Inside Israel

Meretz seeks to scuttle bill to renew ‘Citizenship Law’ despite ministerial OK

The dovish Meretz party on Wednesday appealed a bill that would reestablish a longstanding ban on permits for Palestinians who marry Israelis to live with their spouses in Israel, after the legislation received first-stage approval earlier this month.

The bill — widely referred to as the “Citizenship Law” — passed a vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on January 9. From there, the bill goes to the Knesset, where it must still pass three votes before becoming law.

The appeal intends to block the bill, sponsored by hawkish Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, from being brought for a vote on the Knesset floor.

However, Shaked’s version of the bill is already unlikely to progress further in the Knesset, as both Meretz and the Islamist Ra’am party, members of the razor-thin coalition, have said they will not vote for it.

Furthering hampering the bill’s chances, right-wing opposition lawmakers, though they support the ban in principle, have voted against a previous government bid to renew it, in an attempt to embarrass the coalition.

Shaked has said she hopes that in future votes the opposition will support her bill to renew the ban. In a nod to the opposition, right-wing ministers approved a nearly identical bill submitted by opposition MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionism) in the ministerial legislative committee.

Rothman’s bill would be much more likely to gain opposition support due to its sponsor. But Foreign Minister Yair Lapid earlier this week filed an appeal against Rothman’s version of the bill, requiring that the legislation be discussed during a full cabinet meeting before it can be brought before the Knesset for a vote as a government-sponsored bill.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on November 6, 2021. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

Introduced at the height of the Second Intifada in an attempt to prevent terror attacks, the 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law largely barred Palestinians who married Israelis from obtaining permanent residency. Exceptions were later carved out for some spouses to receive permits that gave residency but little else.

The law has been wildly controversial since its inception, with rights groups charging that it discriminates against Palestinians and Arab Israelis. The Supreme Court upheld the law in a 6-5 decision in 2012 after a protracted legal battle.

But the coalition failed to win a vote on renewing the law last year, and it expired. Despite the fact that the law aligned with its policies, the right-wing opposition, led by Likud, voted against it in order to embarrass the coalition.

Interior Minister Shaked has since ordered her office to continue to implement the ban, even though the law is no longer on the books.

Around 12,700 Palestinians married to Israelis live in Israel with temporary documentation, required to constantly renew their fragile status in the country. For years, most were not permitted to drive or open bank accounts. If their Israeli spouse dies or they divorce, they could be deported — forcing their children to either leave with them for the West Bank or stay behind without them.

The amendment was renewed on a yearly basis until it was overturned in a dramatic vote in July.

On paper, with the lapsing of the law, Palestinians married to Israelis are currently legally no different from any other foreign spouse. Israeli law grants foreign spouses residency in the country through a process known as family unification.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks a press conference, at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, October 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, the Interior Ministry is controlled by Shaked, who has instructed ministry staff to continue as though the ban were still valid until further notice. Shaked has pushed for even stricter controls on Palestinian immigration to Israel in the past.

The government initially enacted the ban on Palestinian family unification in order to prevent terror attacks. The 2003 statute was passed after Hamas member Shadi Tubasi — who had received an Israeli identity card by marriage — killed 16 Israelis in one of the Second Intifada’s most brutal terror attacks.

Around 130,000 Palestinians were granted family unification rights during the 1990s, before the ban went into effect. According to the Shin Bet security service, some 155 of those people or their descendants have been involved in terror attacks since 2001.

Israeli politicians — including Lapid — have increasingly defended the law as a demographic measure intended to maintain Israel’s Jewish majority.

“There’s no need to shirk from the essence of this law. It is one of the tools to ensure a Jewish majority in Israel, which is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Our goal is for there to be a Jewish majority,” Lapid tweeted shortly before the law lapsed in early July.

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