16 July 2003

Adalah Testifies before Knesset Committee: Proposed Government Bill Imposing Severe Limitations on Family Unification is Unconstitutional

On 14 July 2003, Adalah provided testimony at hearings before the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee regarding a new government bill titled, "Proposed Nationality and Entry into Israel (Temporary Order) Law - 2003." The bill was introduced on 4 June 2003 and passed its first reading on 18 June 2003. The purpose of the bill is to prohibit Palestinians from the Occupied Territories from obtaining citizenship, permanent residency, and/or temporary residency status in Israel by marriage to an Israeli citizen ("family unification"). It will affect thousands of couples and their children, who were living lawfully in Israel waiting for family unification, as well as all future unions between Palestinians from the Occupied Territories and Israeli citizens, forcing families to separate or to leave the country.

With this bill, the government seeks to enshrine into law its similar decision regarding the denial of family unification to Palestinians, which has been in effect since 12 May 2002. Adalah is currently challenging this government decision (no. 1813) on behalf of 57 individuals, members of 14 families, before the Supreme Court of Israel. Hearings on that case will be held before the Supreme Court tomorrow on 17 July 2003.

In her testimony before the Knesset Committee, Adalah Attorney Orna Kohn raised four main arguments challenging the constitutionality of the proposed bill:

1. The bill will severely violate the fundamental constitutional rights of individuals to family life, dignity, privacy, and equality, which are enshrined in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty (1992). International human rights conventions to which Israel is party, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, explicitly recognize these fundamental rights, prohibit arbitrary interference with these rights, and oblige states to protect them.

2. The bill flagrantly discriminates against Palestinians from the Occupied Territories and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The total ban on family unification exclusively and solely targets Palestinians from the Occupied Territories; the general policy for residency and citizenship status in Israel for all other "foreign spouses" remains unchanged. In practice, the bill would primarily affect Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are most likely to have non-citizen Palestinian spouses. These measures constitute discrimination on the basis of nationality in violation of Israeli law. Moreover, international human rights law, which forbids discrimination based on nationality, particularly prohibits such discrimination in matters relating to the right to citizenship (see e.g., Article 1 of the International Convention of All Forms of Racial Discrimination).

3. The alleged security reasons cited by the government for the necessity of this proposed law lack any basis, and the bill is disproportionate. The government claims that the bill is essential because Palestinians from Occupied Territories who have obtained citizenship/residency status in Israel via family unification have been increasingly involved in terror activity. Contradictory data presented by the government at the Knesset hearing shows that this argument is flawed.

Senior officials from the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Justice who testified before the Knesset Committee stated that since 1993, 100,000-140,000 Palestinians have been granted official status in Israel following family unification. In response to inquiries by Knesset Committee members, these officials later revised these figures, admitting that only 22,414 requests for status were submitted by Palestinians, out of which 16,007 were approved and 6,400 were rejected. However, these officials failed to answer whether the number of applications submitted equaled the number of individuals who actually sought status or whether these figures merely represented multiple applications submitted by each individual. They also failed to provide numbers as to how many individuals actually received status after approval of their applications. The officials then contended that 20 Palestinians from the Occupied Territories who received status in Israel via family unification have been involved in some type of terror activity. No detailed, specific examples were provided at the hearing to support these claims.

Given the constitutional rights at stake, imposing a total ban on family unification for Palestinians from the Occupied Territories is completely disproportionate. The state has many other tools and mechanisms, which it has utilized and continues to utilize in order to address security concerns. The current law grants the government wide authority to conduct criminal and security background checks on all persons seeking to gain citizenship/residency status in Israel. Throughout the years-long process - from the initial application for status, to the renewal of status, to the upgrading of status, to the granting of citizenship - security checks are conducted. By setting forth such a sweeping measure, the proposed bill collectively punishes all Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel. Security concerns cannot justify such extreme measures, as set forth by the bill.

4. The actual aim of the bill is to limit the number of Palestinian citizens/residents of Israel, the so-called "demographic threat" to maintaining a Jewish majority in the state, and not the security concerns as presented by the government as the justification for these measures. Numerous facts support this argument. This bill is being presented in the wake of and to bypass the Supreme Court's 1999 decision in Stamka. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone who marries an Israeli citizen is entitled to equal treatment in the processing of his/her application for citizenship in Israel, provided that there is no criminal or security risk proven against the individual. Based on this 1999 decision, in 2003, the Minister of Interior was supposed to start granting citizenship to individuals who passed a four and a half year application process. Seemingly, to avoid the granting of citizenship to Palestinians from the Occupied Territories who have completed this process, the government now comes forward with security excuses to justify the measures set forth in this is bill. In addition, Government Decision No. 1803, on which this bill is based, clearly states that there is a need for such a policy due to "... the implications of the processes of immigration and settlement in Israel of foreigners of Palestinian descent." Further, former Minister of Interior Eli Yishai told Ha'aretz on 9 January 2002 that he believes there is a pressing need to find ways to limit the number of non-Jews who receive Israeli citizenship, among them Arabs, whose numbers have increased dramatically in recent years and "threaten the Jewish character of the State of Israel."

This is not the first time that the Knesset has been presented with such a racist bill concerning citizenship rights; in the past, extremist right-wing political parties have attempted to introduce such proposed laws. The difference this time is that this bill was prepared by the Attorney General and introduced by the government. In Adalah's view, the introduction of this racist and discriminatory bill shows the increasing deterioration in the political situation in Israel. It is one of the most extreme measures in a series of governmental actions aimed at undermining the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel as well as Palestinians from the Occupied Territories.

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