How Israel robs Palestinians of Citizenship

Israel has quietly revoked the citizenship of thousands of members of its large Palestinian minority in recent years, highlighting that decades of demographic war against Palestinians are far from over.

The policy, which only recently came to light, is being implemented by Israel’s population registry, a department of the interior ministry. The registry has been regularly criticized for secrecy about its rules for determining residency and citizenship.

According to government data, some 2,600 Palestinian Bedouins are likely to have had their Israeli citizenship voided. Officials, however, have conceded that the figure may be much higher.

The future offspring of those stripped of citizenship are likely to suffer problems gaining citizenship too.

Human rights groups have severely criticized Israel for violating its own laws, as well as international conventions to which it is a party, in carrying out such revocations.

Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with Adalah, a legal center for Israel’s Palestinian minority, told The Jerusalem Post newspaper: “This policy is illegal and in contravention to international law because you cannot leave someone stateless.”

Harsh treatment

Palestinian citizens, one in five of Israel’s population, are descended from Palestinians who survived a mass ethnic cleansing campaign waged during Israel’s creation in 1948.

Today, some 200,000 Bedouins live in Israel, most of them in a semi-desert area known as the Naqab (Negev).

One of the two fastest-growing groups in Israel’s population, the Bedouins have faced especially harsh treatment. Israel continued expelling them to Jordan, Egypt and Gaza through the 1950s and to this day tightly limits the areas in the Naqab where the Bedouins can live.

Revelations of the revocations emerged as Ayelet Shaked, the far-right justice minister, warned Israel’s judges to prioritize demographic concerns and maintenance of the state’s Jewishness over human rights. She called growing numbers of non-Jews in the state “national challenges” that risked turning a Jewish state into “an empty symbol.”

According to Adalah, Bedouins typically learn that they have been stripped of citizenship when they approach the interior ministry for routine services such as renewing an identity card or passport, obtaining a birth certificate, or declaring a change of address.

Some have discovered their loss of status when seeking a passport to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the obligations for Muslims.

Tip of the iceberg?

Aida Touma-Sliman, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, said the policy of revocations had intensified over the past 18 months.

“I’m afraid that what has been exposed is only the tip of the iceberg and what hasn’t been revealed yet is even more serious,” she told the Haaretz newspaper.

The legislator fears that many other Bedouins have been stripped of citizenship, but have yet to learn of the fact.

She said she believed that the government was in part targeting Bedouins with revocation of citizenship to weaken long-standing land claims against the state.

Tens of thousands of Bedouins have been mired in legal action for decades trying to claim back the title deeds to ancestral lands seized from them by military officials in the first years after Israel’s creation.

Israel has declared the surviving communities as “unrecognized,” effectively criminalizing their inhabitants and denying them basic services such as water and electricity. Officials have also been trying to revive the Prawer Plan, which seeks to evict some 40,000 Bedouins – Adalah puts the figure at 80,000-90,000 – and force them into poor “townships”. The original plan was ostensibly frozen in late 2013 after mass protests across the Naqab.

Touma-Sliman said that without citizenship, Bedouins would be largely defenseless against steps to evict them.

Endless foot-dragging

Mahmoud al-Gharibi, an unemployed carpenter from the al-Azazme tribe, was one of several Bedouins who spoke to Haaretz in August during a protest rally in the Naqab village of Bir Hadaj.

He was told his citizenship had been revoked when he applied for a new identity card in 2000. “Since then I’ve applied 10 times [for renewed citizenship], getting 10 rejections, each time on a different pretext,” he said. “I have two children who are over 18 and they too have no citizenship.”

Another Bedouin who spoke anonymously to Haaretz said: “No one explains anything and all of a sudden your status changes. You go in as a citizen and come out deprived of citizenship, and then an endless process of foot-dragging begins.”

Zaher pointed out that many of those recently stripped of citizenship had been voting in parliamentary elections for years, even though it is a right available solely to citizens.

Adalah has warned that revoking citizenship is not only illegal according to Israel’s own laws, but violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which Israel signed in 1961.

The group has appealed to Israel’s interior ministry and attorney general, demanding that they cancel the policy. Israeli officials have justified the revocations on the grounds that bureaucratic errors made in the state’s early years meant that the affected Bedouin’s parents or grandparents were not properly registered.

Israel did not pass its Citizenship Law – governing citizenship for non-Jews – until 1952. The legislation’s primary purpose was to strip some 750,000 Palestinians who had been made refugees by the 1948 war, and their millions of descendants, of a right to live in Israel.

A separate law, the 1950 Law of Return, entitles all Jews around the world to instant Israeli citizenship.

Martial law

The failure to register many Bedouins in Israel is related to a draconian period of martial law imposed on the Palestinian minority during Israel’s first 18 years.

Bedouins, like other Palestinian citizens, were not allowed to leave their communities without a special permit. But the remoteness of their communities and Israel’s continuing efforts to expel them through the 1950s mean that officials may have preferred to avoid registration in many cases.

According to reports by the United Nations and others, thousands of Bedouins were secretly expelled into neighboring Egypt and Jordan during the early years of the military government.

Even those who were not expelled outside Israel were often evicted from their ancestral lands and forced into overcrowded “townships.”

This intentionally murky period in Israel’s history has made it hard for the Bedouins to prove many decades later what happened to their parents or grandparents.

Adalah’s Zaher told The Jerusalem Post: “Basically, we’re talking about the grandparents of the people who are now affected and don’t know what happened under military rule. And then suddenly in 2010 they were told that because their grandparents were granted citizenship by mistake, now they will be stripped of their citizenship.”

The interior ministry has downgraded those Bedouins stripped of citizenship to “permanent residents” – the same status accorded to Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem.

However, in practice, Israel does not treat “permanent residency” as permanent. Figures show that Israel has voided the residency status of nearly 15,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem since the city’s occupation began in 1967.

Treated as foreigners

Bedouins have been told they are eligible to apply for citizenship again through a naturalization process, treating them effectively as foreigners.

However, according to Adalah, many have found that when they apply they continue to be denied citizenship, often on grounds that documents cannot be located or they lack sufficient proficiency in Hebrew.

There is no Hebrew language test for foreigners seeking citizenship, either Jews immigrating under the Law of Return, or non-Jewish spouses of Israeli citizens naturalizing under the Citizenship Law.

According to Haaretz, other Bedouins have found the interior ministry so unresponsive they have given up in despair.

The only provision allowing citizenship to be canceled is for recent arrivals who provided false information in their applications. Even then, the interior ministry is required to act within three years – otherwise it has to make an application for revocation through the courts.

Adalah has complained that those affected were not given a hearing before their citizenship was rescinded or the chance to appeal. Zaher said the policy was also blatantly discriminatory as no Jews had been denied citizenship because of errors in their parents’ or grandparents’ registration under the Law of Return.

Equal rights for equal burden?

The treatment of Bedouins gives the lie to one of Israel’s most familiar claims: that Palestinian citizens will receive the same rights as Jewish citizens if they share an equal burden. Avigdor Lieberman, the defense minister, has repeatedly campaigned on a platform of “no loyalty, no citizenship.” He argues that Palestinian citizens who do not serve in the Israeli army or perform an equivalent form of national service should lose their citizenship.

However, a proportion of those stripped of citizenship are from Bedouin families that have served in the Israeli army as desert trackers.

Several unrecognized villages, home to some 100,000 Bedouins, have a tradition of military service, but have still been denied services. Their homes are all under threat of demolition.

Some of the residents of Umm al-Hiran, which is currently being demolished to make way for the exclusively new Jewish community of Hiran, served as trackers for the Israeli army.

Atalla Saghaira, a resident of the unrecognized village of Rahma, told Haaretz he had been stripped of his citizenship in 2002 when he applied for a passport, even though his father was a tracker for the Israeli army. After 13 years of struggle, he eventually managed to regain citizenship, but three of his brothers were still stateless.

‘No harm intended’

The Israeli parliament’s interior committee held a meeting last year at which officials for the first time gave details of the revocation policy.

The head of the interior ministry’s citizenship department, Ronen Yerushalmi, submitted a report stating that as many as 2,600 Bedouins were affected. He admitted, however, that the data was not precise and the figure could be even higher.

