Israel's Parliament has passed a law preventing Palestinians who marry Israelis from living in Israel. The move was denounced by human rights organizations as racist, undemocratic and discriminatory.
Under the new law, rushed through yesterday, Palestinians alone will be excluded from obtaining citizenship or residency. Anyone else who marries an Israeli will be entitled to Israeli citizenship.
Now Israeli Arabs who marry Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip will either have to move to the occupied territories, or live apart from their husband or wife. Their children will be affected too: from the age of 12 they will be denied citizenship or residency and forced to move out of Israel.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch sent a joint letter to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, urging members to reject the bill. "The draft law barring family reunification for Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens is profoundly discriminatory," Amnesty said in a statement. "A law permitting such blatant racial discrimination, on grounds of ethnicity or nationality, would clearly violate international human rights law and treaties which Israel has ratified and pledged to uphold."
B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, joined in the criticism of the law. Yael Stein, a spokesman, said: "This is a racist law that decides who can live here according to racist criteria."
Some Israelis believe they are sitting on a demographic time bomb, with an Israeli Arab community, already 20 per cent of the population, growing faster than the Jewish population.
The discrimination is not only against Palestinians, according to human rights groups, but against Israel's own 1.2 million citizens of Palestinian origin as well. The overwhelming majority of Israelis who marry Palestinians are the so-called Israeli Arabs - Palestinians who live in Israel and have Israeli citizenship.
"This bill blatantly discriminates against Israelis of Palestinian origin and their Palestinian spouses," said Hanny Megally of Human Rights Watch. "It's scandalous that the Government has presented this bill, and it's shocking that the Knesset is rushing it through."
The government pushed the vote through at speed, even agreeing to consider it a vote of confidence to get it through. It was passed by 53 votes to 25, with one abstention.
Gideon Ezra, a cabinet minister, said: "This law comes to address a security issue. Since September 2000 we have seen a significant connection, in terror attacks, between Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza and Israeli Arabs."
Since 1993, more than 100,000 Palestinians have become Israeli citizens through marriage, Mr Ezra said. But B'Tselem pointed out that only 20 of those 100,000 have been involved in suicide bombings or other militant attacks. Human rights groups said security concerns could not justify the new law, which amounts to collective punishment. Noam Hoffstater, another spokesman for B'Tselem, said: "Those who voted for the bill and those who support it are making a very cynical use of security arguments to justify it, even though they used no data. This in fact was a cover for the real reason, which is the racist reason, the demographic reason."
Many on Israel's right fear that it will be impossible to maintain Israel's identity as an officially Jewish state if the Arab sector becomes too large.
"Today I lost hope," Sa'id abu Muammar, an Israeli Arab, told Reuters news agency. He has been hiding his Palestinian wife from the police since their marriage a year ago. "This is what we've been doing and this is probably what we will have to continue to do."
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd