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Israel Court Bars Residency for Palestinians

Times Staff Writer

Israel’s Supreme Court on Sunday upheld a controversial law that prevents Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from gaining legal residency to join spouses and children who are Israeli citizens.

In an unusually close 6-5 decision, justices rejected the petitioners’ argument that the measure was illegal because it blocked family unification on the basis of ethnic or national origin.

The measure, which bars most Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from obtaining legal residency or citizenship in Israel, was imposed by the Israeli government in 2002 at the height of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada. A year later, it was passed into law on a temporary basis by the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, and since has been extended. The measure is set to be considered again next month.

In other developments Sunday, at least six armed Palestinians were killed in separate Israeli operations in the northern West Bank, and hospital officials announced that a Florida teenager who was injured in a suicide bombing last month at a Tel Aviv restaurant had died from his wounds.

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In one of the security operations, five men identified as militants died during a clash in Kabatiya, south of Jenin, after Israeli forces moved in to arrest Elias Ashkar, described as the top Islamic Jihad figure in the West Bank.

Israeli military officials said Ashkar, who was killed in the raid, was involved in every major bombing attack by Islamic Jihad during the last year, including the Tel Aviv bombing on April 17. “He was the most active terrorist in the West Bank,” said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman.

Kabatiya is known as a hotbed of militant activity and is the scene of frequent Israeli raids. In a separate incident, a member of the Palestinian intelligence forces was killed in a shootout with Israeli troops in Jenin.

The death toll in the Tel Aviv restaurant blast rose to 11 with Sunday’s announcement. Daniel Wultz, 16, of the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Weston, who had come to Israel to visit relatives for Passover, was having lunch at the restaurant with his father when a Palestinian suicide bomber set off explosives at the entrance. Dozens were wounded, including Wultz’s father, Tuly.

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In the Supreme Court case, the government said restricting the entry of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip was part of a broader effort to prevent attacks on Israelis by Palestinian militants. Israeli officials say Israeli identification documents obtained through family unification have been used to help carry out a number of suicide bombings.

Israeli IDs were used in 26 of 148 suicide attacks in the last five years in some way, such as by a person driving the bomber to the scene, officials said. “It is a staggering 18% of suicide bombings that could not have otherwise been carried out, and this is the law’s importance,” said Yochie Gnessin of the state attorney’s office.

As a result of the law, married couples have been kept apart or, in cases in which the spouse has entered Israel illegally, live in fear of deportation, said Yoav Loeff, spokesman for the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel, one of the groups that challenged the law.

Several Supreme Court justices criticized the measure as overreaching, but the majority ruled that Israel’s overall security needs outweighed the harm to families seeking to be unified.

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Arab politicians and rights groups in Israel said the decision was a sign of Israel’s discriminatory approach toward its Arab citizens, who make up about one-fifth of the Israeli population of 7 million.

Critics said the law affects perhaps thousands of Israeli Arabs.

“It’s a bad ruling for human rights in Israel. The court did not give remedy to the victims of the racist law that deprives fundamental rights from individuals based on their ethnicity,” said Orna Kohn, a lawyer for Adalah, a group that advocates on behalf of Israeli Arabs.

The Knesset amended the measure last year to allow temporary stays for Palestinian men who are at least 35 and women 25 or older. But opponents say other provisions left authorities with great leeway to deny applications on security grounds.

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Critics say the law serves to stem the growth of the Arab population within Israel. Israeli Arabs, who share backgrounds and social or clan ties with their counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, account for nearly all of the Israeli applicants seeking legal status for Palestinian spouses.

“The real issue, of course, is demography,” Kohn said.

Population makeup is a volatile issue here. Israeli leaders cited the need to maintain a Jewish majority as a reason for last year’s pullout from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has proposed removing Jewish settlers from mostly Palestinian areas of the West Bank and tightening Israel’s hold on settlement blocks closer to Israel, saying it was a way to ensure its long-term viability as a Jewish state.

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