blue Israeli identity card, but no Israeli passport. They may vote in local elections only. Palestinians from the Territories have green (formerly orange) ID cards. If they want to get the blue one, they have to undergo family unification.

In 1994 H. began the procedures toward the blue ID, but although he has presented abundant documentation showing Jerusalem as the center of his life, he has still received no answer. In 1997 he got a temporary license to work in Israel, which he has to renew bimonthly. This means standing in the notorious line of the Interior Ministry in East Jerusalem. In the year 2000 he received the right to reside in Jerusalem, which he has to renew each year. The law allows one to apply for permanent residence after five years on a temporary basis. When he finally was able to do so, in November 2002, the deep freeze was already on. He missed the train.

Says H., "More than once the soldiers made me get down from the bus and stand with hands raised at the Damascus Gate in the blazing sun. I live in suspense. When I visit my family in Bethlehem, I don't know if I'll get home to my wife and children. This is no life."

3. Abortion at the checkpoint

M. is a Jerusalem resident, married to a Hebronite. The two live with their children in Anatha, which is divided between the annexed part of Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank – and which therefore has a permanent checkpoint. Here his wife regularly passes through the nine circles of hell. In 1996 M. applied for family unification, which would gain her permanent residency. Three years later she got a permit allowing her to dwell temporarily in Israel. This she must renew annually. Occasionally there were bureaucratic delays; in 2002, for instance, her permit was not renewed. For a long period she was forced to go about without documents.

"Last January," reports M., "my wife was stopped at the checkpoint. She was in the advanced stages of pregnancy, but despite this the soldier wouldn't let her in. She had to take a roundabout way by foot, following a hazardous trail. A few days later we discovered that the fetus was dead. A check-up showed that it had died on the day they harassed her at the checkpoint."