The ‘Demographic Nightmare’ - Israel Freezes Family Reunification Process for Palestinian Citizens: Addressing Obstacles to the Right of Return for Palestinian Refugees

One week ago (12 May) the Israeli government retroactively approved a decision by the Interior Ministry to freeze all applications for family reunification between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories to prevent the latter from acquiring Israeli citizenship. According to Interior Ministry figures, more than 22,000 family reunification applications had been approved since 1993.

Israeli officials argue that the growth in the non-Jewish population of Israel over the last decade due to family reunification (not to mention the large number of non-Jewish immigrants) is a threat to the ‘Jewish character’ of the state – i.e., a Jewish demographic majority and Jewish control of the land including land confiscated from Palestinian refugees (Ha’aretz, 1/5/02). Interior Minister Eli Yishai further believes that Palestinian family reunification “is a devious way of getting Arab refugees to return to Israel.” (Ha’aretz, 1/9/02)

The freeze is to continue until new legislation is prepared that will significantly reduce the number of Palestinians eligible for family reunification. Potential changes to the law being considered by the Israeli government include longer waiting periods, barring persons who received legal status in Israel in the framework of a family reunification request from applying for family reunification for any other relative and revocation of family reunification for “anti-state activity”, a broad term which could encompass legitimate opposition to discriminatory laws which define Israel as Jewish state.

Addressing Obstacles to the Right of Return

Israel’s recent decision to freeze all applications for family reunification between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of the 1967 occupied territories is only one of the latest in a number of discriminatory legal obstacles that aim to prevent Palestinian refugees from exercising their basic human right to return to their homes and villages of origin inside Israel.

Following the mass displacement/expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian Arab population in 1948, Israel adopted discriminatory, nationality, citizenship and residency laws that effectively denationalized Palestinian refugees and prevented them from returning to their places of origin. On the one hand, any Jew can acquire automatic citizenship and residency, based on the notion of ‘historical residence,’ under the 1950 Law of Return. On the other hand, the indigenous Palestinian Arab population must be able to prove under the 1952 Nationality Law that they were in the state of Israel on or after 14 July 1952, or the offspring of a Palestinian who meets this condition. Due to the fact that most Palestinian refugees were displaced outside the borders of the state of Israel on or after 14 July 1952, they are unable to resume domicile in their homeland.

The adoption of laws with discriminatory intent or effect in the context of ongoing hostilities or by newly emergent states following the cessation of hostilities often prevents refugees from returning to their places of origin, constituting a form of illegal and compulsory transfer. These laws often include restrictions that link citizenship to domicile prior to a certain date, ethnic association, reasons for departure, and literacy in dominant language of the state. Refugees in the successor states for the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, for example, faced problems in returning home due to the emergence of new and often discriminatory citizenship and nationality requirements. The international community played a critical role in reform and repeal of discriminatory legislation in order to facilitate the return of refugees.

In the case of Israel, numerous UN human rights committees that monitor state compliance with international human rights conventions have consistently identified Israel’s citizenship and nationality laws as discriminatory and inconsistent with international law. In 1998, for example, the Committee on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights concluded that Israel’s Law of Return “discriminates against Palestinians in the diaspora upon whom the Government of Israel has imposed restrictive requirements that make it almost impossible to return to their land of birth.” The Committee recommended that Israel review “re-entry policies for Palestinians who wish to re-establish domicile in their homeland, with a view to bring such policies to a level comparable to the Law of Return as applied to Jews.” In August 2001, the Committee reiterated its concern that the Law of Return “denies indigenous Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes and properties.”

Reform and repeal of Israel’s citizenship and nationality laws, including discriminatory provisions related to family reunification, to bring them into compliance with international law is one of the first steps towards a durable solution for Palestinian refugees. Analysis of existing laws and drafting of alternative legislation need not wait a return to negotiations.

For more detailed analysis of Israel’s citizenship and nationality laws and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, see The 1948 Palestinian Refugees and the Individual Right of Return: An International Law Analysis (January 2001) pdf format.