'Racist' marriage law upheld by Israel

Israel's High Court has narrowly upheld a law denying Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza married to Israeli citizens the right to live in the country with their spouses.

The judges voted by six to five not to cancel a four-year-old amendment to the Citizenship Law which outlaws "family unification" in Israel between Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel.

It was passed as a one-year emergency measure in 2002 on the ground that it was needed to protect Israeli security. But the amendment, described yesterday by the Knesset member Ran Cohen, of the left-wing Meretz party, as "rooted in racism", has been renewed every year since then.

Israel's Chief Justice, Aharon Barak, sided with the minority on the bench, declaring: "This violation of rights is directed against Arab citizens of Israel. As a result, therefore, the law is a violation of the right of Arab citizens in Israel to equality."

Muad el-Sana, an Israeli Arab lawyer who is married to a Palestinian woman from the West Bank town of Bethlehem and works for Adalah, one of the agencies bringing the case, declared: "This is a very black day for the state of Israel and also a black day for my family and for the other families who are suffering like us. The government is preventing people from conducting a normal family life just because of their nationality."

Wile the court had granted el-Sana's wife, Abir, a university lecturer, a temporary injunction preventing her deportation, Mr el-Sana said the high court's ruling would make it almost impossible for the couple and their two children, aged 2 years and five months, to continue living together. Their individual petition said that he has no right to live in Bethlehem and she has no right to live with her husband in the Negev.

Mohammed Barakeh, a prominent Arab Knesset member on Sunday said the ruling "gives racism a shady alibi." He added: "The fact that the ruling was opposed by several of the judges is a ray of light that does not illuminate the darkness of the court's decision and the Knesset's legislation."

Official figures show that of 22,000 applications for such reunification since the Oslo accord in the mid 1990s only 6000 have been granted. Adalah said yesterday that the state had said that it had interrogated only 25 of these "for alleged involvement in terrorist activities" and that the state anyway had ample capacity to carry out security checks during the staged process towards legal status. Adalah said last night that in 1980, at the height of apartheid, a South African court had refused to approve orders similar to the present Israeli law "because they contradicted the right to a family."

Last year the then Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz slightly modified the law by widening ministerial discretion to award legal status to Palestinian spouses. Yesterday Haim Ramon, Israel's Justice Minister, indicated he would be seeking to recast the law to apply equally to all ethnic groups but warned that no country was obliged to admit citizens form an authority with which it was in conflict. He added: "We have to remember that this law was legislated during the Palestinian uprising, when several people who received citizenship through family unification carried out attacks."

The outgoing judge Michael Cheshin, who voted with the majority, said during a debate in February: "The Palestinian Authority is an enemy government, a government that wants to destroy the state and is not prepared to recognize Israel... Why should we take chances during wartime? Did England and America take chances with Germans seeking their destruction during the Second World War? No one is preventing them from building a family but they should live in Jenin instead of in [the Israeli Arab city of] Umm al-Fahm."

* The Israeli army said it had killed at least seven Palestinian militants in the West Bank yesterday. One of the men killed was Elias Al Ashkar, blamed for suicide attacks including the one in Tel Aviv on 17 April which killed 11.

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