ISRAEL: Cabinet discusses citizenship law, mulls immigration policy

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Update, 4:17 a.m.: The news report quoted and linked below stating the Cabinet on Sunday approved an amendment to the temporary provision of the Citizenship and Entry Law to include a revised loyalty oath was erroneous. Cabinet officials clarified Monday that the amendment is still under consideration but has not yet passed.

Israel’s Citizenship Law dates back to 1952. The original statute, passed by then 4-year-old Israel, listed the
different ways one can acquire Israeli citizenship. Basically, the different gateways to citizenship are birth in the country, immigration under the Law of Return, residence and naturalization. This last option includes, for example, granting citizenship to a person married to an Israeli citizen. And a person naturalizing as a citizen of Israel must declare he or she will be a ‘loyal citizen of the state of Israel.’

Sounds simple enough. But times have grown more complicated, and immigration and citizenship have become tangled up with politics, and Israel’s recent attempts to update its policies keep brushing up against new realities and the law.

In 2003, an amendment was made to the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law that generally removed Palestinians from the law that offered various means of acquiring citizenship. The change, made at the height of the second intifada, was defined a ‘temporary provision’ valid for one year but gave the government and parliament the authority to extend it periodically for up to one year at a time.


This created a reality that put mixed Arab Israeli and Palestinian families in legal and human limbo, making many spouses and children illegal immigrants. Israel said at the time that Palestinians who had acquired citizenship by marriage to Israeli citizens had abused the freedom of movement afforded by an Israeli ID for involvement in suicide bombings. Rights organizations decreed the law as the single most racist one in Israel’s book. A petition to the Supreme Court failed to get the law reversed, though nearly half a 13-judge panel in 2006 found the law to violate constitutional rights of citizens. The law continues to be challenged in court.

On Sunday, the government extended it again and threw in a new twist. Now, people residing in Israel illegally and seeking citizenship through marriage will have to declare loyalty not only to the state of Israel but to the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The measure is designed to make it more difficult for Palestinians married to Arab Israelis to gain citizenship on the basis of family unification, wrote the Jerusalem Post.

Israel is grappling with another kind of illegal aliens, foreign work migrants and asylum seekers knocking at its doors, or often, climbing in through the windows.

Many of the foreign workers who largely replaced Palestinians since the second intifada came in through the front door but overstayed their permits and settled in the country. Government attempts to deport them and deny their Israeli-born children rights are widely protested by rights organizations and social activists.

The back door is Israel’s long, rambling border with Egypt. For the most part, it’s wide open. In recent years, around 25,000 migrants from Africa have entered Israel illegally, aided mostly by Bedouin smugglers from Sinai. Some are refugees and asylum seekers. Many others are hopeful work migrants.

Israel doesn’t really have a policy on this (Egypt does, it’s not a good one). Last year Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to erect a fence along the border between Israel and Egypt, pointing out that one could literally walk from Africa to Tel Aviv. Today, Netanyahu pointed out that Israel is the only Western country that lacks a clear migration policy. It is an issue of national importance, with demographic and humanitarian aspects, he said.

The justice minister led a team that formulated a proposal for a new migration policy, the idea being that conditions of entry into Israel ‘conform to our national interests, first and foremost providing security and ensuring the Jewish and democratic character of the country,’ Netanyahu said Sunday. In recent weeks, the mayor of Eilat has launched a campaign against the African migrants he says are flooding the city that borders Egypt. Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said they make up 10% of the resort city’s population. In Tel Aviv, a group of residents enlisted rabbis to support a petition against renting apartments to migrants.

There are various estimates on the numbers of these migrants in Israel. Officials have documented around 26,000 migrants who’ve come in through Egypt, where a whole industry has evolved around this. But police estimates say the numbers could be five times as high. The Cabinet will discuss the justice ministry’s proposal for a clear policy and move to pass legislation in several months.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Top: ‘No loyalty, no citizenship,’ a campaign banner advocating the loyalty oath that was part of Yisrael Beiteinu’s platform in the 2009 election campaign. It won 15 seats in parliament. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman / Los Angeles Times.

Below: Darfur refugees demonstrate in Tel Aviv to support the ICC. Via YouTube.