Recently Israeli President Moshe Katsav publicly stated that human rights are basic rights and cannot be based on obligations set by the state — in other words, these rights are inherent to being human and cannot be taken away or limited by the state. In Israel where the desire for the security of the state and its citizens is used as a pretext to limit the advancement of human and civil rights both in Israel and the Occupied Territories, this is enlightened thinking coming from the head of state.
The Citizenship and Family Unification Law is a perfect example. No matter where people live in the world, they take their right to marry for granted. It certainly isn’t something to be negotiated with the state.
But Israel is causing severe hardship in the lives of people attempting to marry, have children and spend time together by denying citizenship rights to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza married to Israeli citizens.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, European and North American countries discriminated against the Jewish community and other minority populations and often denied them citizenship on this basis. France became the first country to extend citizenship rights to Jews in 1791.
In a few weeks, the Government of Israel will decide whether to renew the legislation which was passed last year as a temporary law. While under international law Israel is allowed to give preferential treatment to a specific population in cases of citizenship such as the Law of Return, it does not have the right to discriminate against Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians specifically.
The right to love, to live together and have a family life is a human right. To have this right undermined through government legislation is short-sighted and caters to the extreme right wing in Israeli society.
Not only is citizenship being denied, but also access to health coverage, national insurance and child allowances to existing citizens.
The children of these couples are also being denied Israeli citizenship. Under the new legislation they have to leave Israel at the age of 12.
To carry out a relationship, to spend time with your children and to have a social life in the world of military checkpoints, identification cards and harassment by government authorities is a world of torment and pain.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, FIDH and the Anti-Defamation League have not been alone in criticizing the law. The United Nations, the European Union and the United States State Department have all expressed grave human rights concerns with the legislation.
The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, descent and national or ethnic origin.
In response to a question asked by Member of Parliament Daniel Cohn-Bendit to the European Parliament, the European Commission said in a statement that, “In the Commission’s view, this order raises issues of concern in relation to potential discrimination in the highly sensitive area of family rights.”
The United States included the Citizenship and Family Unification Law in the State Department’s 2004 Human Rights Report on Israel.
In Great Britain a few weeks ago, 81 Members of Parliament representing all the major parties signed an Early Day Motion opposing the legislation which stated “that this House expresses grave concerns that the Israeli Government is due to renew the Citizenship and Family Unification Law in July; notes that the law clearly discriminates against Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin and their spouses by denying Israeli citizenship or residency status to spouses of Israeli citizens who are residents of the West Bank or Gaza.”
If Israel decides to proceed with this legislation this month, governments around the world will be watching.
For people like Salwa Abu Jaber, the Citizenship and Family Unification Law has been a nightmare. In 1993, Salwa, a citizen of Israel, married Mahmoud Al Hadoor who lives in Fakua in the area of Jenin. They chose to make their life in Um Alghanam, a village in Israel. After three months, Salwa went to the Interior Ministry and asked for a family union. For two years, she did not get an answer until two years later when she was told that she was rejected on the basis of security.
Every two months, the police forces would come to her brother’s house where they lived and took Mahmoud to the checkpoint. Every time she tried to visit him, she was denied access at the checkpoint and was even told that she should move to the West Bank to be with him. She is now being denied National Insurance for her and her kids because she is married to a Palestinian. She and her children have also been denied passports. She is only one of twenty thousand people effected by this legislation.
Citizenship applications for the residents of the West Bank and Gaza have been frozen since the outbreak of violence in September 2000. This policy was formally adopted in May 2002 and passed as law in August of 2003.
Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, over 100,000 Palestinians have received Israeli citizenship while twenty of these people have been engaged in violence. To punish an entire population based on their ethnicity, because of the actions of a few is a highly disproportionate and high-handed measure.
The government’s main argument behind initiating this law is based on the security argument — that this legislation is necessary to protect citizens of Israel from violence. This is the same argument being made for the Separation Wall. Underlying this argument is the Israeli concern about the demographic situation in Israel and the question of how to maintain the Jewish character of the state. Unfortunately, this debate is happening in the context of denying the rights of existing citizens of Israel to marry, to love, to live together and have a family life. For this reason, it is unacceptable. That is why governments around the world are expressing concern with this legislation. It is now up to the Members of the Knesset to decide which course of action to take.
Am Johal is a freelance writer currently working in international advocacy with the Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel. He is currently working on building international pressure against the Citizenship Law which denies Israeli citizenship to residents of the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli citizens.