The state of Israel prides itself on being a democratic state in which all its citizens are treated equally under the law. Yet a closer examination shows the strange and convoluted ways in which laws are used to defend some clearly racist practices.
A case in point is the practice of denying family-reunification permission to Israelis married to Palestinians. International humanitarian law and the basic law in Israel make it difficult for the Interior Ministry to bar an Israeli from demanding the right to live with his or her spouse. Around the world, laws and regulations protect the sanctity of the family and guarantee its members basic rights, including the right to live together and the granting of necessary permits to be able to do that.
Since the breakout of the second intifada in Palestine, this basic human right has been denied to Israelis marrying Palestinians. While the Ministry of Interior has the sovereign right to deny anyone entry into the country, challenges to the Israeli High Court have made this practice difficult. Using the emotional background of acts of terror against Israel, the Knesset passed a temporary law giving the Interior Ministry the power to withhold for one year residency to a couple in which one member comes from a hostile country. And although Palestine has not been recognized by Israel as a sovereign state, the law was written in a way to ensure Israeli authorities would be able to refuse Palestinians the right to live with their Israeli spouses in Israel. Technically, they are free to live in occupied Palestinian areas — although this is difficult in practice — but Palestinians are not granted the right to live in Israel, or, in many cases, even permitted to visit their in-laws there.
Racist laws have been challenged and even struck down by Israel’s High Court. However, this law, passed at the height of a rash of suicide bombings, has survived because of two factors. First, it was created as a temporary law renewable after a one-year period, and second, it gave the appearance of dealing with the sacred security issue by restricting it to persons from "enemy countries."
The temporary nature has meant that each year Israel’s top legislative body, the Knesset, has to renew it, which it has done repeatedly for the past 13 years. Last week, the Israeli Knesset renewed the law with a comfortable majority of Jewish Israeli Knesset members.
Of course, this legislation is not about security. It is a racist law that attempts to fulfill one of the unwritten practices of Israel, which is to ethnically cleanse the country of its non-Jewish population. The attempts to depopulate the areas under Israel’s military control (especially Jerusalem's Palestinian population) are well known and documented. Right-wing Israeli politicians publicly talk about the practice of “administrative transfer.” The idea focuses on making life so difficult administratively that the Palestinian population will voluntarily leave. The Ministry of Interior’s department of population and immigration has become experts in designing ways to “encourage” Palestinians to leave.
One of the best ways to accomplish the goal of quiet transfer of Palestinians is to deny couples the right to live in Israel. The notoriety of the Israeli Interior Ministry’s harassment of Palestinians in east Jerusalem has been widely documented. East Jerusalemites are considered residents and not citizens, and can lose their residency if they can’t regularly prove that Jerusalem is the center of their lives. However, what is unique about this law is that it applies to Israeli citizens and not just residents.
While clear in its racist intentions, this is not the only law on the books of its kind targeting Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel. The human rights organization Adallah has documented over 50 similar laws and regulations that have a racist intention specifically against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Some of these laws use the fact that Palestinians don’t serve in the army or never served in the Zionist underground movements as smokescreens. Other laws, such as the law of return, guarantee the right to any Jew around the world to automatically receive Israeli citizenship, while denying the same to millions of Palestinian refugees who left their homes because of violence and war. Israeli academic Ilan Pappe has made the issue of Israel’s ethnic-cleansing practices his life's work, writing books and lecturing around the world on this issue.
The Israeli Knesset’s easy passage of this law despite the absence of hostilities reflects a dangerous undemocratic trend that has been gaining momentum in Israel in recent years. This trend has led many Israelis to see the continuation of the occupation as a corrupting influence on democracy in Israel.
Their conclusion is that it is difficult for Israel to remain democratic and Jewish while occupying more than three million Palestinians.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region.