Israel looks to renew law that keeps out Palestinian spouses, prevents them from gaining citizenship

Israel looks to renew law that keeps out Palestinian spouses, prevents them from gaining citizenship
The temporary law was first-enacted in 2003 and has been renewed every year since, with left-wing and Palestinian lawmakers calling the measure racist.
5 min read
Lawmakers are expected to vote on whether to renew the temporary measure late on Monday [DeAgostini/Getty]

Israel's parliament is set to vote on Monday on whether to renew a temporary law first enacted in 2003 that bars Palestinian citizens of Israel from extending citizenship or even residency to spouses from the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Many left-wing and Palestinian lawmakers, say it's a racist measure aimed at restricting the growth of Israel's Palestinian minority. Supporters of the law allege that it's needed for security purposes and to preserve Israel's Jewish character.

The law creates an array of difficulties for Palestinian families that span the war-drawn and largely invisible frontiers separating Israel from Palestine's East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories Israel maintains illegal control over in various ways.

Israel's dominant right-wing parties strongly support the law, and it has been renewed every year since being enacted. But Israel's new government includes opponents of the measure, including, for the first time, a Palestinian group. Moreover, the right and far-right opposition led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - aiming to embarrass the government - has warned it won't provide the votes needed to renew the law.

The vote is expected late on Monday.

The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law was enacted as a temporary measure in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, or uprising, when Palestinians demonstrated against Israeli domination. Proponents of the legislation claimed that Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza were susceptible to recruitment by armed factions who participated in the intifada and that security vetting alone was insufficient.

The law has been renewed even after the uprising wound down in 2005 and the activity of armed groups plummeted. In fact, the legislation has been maintained despite Israel allowing more than 100,000 Palestinian workers from the West Bank to enter on a regular basis, though these workers are subject to widespread abuse and discrimination.

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"It was passed in the middle of the intifada, and now we are in a very different period in time," said Yuval Shany, a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute. "Not only are attacks far rarer, but Israel has vastly improved its technological abilities to monitor Palestinians who enter, he said. “I don’t think the security argument is very strong at this point in time."

Israel's use of technology to target Palestinians has been decried by rights groups, including 7amleh, an Arab online rights organisation.

The group criticised the Israeli Cyber Unit, which contacts social networks with posts they want deleted, according to a legal battle between rights organisations and the state attorney.

7amleh dismissed Israeli claims of neutrality, saying since “the vast majority of cases from the Cyber Unit” concern Palestinians, “their focus is primarily on censoring Palestinians and their online content.”

Because of the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law , Palestinian citizens of Israel have few if any avenues for bringing spouses from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel. The policy affects thousands of families.

Male spouses over the age of 35 and female spouses over the age of 25, as well as some humanitarian cases, can apply for the equivalent of a tourist permit, which must be regularly renewed. The holders of such permits are ineligible for driver's licenses, public health insurance and most forms of employment. Palestinian spouses from Gaza have been completely banned since the militant Hamas group seized power there in 2007.

The law does not apply to the nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank, who have full Israeli citizenship. Under Israel's Law of Return, Jews who come to Israel from anywhere in the world are eligible for citizenship.

Israel's Palestinian minority, which makes up 20 percent of the population, has close familial ties to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and identifies strongly with their cause. Palestinian citizens view the law as one of several forms of discrimination they face in a country that legally defines itself as a Jewish nation-state.

“This law sees every Palestinian as an enemy and as a threat, just because of his ethnic and national affiliation," said Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with Adalah, an Arab rights group that has challenged the law in court. "The political message is very racist and very dangerous.”

Palestinians who are unable to get permits but try to live with their spouses inside Israel are at risk of deportation. Couples that move to the West Bank live under Israeli military occupation. If their children are born in the West Bank, they would be subject to the same law preventing spouses from entering Israel, though there is an exception for minors.

The citizenship law also applies to Jewish Israelis who marry Palestinians from the territories, but such unions are extremely rare.

Human Rights Watch pointed to the law as an example of the widespread discrimination faced by Palestinians — both inside Israel and in the territories it controls — in a report earlier this year that said such practices amount to apartheid.

Israel rejects such allegations and claims Jewish and Palestinian citizens have equal rights. It argues a controversial 2018 law, which defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, merely recognises the country's character and does not infringe on individual rights.

But even as defence minister Benny Gantz, a purported political centrist, recently urged the opposition to support the law on security grounds, he also evoked demographic concerns.

"This law is essential for safeguarding the country’s security and Jewish and democratic character, and security considerations need to be put before all political considerations," Gantz said in a statement. "Even in difficult times politically, we put Israel before everything."