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Israeli high court rejects challenge to "apartheid" citizenship law

Wall divides Jerusalem
Ted Swedenburg

Israel's High Court on Jan. 11 voted to reject a challenge filed against provisions of the Citizenship Law, which bar Palestinians married to Israeli Arabs from receiving Israeli citizenship or residency. Six judges voted to reject the challenge, while five voted to accept it. Israel generally grants citizenship to spouses of Israelis in a gradual process, with a somewhat longer process for spouses of permanent residents. However, a 2002 temporary order—which has been repeatedly extended—excluded Palestinian spouses from these processes, barring them from becoming Israeli citizens. Despite a 2006 ruling that the order is unconstitutional, it has continued to have force of law while it was amended to bring it into compliance with constitutional standards. The provision still imposes harsh restrictions on the freedom of Arab citizens of Israel to live with spouses from the Occupied Territories, as well as from so-called "enemy states" (defined as Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq). The new decision upholding it affects thousands of couples.

In the ruling, Justice Asher Grunis wrote that "human rights are not a prescription for national suicide"—a term often used in reference to allowing a return of Palestinian refugees. Similar language was used in reference to the ruling by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who warned about the need to protect the Jewish majority. MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) also praised the High Court’s decision in terms of ethnic separation: "The High Court decision articulates the rationale of separation between the [two] peoples and the need to maintain a Jewish majority and the [Jewish] character of the state."

Far-right National Union MK Yaakov Katz explicitly portrayed marriage as a subterfuge for a strategy to reverse the Jewish majority in Israel: "A fantastic miracle took place last night in the High Court when by a happenstance majority the State of Israel was saved from being flooded by 2-3 million Arab refugees."

The legal challenge was brought by the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, and affected individuals. The Adalah Center issued a statement in response to the decision, saying: "The High Court of Justice today approved a law the likes of which does not exist in any democratic state in the world, depriving citizens from maintaining a family life in Israel only on the basis of the ethnic affiliation of the male or female spouse. The ruling proves how much the situation regarding the civil rights of the Arab minority in Israel is declining into a highly dangerous and unprecedented situation."

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel also slammed the decision, stating that "the majority opinion has stamped its approval on a racist law, one [that] will harm the very texture of the lives of families whose only sin is the Palestinian blood that runs in their veins."

Arabs make up about 20% of Israel's population of 7 million (presumably excluding Mizrahi Jews). About 3 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many families were divided by ceasefire lines after wars, and marriage between the two groups has been common over the years. Between 1993 and 2002, more than 100,000 Palestinians obtained Israeli residency permits in this manner—which the Israeli right has portrayed as a security threat. Many couples now fear residency will be withdrawn retroactively following the new high court decision. (Ha'aretzHa'aretzElectronic IntifadaYNet, Jan. 12; Ha'aretz, Jan. 11)

Israel last year passed a controversial law to deny citizenship for "treason." A law that would impose a loyalty oath for Israeli citizenship remains pending.

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