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Bill to End Family Reunifications Leads to Charges of Racism in Israel

It began like one of those classic love affairs where nothing could stand in the way of love.

Nashat Abu Yunis, then 26, a civil engineering student at Haifa’s Technion, met Ghadir, a young woman, during a visit to Nablus. The two fell in love and took an oath of marriage before a qadi, or Muslim religious judge, in Acre.

Then, according to Muslim tradition, they returned to their respective homes, waiting for the bridegroom to finish building a house for the family. Abu Yunis returned to his parents in the Galilee town of Sakhnin, in Israel, while Ghadir returned to her hometown of Bidiya, in the West Bank.

The date was Aug. 8, 2000 — less than two months before the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada.

It was too late in the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the young couple to find an easy path to marriage.

Abu Yunis wanted state approval for his marriage. He went to the Interior Ministry to register Ghadir as his wife, but officials told him it would take a while. Meanwhile, in the marital status section in his identity card, officials wrote, “under consideration.”

“They invented a new, unprecedented marital status,” Abu Yunis told JTA, ” ‘Under consideration’ means I am neither married nor a bachelor.”

Abu Yunis is still “under consideration.” Even if the Interior Ministry confirms the marriage, chances are that the young couple won’t be able to live together in Israel.

In May 2002, as the intifada heated up, the government decided to prohibit family unification for spouses of Israeli citizens who are residents of areas under the aegis of the Palestinian Authority or who are of Palestinian descent.

Last week, authorities took matters a step further: The Knesset gave initial approval to a government bill that would make the administrative order into law. According to the bill, which still must pass two more votes in the Knesset, Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens no longer will be entitled to virtually automatic Israeli citizenship, as was the practice until May 2002.

One side effect of the intifada has been growing Palestinian immigration to Israel, both legal — through marriages — and illegal. No official figures are available, but according to unofficial estimates, up to 100,000 Palestinians have settled in Israel in recent years.

“What makes me angry is that a Jew can marry anyone he wants. New immigrants receive citizenship automatically,” Abu Yunis said. “Even foreign soccer players like Giovanni Russo get Israeli citizenship. But what about me?”

The new bill also rescinds the right of Israeli residents and citizens who married Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to establish their homes in Israel.

“This is one of the most extreme examples of discrimination on the basis of nationality,” said lawyer Orna Cohen of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

“It means the separation of mothers from their children, or husbands from their wives.”

Interior Minister Avraham Poraz told the Knesset that it was inappropriate for such a bill to be included in the legal codex, saying, “a humane and enlightened society” should allow family reunions.

However, he conceded, such legislation was inevitable given the growing involvement in terrorism of Palestinians who had acquired Israeli citizenship. Many have taken advantage of their status in Israel to travel back and forth from Israel to the Palestinian territories, aiding terrorist attacks.

In addition, Israeli officials have charged that the Palestinian Authority is encouraging Palestinians to marry Israelis and move to Israel as a way of effecting a de facto “right of return,” no matter what transpires with the issue in peace talks.

Though most Palestinian infiltrators came to seek employment, “in practice this was implementation of the right of return,” said Uzi Landau, a minister without portfolio.

Because Israeli Arabs have a much higher birth rate than do Israeli Jews, Israel fears that such a “return” could have major demographic implications.

“There are efforts of the Palestinians to shake Israel demographically and thus implement the right of return,” Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said.

“If indeed they plan to establish a Palestinian state, then reunification of Palestinians should be done in the Palestinian territories, just like we demanded from the USSR at the time that Jews be reunified with their families in Israel.”

“People should be unified in their own homeland,” he said. “This is no racism and no discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel. It is the character of the Jewish people that Jews can come here without needing to prove anything, whereas others do — with all due respect to the desire of spouses to live here.”

But Israel’s critics are having none of it. Though the bill would need to be renewed after a year, the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem this week charged that “the bill makes a cynical use of flimsy security arguments to disguise blatant discrimination.”

“The bill is racist, and goes against the principle of equality for all citizens,” the group said in a statement.

As such, argued Sharon Abraham-Weiss, staff attorney of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, the bill is illegal.

The association in the past filed a petition to the High Court of Justice against the May 2002 government decision to freeze all family reunions. The court has postponed its decision on the matter until July 17. By that time, the bill may have passed its second and third readings and become a law.

If so, thousands of families may be affected.

Suheil and Mirfat Abu-Gweilleh live in Kafr Aqab, sandwiched between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Mirfat is an Israeli resident, while her husband Suheil is a Palestinian, born in the Kalandiya refugee camp across the road from Kafr Aqab.

The couple has seven children. Four of them, who were born in Israel, are registered as Israelis. The other three were born in Ramallah.

Though children usually are naturalized according to the status of one of the parents, authorities so far have refused to register the remaining children as Israelis.

Suheil still lives with the family, but — lacking an Israeli identity card — any soldier at a roadblock could prevent his return home.

“I am aware of the security problems,” Suheil said, “but one should separate between security problems and human problems.”

Human rights organizations do not deny the state’s right to prevent naturalization for security reasons, but they charge that security is only a pretext to stop Palestinian entry into Israel.

The new bill also will serve yet another controversial initiative of the Interior Ministry: to reduce polygamy among Israeli Bedouin. Though polygamy is banned by law, it is common for Bedouin men to marry more than one woman — usually Palestinians — and bring them to Israel, creating large families with many children.

The men cite Muslim tradition, which allows a man to marry up to four women. The Interior Ministry has come out against the practice. The ministry cited economic arguments, maintaining that the state is forced to pay excessive child allowances to polygamous families.

Critics have charged that this, too, is a racist attempt to reduce the number of Arabs living in Israel.

Abu Yunis and his fiancee probably will pay the price for this new policy. Abu Yunis is about to graduate from Haifa’s Technion. His new house in Sakhnin is ready for the bride. The long marriage process could be completed.

Indeed, a wedding ceremony is planned for October, but the prospects that it will take place are slim. His marital status is still “under consideration,” and if the new bill passes in the second and third readings, the bride will not be able to come to the wedding ceremony.

“I may have no other choice but to move to Ramallah in order to build a family,” Abu Yunis said.

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