OCCUPIED EAST JERUSALEM — A controversial law banning family unification between Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories expired last summer, but right-wing politicians are seeking to resurrect it with a vengeance. This month, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) approved, in the first of three votes, the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, preventing Palestinians married to Israeli citizens from receiving permits to enter into 1948-occupied Palestine (or modern-day Israel).
“It’s one of the most racist, apartheid laws that was ever passed in the world,” Adi Mansour, attorney with Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, told MintPress News. “There is no other law that’s even remotely close to this law in the effects … that it has on family lives.”
Known as the family unification ban, the bill passed in 2003 and has been renewed annually since its inception — until last year. In July, the law was defeated after former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party voted against it to disrupt the new coalition government.
Now, right-wing Knesset members are hoping to breathe new life into the legislation by adding more restrictive amendments to a law human rights organizations already deem deeply discriminatory.
Making a harsh law even harsher
Knesset member Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionism Party negotiated with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked to add tougher amendments to the law and get it back on the agenda.
Rothman’s applied amendments include setting a maximum yearly quota for those eligible to receive Israeli citizenship from the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and requiring the Interior Ministry submit a monthly report on the number of permits granted. While this law is classified as a temporary order, the newest version also allows the government to extend its enforcement for longer than one year at a time, meaning it won’t need to be renewed annually.
“The amendment that was filed by the opposition brings to the surface the real intention of the law — to prevent a supposed attack on the Jewish majority of the state,” Mansour said. Rothman and the spokesperson for the Knesset did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the law’s expiration, Shaked ordered the Population and Immigration Authority to apply the law to family unification requests. Israeli non-profit organizations HaMoked, Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, filed a joint petition to the Israeli Court of Administrative Affairs. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which prompted the Interior Ministry to establish two temporary procedures. One of the procedures — HaMoked argues — simply “perpetuates the relevant provisions of the expired law, under a different name.”
More than just preventing the Palestinian right of return
HaMoked opposes the law, but Dani Shenhar, who heads HaMoked’s legal department, said that if it does pass, there are several amendments they are advocating to have attached to the bill in order to make it constitutional. These include: not applying the law to women over the age of 50, men over the age of 55, and minors; providing full government benefits to those given an entry permit; and giving permanent residency or citizenship to those applying on humanitarian grounds.
“When the law didn’t pass in July, many politicians said that it’s very important for keeping the demographics of Israel under control — not having Palestinians receive Israeli IDs,” Shenhar told MintPress. “This is the real concern of the state.”
Proponents of the law argue it’s necessary for security purposes, specifically claiming unified families are more likely to commit acts of terrorism. Shenhar explained, however, that Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, said that from 2001 to 2016 only 104 individuals from families who obtained residency or citizenship through family reunification were involved in terrorist activity. From his perspective, these low numbers suggest there isn’t a security concern. “Security is an explanation used by the state because it’s easier for the court to give its green light to this law when there’s a security basis for it,” Shenhar said. “It’s more difficult to justify this kind of law on the basis of demographics or racial profiling.”
Even Minister of Interior Shaked suggested this law isn’t just for security purposes. In an interview with Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Shaked admitted the law is meant to prevent the “creeping [Palestinian] right of return.” “The law wants to reduce the motivation for immigration to Israel. Primarily for security reasons, and then also for demographic reasons,” Shaked said.
Adalah’s Mansour argued that family reunification isn’t about the right of return. “We want the right of return, but still when we fall in love with a person, we do not think, ‘Let’s implement the right of return.’ This is not part of the rationality of love and relationships,” he said.
Instead, Mansour argues that the narrative that the law is about the right of return is merely strategic — to better persuade the Israeli media and public of the need for such a law. “The motive to prevent the right of return is not real,” he said, emphasizing the law’s agenda is Zionist and racist. “The real motive is preventing any demographic changes and preventing Palestinians from implementing their right to family life.”
“To basically build and sustain an apartheid regime,” Mansour added.
Denying the right to family life
Earlier this month Amensty International released a comprehensive report declaring Israel an apartheid state. The organization’s analysis highlighted the family reunification ban, calling it a “clear example of how Israel fragments and segregates Palestinians through a single system.”
Amnesty International described “discriminatory laws and policies that disrupt family life” as “primarily guided by demographic – rather than security – considerations and aim[ing] to minimize Palestinian presence inside the Green Line to maintain a Jewish majority.”
“By contrast, the 2003 law explicitly did not apply to residents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank wanting to marry and live with their spouse inside Israel, making it, and the ongoing policy underpinning it, blatantly discriminatory,” Amnesty wrote. The organization also noted that information from the Ministry of Interior indicated the rejection of about 43% of family unification applications from 2000-2013.
Families affected by the legislation were unable to speak on the record to MintPress, given that the bill is still being debated and voted on. However, Amnesty collected anonymous testimonies on how this law has disrupted families’ lives.
One spouse, who moved from the West Bank to 1948-occupied Palestine, applied for family reunification but while awaiting approval and without proper documentation, she lived in a perpetual state of anxiety. “There was a constant fear in my life. I was terrified of getting sick for example, because of this fear of having to go to the hospital without the necessary documents, getting caught [by Israeli authorities], and paying lots of money to cover for any kind of procedure or treatment,” she told Amnesty. She had married in 2003 when she was 18 but, according to the Citizenship Law, couldn’t apply for family reunification until she turned 25.
Another woman was rejected when trying to renew her permanent residency. She is now confined to Jerusalem in fear of arrest if she crosses Israeli checkpoints. She told Amnesty International how the law has impacted her life:
Since 2008, I have not been able to see my children as I please, because I cannot cross Israeli military checkpoints. I can only see my children and grandchildren through video calls. I have spent 12 years of my life trying to solve this, but the [Israeli] authorities keep stalling. I have spent half of my life either at the Ministry of Interior offices or gathering papers for them. This is exhausting.”
Adalah’s Mansour detailed the various cases he’s worked on regarding family reunification and called their experiences “devastating.” One example he offered:
During corona, a woman who was from Ramallah couldn’t leave Ramallah through the checkpoint because there was a lockdown. So she had to live for at least a month away from her kids and her family because they had citizenship and could go back to where her family lived, but she had to stay in Ramallah with her parents.”
In some situations, individuals could only get a driver’s license after 10 years. In other cases, individuals couldn’t find work in 1948-occupied Palestine because they didn’t have citizenship.
Often employers are unwilling to hire individuals with the family unification permit because, since it only lasts a year, their residency status is seen as unstable. Mansour summed it up:
People fall in love and they live together and they get married and they don’t think of the consequences. But eventually what happens is either you leave the country and live abroad, which is a decision that a lot of people don’t want to take because this is their homeland. On the other side, you have people who suffer every day from the consequences of not being able to unify their family.”
Adalah has been working with families on a potential upcoming petition against the legislation. In characterizing the bill, Mansour equated it to doctrines used by the German Nazi and Italian fascist regimes during World War II, in which governments would discriminate against people because of their nationalities. “It’s a law that attacks the very existence of Palestinians for being Palestinians,” he said.
Feature photo | A Palestinian family huddles a fire for warmth in Gaza, Jan. 27, 2022. Hatem Moussa | AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.