Marriage law divides Israeli Arab families

Under new legislation, Arabs from the occupied territories may no longer join their spouses in Israel.

Ibrahim Hawari says he is being forced by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government to make an impossible choice: his family or his home.

Mr. Hawari, deputy mayor of the northern municipality of Ma'alot-Tarshiha, is one of thousands of Israel's Arab citizens who see themselves as victims of a law passed last week blocking their spouses from the occupied territories from gaining citizenship or residency in Israel.

"This is a law that separates husband and wife, and wife and children. It is destroying a family that lives peacefully and believes in coexistence," he says.

Hawari has been married since 1998 and has two daughters. He fears that his pregnant wife, Hana, from the West Bank city of Nablus, may be expelled.

Interior Minister Avraham Poraz says the ban is an essential security measure, made necessary by a small number of spouses from the occupied territories, and their offspring, who have misused citizenship to join terrorist attacks.

There are no current plans for mass expulsions, according to Mr. Poraz. But the Association for Civil Rightsin Israel, an independent human rights group, says the law enables the "breaking apart" of thousands of families.

The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law is a defining act for Israel. To liberal Israelis, it marks a step further away from a society with humane values where all citizens are equal. To Sharon's government, it means security is given top priority during a war on terrorism.

Arab legislators say the law's origins predate the suicide bombing cited as justification for the legislation, and reflect an effort to preserve a clear Jewish majority over Arabs.

"This has nothing to do with security. The idea is to reduce the number of Arabs in Israel," Azmi Bishara, an Arab legislator, said during a Knesset debate.

The law overturns Israel's practice of family reunification, underway since the West Bank and Gaza Strip were occupied during the 1967 war between Israel and neighboring Arab states.

According to Yuri Stern, head of the Knesset's Interior Committee, an estimated 130,000 Palestinians from those territories have become citizens or residents in the last decade. The wait was protracted - four years or longer - but most applications were approved. The new law firms up a freeze instituted last year after a devastating suicide bombing in Haifa by the son of a West Bank father and a mother who is an Israeli citizen.

The Palestinian citizens of Israel, known officially as Israeli Arabs, constitute nearly a fifth of the country's population. They vote and have the same individual rights as Jewish Israelis, but lack the collective rights accorded Jews, and face discrimination in many areas.

Hawari's wife came to live with him after their wedding. He put in an application for "family reunification," and the process seemed to be moving along - until the Haifa bombing, when the government froze all applications.

The new law specifies that the interior minister "shall not grant" citizenship or residency to people from the occupied territories except in exceptional cases - as for a West Bank resident who assists Israeli security forces.

The law's tenure will last one year, after which it can be renewed by a vote of the Knesset.

It does not rescind citizenship that has already been granted, but does impact couples who have been living together in Israel while trying to get reunification approval. Poraz, the information minister, confirmed this week that there are thousands of these cases.

"According to the law, they must go back to the West Bank," he says. But adds that because the barrier being built by Israel to keep out West Bank Palestinians is far from complete, there is little point in deporting them.

Poraz says that "there is no intention at the moment of entering Arab villages to check every person and to carry out mass expulsions. But we will not let them have identity cards." According to Poraz, the Haifa bomber used his identity card to get past police checkpoints.

"Issuing [an] identity card immediately turns the person who receives it into someone terrorist organizations would like to have," says Mr. Stern, the Interior Committee head.

During the Knesset debate, Arab legislator Taleb Sanaa asked Stern: "What would you say if a European government passed a law like this against Jews?"

Stern replied: "European governments are not surrounded by states that want to destroy them."

"Whether we like it or not, we have a minority of Arabs in Israel," says Poraz. But the real question, he says, is: "Is it better to prevent people from living in Israel and force them to live in the West Bank, or to have Israelis killed by suicide bombers?"

Poraz says he hopes the security situation will improve within the year so family reunification can be reinstituted.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has filed a petition to have the law struck down by the Supreme Court, stating it violates "the right to a family life," which is enshrined in Israeli and international law.

In a column for Haaretz, Uzi Benziman wrote: "The present government is comprised of parties whose gut response to all Arabs, whoever they may be, and to Israeli Arabs, is estrangement and suspicion if not outright racism. These parties are not exceptional: they represent the lion's share of the Jewish public."

Asked about Hawari and his family, Poraz says he would consider making an exception for them. But as far as the overall policy is concerned, his message is clear: "I don't think that forcing two Arabs - one an Israeli Arab and the other a Palestinian - to live in the West Bank is such a punishment."

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