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New Law Aims to Keep Out Palestinian Spouses of Israelis

The measure passes the Knesset by more than a 2-1 ratio. Critics denounce it as racist.

August 01, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — After hours of emotional debate, Israeli lawmakers on Thursday approved a bill banning Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from living inside Israel with their spouses, and denying them the opportunity to seek Israeli citizenship.

The new law, denounced by critics as racist but defended by the government as a necessary security measure, was a stark illustration of how nearly three years of violence have intruded upon the most intimate aspects of people's lives on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

The measure's passage, by a more than 2-1 ratio, also pointed to the deep gulf of mistrust that exists as the two sides are taking the first halting steps under the American-backed peace initiative known as the road map.

Opponents said they would immediately ask Israel's Supreme Court to overturn the bill, which is initially in effect for one year and would come up for annual renewal.

Critics called the measure a black eye for a democracy such as Israel, and described it as far out of proportion to the terror threat posed by Palestinians who obtain Israeli residency permits.

"I think this bill is simply a disgrace to the state of Israel," said lawmaker Michael Melchior, a rabbi who heads a liberal religious parliamentary faction. "This will tear families apart.... We are creating a monster."

Lawmaker Yuri Stern, who heads the parliamentary panel that pushed the measure forward, described it as a contingency forced by the brutality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"This is merely a law that for one year restricts the right of Palestinians to settle in our midst," he said. "We are at war. I hope the war will end during this year, but I am not optimistic."

Over the last decade, 100,000 Palestinians have obtained Israeli residency or citizenship through marriage, the government said. A small number of Israeli Jews marry Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip, but the overwhelming majority of such marriages involve Arab citizens of Israel.

These couples are often from Arab villages that either straddle or lie close to the "Green Line" dividing Israel proper from the West Bank. Intermarriage is common among extended Palestinian families that have branches in both Israel and the West Bank.

The bill inflamed tensions between Israel's Jewish majority and Arab minority -- a relationship already complex and fraught since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian conflict in September 2000. Many Israeli Arabs, who make up one-fifth of the population, sympathize with the political goals of the intifada, even if they abhor tactics such as suicide bombings.

Arab-rights activists said the new measure tarred all Israeli Arabs with the actions of a few dozen who have been convicted of complicity in Palestinian terrorist attacks.

"This law takes away constitutionally protected rights explicitly on the basis of ethnic or national affiliation," said Hassan Jabareen, the general director of Adalah, a human rights group active in behalf of Israeli Arabs. "That is not only discriminatory, it is racist." Adalah is among those groups that plan to appeal to the high court to throw out the measure, which was approved by a 53-25 vote, with one abstention.

"We intend to file the petition very soon," said attorney Orna Kohn. "How can we have a law that prevents people who marry one another, have children together, from being able to live in the same place?" Human rights groups described the law as being at odds with international norms that allow for citizens of one country to live with a foreign spouse in another, and eventually obtain permanent residency.

Israel does not ban any other nationality from joining spouses in the country and seeking eventual citizenship.

Under the measure, the government could choose, in special cases, to grant exemptions to the ban on residency permits for Palestinians. But even before the measure's passage, government policy for more than a year has been to discourage Palestinian spouses of Israelis from trying to obtain residency or citizenship.

The bill was amended to allow the children of such unions to live in Israel -- but only until they reach the age of 12.

"Do you know what this looks like to the rest of the world?" said lawmaker Melchior. "We are saying that everyone, even a young child, is a potential terrorist.... We must create a different mode of coexistence."

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