On Wednesday night, an expanded panel of 11 high-court jurists rejected a series of petitions against a provision in Israel's decades-old citizenship law that has been decried by many as a violation of the rights of the nation's Arab minority, many of whom are married to Palestinians. Without citizenship, Palestinian spouses -- and often the children of those couples -- are rendered illegal, affecting a wide range of rights.
"If ever there was a law constituting a black stain and a Cain's mark on the Supreme Court, this is it," said lawmaker Ahmad Tibi, an Arab citizen of Israel who married a Palestinian at a time when the legal process -- dubbed "family unification" -- was complicated but not impossible.
Minister of Interior Affairs Eli Yishai, who supports restrictive policies on foreigners and non-Jews, welcomed the decision. Claiming about 1,000 such citizenship cases were approved every year, Yishai said in a radio interview that allowing that number to go higher would endanger a Jewish majority and constitute "national suicide."
The Israeli law dates to 1952, when the 4-year-old state passed the statute defining the gateways to citizenship as birth in the country, immigration under the Law of Return, residence and naturalization. The last option included marriage to an Israeli citizen.
In 2003, an amendment to the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law largely excluded Palestinians from the different ways of obtaining citizenship. Passed at the height of the second intifada, the change was defined as a temporary provision but it has been periodically extended.
Rights organizations condemn the amendment as racist and a collective violation of the rights of the Arab minority, which makes up 20% of Israel's citizens. Officials said that when first passed, the move was aimed at blocking what the Palestinians call the right of return. Later, supporters of the law cited security reasons, saying Palestinians who became Israeli citizens through marriage had become involved in suicide bombings by abusing the freedom of movement that the law afforded.
The Supreme Court has been debating a series of petitions on the issue for nearly a decade. In 2006, part of a 13-judge panel found the law unconstitutional, but the case continued. Wednesday's vote to reject the petitions was 6-5.
The case underscores the role of Israel's Supreme Court, which is often forced to address fundamental rights issues in lieu of a constitution or unequivocal legislation, often deferring to political and coalitional considerations.
Conservative and right-wing circles maintain that the court is too liberal in its interpretation of constitutional rights and the protection of Palestinians. Members of those circles recently moved to change procedures for appointing Supreme Court judges in order to reduce what they see as left-wing bias. Last week, the process was tweaked to allow the appointment of Judge Asher Grunis as the next president of the Supreme Court when Dorit Beinisch steps down. Grunis favored rejecting the petitions. Beinisch did not.
The ruling was "the result of the campaign to weaken the Supreme Court," said lawmaker Zehava Galon, who together with Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, was among the petitioners.
The ruling joins another controversial rights issue on Israel's agenda.
Earlier this week, the parliament finalized legislation allowing authorities to hold illegal immigrants in detention facilities for up to three years without trial, and making aid to them, including employment, a criminal offense punishable by fines and even prison time.
The move is part of Israel's effort to deal with a steady stream of migrants and asylum seekers from Africa infiltrating the country through the Sinai Peninsula in recent years. The country maintains that the influx of Africans, already in the tens of thousands, drains resources and poses social, demographic and financial problems.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently decided to add $165 million (on top of a similar amount already spent) to the project for fencing Israel's border with Egypt and erecting holding facilities for the asylum seekers whom Israel cannot return.
Among the reasons for Israel's lack of a clear immigration policy are the demographic concerns for a Jewish majority, sometimes aggravated by security issues and clashing with constitutional rights. The anti-infiltration law was decried as "draconian" by the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel and labeled a "disgrace" in newspaper editorials.
Even a recently issued climate-change report nodded to Israel's growing problem with African migrants, predicting that increasingly higher temperatures, less rainfall and continued degradation of land would cause "growth in migration waves to Israel."
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Israeli soldiers block the main road leading to the West Bank city of Jericho on Tuesday as some 60 Palestinians try to drive a motorcade to protest Israeli curbs on Palestinian movement in the West Bank. Credit: Ahmad Gharabli / AFP/Getty Images