At another meeting, the committee’s legal adviser, Gilad Keren, warned that the ministry was most likely breaking Israeli law. He said he could not “understand how, when a person has been a citizen for 20 years and the state makes a mistake, that person’s status is changed.”

In a statement to The Jerusalem Post, the interior ministry denied the evidence heard by the committee, claiming that only about 150 people had been affected. “No one means to harm them,” a spokesperson said. “Now the ministry is asking them to legally re-register so they will remain citizens.”

Revelations of the mass revocations came as an Israeli court last month approved for the first time stripping of citizenship a Palestinian convicted of carrying out an attack.

The interior ministry gave Alaa Zayoud, from the town of Umm al-Fahm in present-day northern Israel, the status of temporary resident after he was sentenced to 25 years for carrying out a car-ramming attack last October on Israeli soldiers. Four people were injured in that incident.

The revocation was made on the basis of a 2008 amendment to the Citizenship Law that allows citizenship to be rescinded for “breach of loyalty” to the state.

Double standard

Adalah, which opposed the government’s decision, pointed out a double standard in not applying the amendment to Israeli Jews. It cited recent cases such as that of a Jewish man and two Jewish juveniles who burned alive a 16-year-old Palestinian, Muhammad Abu Khudair, in Jerusalem in 2014, and that of Jewish settlers behind an arson attack a year later that killed three members of the Dawabsha family in the occupied West Bank village of Duma. None had citizenship revoked.

In 1996, Israel’s high court also refused a request to rescind the citizenship of an Israeli Jew, Yigal Amir, who a year earlier had assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, then prime minister. The judges ruled that such offenses should be dealt with in the criminal courts, not by revoking citizenship.

Previous revocations, though rare, have solely targeted Palestinian citizens. In 2002, Eli Yishai, then interior minister, stripped Nahad Abu Kishaq and Kais Obeid of citizenship.

Zayoud’s case was different because the interior ministry needed to seek court approval, therefore setting what Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have called a “dangerous precedent.”

The fear is that Israel will use the case to justify many more such revocations or conditions of citizenship for the Palestinian minority on loyalty.

Ethnic cleansing

The question of whether Palestinians should have been awarded citizenship in the state’s early years is one that has exercised the Israeli leadership for decades. Many have feared that a growing Palestinian population in Israel poses a “demographic threat” to the state’s Jewishness.

Writing in 2002, Israeli historian Benny Morris suggested that Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion, should have “gone the whole hog” in 1948 – ethnically cleansing all Palestinians from the newly founded state of Israel.

Research has shown that Ben Gurion gave citizenship only reluctantly to the 150,000 Palestinians who survived the mass expulsions. They were initially assigned residency, chiefly as a way to aid in identifying and expelling Palestinian refugees trying to cross back into the new state of Israel to reach their villages.

Only in 1952, under international pressure, did Israel award the Palestinian minority citizenship through the Citizenship Law, legislation separate from that for Jews.

However, scholars have noted that for more than a decade Israeli leaders repeatedly attempted to find ways to expel Palestinian citizens or establish incentive schemes to encourage them to leave.

Israeli scholar Uri Davis has noted that 30,000 Palestinians living in Israel remained stateless until 1980, when Israel passed an amendment to the Citizenship Law belatedly awarding them citizenship.

Ben Gurion himself hoped to fix the percentage of Palestinians in Israel at no higher than 15 percent of the population. But with the proportion of Palestinian citizens now at one in five, Israeli politicians have been seeking ever more desperate ways to rid Israel of sections of the minority.

In July, the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, was reported to have urged the Trump administration in the US to agree to a land swap that would move an area that is home to some 250,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel to Palestinian control.

The proposal echoed Avigdor Lieberman’s long-standing plan to redraw Israel’s internationally recognized borders as a way to deny hundreds of thousands of Palestinians their citizenship.

In early 2014, the Maariv newspaper reported that Netanyahu had first posited a land and population exchange as a quick fix to reduce Palestinian citizens to no more than 12 percent of the population.

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books).

Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.