Monday, August 18, 2003

UMM AL-GHANEM, Israel — More than 20,000 Arab families face the agonizing choice of breaking up or leaving Israel after passage of a law banning Palestinian spouses of Israelis from obtaining citizenship or residence permits.

The amendment to the national citizenship law, passed two weeks ago, mainly affects Palestinians who have married Arab Israelis and joined them in Israel without obtaining the proper papers from Israel’s Interior Ministry, often for years or even decades.

Salwa Abu Jaber, an Israeli Arab mother of four, said she lies awake at night waiting for police to come for her husband, Mahmoud, whom she married more than 10 years ago.

“Whenever I hear a car on the road I think it’s them. At any second they could come,” said Mrs. Abu Jaber, 28. “Every moment I am afraid and bothered. I know it’s going to affect the children.”

Israeli government statistics show that there are about 21,000 couples in the same situation as the Abu Jabers, prompting human rights groups at home and abroad to protest the legislation, which expires in a year.

Critics say the law seeks to drive a wedge between the mixed couples while destroying any remnant of normal family life for their children. But backers of the amendment argue that it is essential for Israel’s self-defense during a period of war.

“Israel can’t only defend itself by the power of the army,” said Geula Cohen, an Israel Radio commentator and a conservative former member of parliament. “It needs to protect itself through the power of the law.”

Advocates of the law include chiefs of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, who argue that too many Palestinians who received residency status because of Israeli spouses have exploited those rights to aid militants in their nearly 3-year-old uprising. Last year, a suicide bombing in a Haifa restaurant was carried out by the son of a mixed couple.

The legislation was sponsored by Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, a leader of the liberal Shinui party, the No. 2 party in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s coalition. Mr. Poraz hasn’t hidden his misgivings about the law’s effects on innocent Arab families, but has accepted it as unavoidable.

“It’s a law that doesn’t distinguish between those really involved in terrorism and those not involved. But because it’s impossible to filter, there needs to something sweeping,” said Tibi Rabinovich, an aide to Mr. Poraz. “He’s not happy about the law, but as long as peace isn’t ripe, it’s a necessity of reality.”

Jafar Farah, director of the Israeli Arab civil rights group Mosawa, denounced the new law as “racism.”

“The frustration that this policy will cause won’t lead to security for anybody,” he said. “Think about kids who will see their father arrested. It’s not only a legal question, it’s a humanitarian question.”

Some analysts say the law’s significance goes beyond national security. Though designed as a bulwark in Israel’s war against Palestinian militants, the amendment will also serve to limit the growth of Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up just under 20 percent of the population.

“Preventing the right of citizenship to Palestinians who marry an Israeli citizen constitutes an infringement of principles of democracy and equal rights,” wrote Avraham Tal in the liberal Ha’aretz newspaper.

“But these must be balanced against the basic right enjoyed by members of the Jewish majority of the country to preserve the state’s character, which is defined as a Jewish state in the country’s founding declaration. … This reasoning is extremely pertinent to those who do not want to live in a binational state in which a Palestinian majority can be anticipated in the not-too-distant future.”

For Mrs. Abu Jaber,the motives behind the law, whether demographic or related to security, don’t make much difference. This summer her children were refused Israeli passports, ruining plans for a vacation in Jordan.

Despite the frustrations, she refuses to consider moving to the West Bank like other women from her village who married Palestinians. She said she sees Israel as her home and hopes one day to enjoy the same privileges as a Jewish family.

“Why must everything be connected to my husband? So I married him, is that a crime?” she asked. “If we had known 10 years ago that we would be in this situation, we wouldn’t have gotten married.”

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