In approving an effective ban on marriages between Israelis and Palestinians last week, Israel’s Supreme Court has shut tighter the gates of the Jewish fortress the state of Israel is rapidly becoming. The judges’ decision, in the words of the country’s normally restrained Haaretz daily, was “shameful.”
By a wafer-thin majority, the highest court in the land ruled that an amendment passed in 2003 to the Nationality Law barring Palestinians from living with an Israeli spouse inside Israel -- what in legal parlance is termed “family unification” -- did not violate rights enshrined in the country’s Basic Laws.
And even if it did, the court added, the harm caused to the separated families was outweighed by the benefits of improved “security.” Israel, concluded the judges, was justified in closing the doors to residency for all Palestinians in order to block the entry of those few who might use marriage as a way to launch terror attacks.
Applications for family unification in Israel invariably come from Palestinians in the occupied territories who marry other Palestinians, often friends or relatives, with Israeli citizenship. One in five of Israel’s population is Palestinian by descent, a group, commonly referred to as Israeli Arabs, who managed to remain inside the Jewish state during the war of 1948 that established Israel.
As there is no principle of equality in Israeli law, human rights groups who challenged the government’s 2003 amendment were forced to argue instead that it violated the dignity of the families. Mixed Israeli and Palestinian couples are not only unable to live together inside Israel but they are also denied a married life in the occupied territories, from which Israeli citizens are banned under military regulations.
Most of the judges, however, seemed incapable of grasping this simple point. In an earlier hearing, Justice Michael Cheshin suggested that mixed couples wanting to build a family “should live in Jenin,” a Palestinian city in the West Bank besieged by Israeli military armor.
Cheshin again demonstrated an other-worldly logic this week when he justified the majority view of his colleagues: “Beyond this [measure] stands the state's right not to allow residents of an enemy country to enter its territory during time of war.”
The problem is that the Palestinians are not another “country,” enemy or otherwise; they are a people who have been living under Israeli military occupation for nearly four decades. As the occupying power, Israel is responsible for their welfare, though it has happily passed on that burden to international players with deeper pockets.
And the suggestion that the Palestinians, who have no army, are waging a war against Israel, one of the world’s strongest military powers, expands the idea of war into the realms of doublespeak. Palestinians are resisting Israel’s occupation -- some violently, others non-violently -- as they have a right to do under international law.
Few observers in Israel, however, believe that their government passed the law in 2003 on security grounds. Of the 6,000 Palestinians given residency rights in Israel during the Oslo period, a tiny number -- only 25 -- have been questioned on security-related matters, according to figures the government reluctantly published during the case. How many of this number were actually involved in attacks has still not been clarified.
The real reason for the law is to be found elsewhere. It springs from the same impulse that prompted Israel to “disengage” from the 1.3 million Palestinians of Gaza last year and is now spurring the government on to “consolidate” its West Bank settlement blocs behind a wall designed to annex Palestinian land but not the Palestinians themselves.
The ban on marriages and the drawing of final borders share a single guiding vision: one of maintaining Israel as a Jewish state with a “massive Jewish majority”, as former prime minister Ariel Sharon phrased it shortly before the Gaza withdrawal.
Until it was amended, the family unification provision in the Nationality Law offered Palestinians in the occupied territories the sole route to Israeli citizenship. But if Israel is building its walls to establish an expanded Jewish state, an ethnic fortress, it is hardly going to leave the back door ajar to let Palestinians achieve what Israelis regard as a right of return, through marriage, to Israel.
The interior ministry has done much to fuel a demographic and racist hysteria by inflating the figures to suggest that more than 100,000 Palestinians from the occupied territories have gained Israeli citizenship through marriage in the past decade. In fact the real number is a few thousand.
If the judges were too embarrassed to admit that demographic concerns prompted the amendment to the Nationality Law, few others in Israel have been as reluctant. A Jerusalem Post editorial this week admitted the government’s security arguments for the law were “weak,” observing instead: “Israel is openly threatened with annihilation -- not just physically, by a potential Iranian nuclear capability, but demographically, by Palestinian claims of a ‘right of return’.”
Yoel Hasson of the ruling Kadima party hailed the court’s decision as “a victory for those who believe in Israel as a Jewish state”, while the immigration absorption minister, Zeev Boim, added: “We have to maintain the state's democratic nature, but also its Jewish nature. The extent of entry of [Palestinian spouses] into Israel’s territories is intolerable.”
The government’s ban on family unification between Palestinians and Israelis is currently a temporary measure (of three years standing) but that is likely to change now that the court has given the law its blessing. This week justice minister Haim Ramon vowed to establish a new Basic Law that would permanently block entry to Palestinians, as well possibly as other non-Jews.
This is in line with the recommendations of the government-appointed Rubinstein Committee, under the chairmanship of Israel’s foremost constitutional law expert Amnon Rubinstein, which has been preparing an immigration policy for non-Jews.
In its report, issued in February, the committee proposed draconian limitations on non-Jews’ rights to Israeli citizenship through marriage. (All Jews, meanwhile, will continue to qualify for citizenship based on another piece of legislation, the overtly discriminatory Law of Return.)
According to Rubinstein’s recommendations, Palestinians and inhabitants of “hostile” (read Arab) states who marry Israelis (read Israel’s Palestinian citizens) will be banned from rights to either citizenship or residency in Israel.
Other non-Jewish spouses (read mainly Europeans and Americans) will face age and income requirements and be expected to affirm a loyalty oath -- not to Israel, but to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In keeping with current policy, non-Jews are unlikely to receive citizenship but may be eligible for residency rights.
As one seasoned Israeli observer, Shahar Ilan, commented in Haaretz: “It is doubtful that there are many issues that elicit such broad consensus in the [Israeli] political system as that of closing the gates to family unification [of non-Jews].”
Such changes will make Israel unlike any state we have seen in modern times. In 1980, at the height of apartheid in South Africa, the courts there refused to approve legislation much like Israel’s ban on family unification, arguing that it contravened the right to a family life.
In Israel, on the other hand, faced with a new wave of racist legislation, no one -- not even the country’s “liberal” Supreme Court -- is prepared to safeguard the most basic rights of the land’s native people.
Jonathan Cook, a British journalist living in Nazareth, is the author of Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State, to be published next month by Pluto Press. His website is: www.jkcook.net.
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