Several Israeli-Bedouin see their citizenship revoked

Faced with a growing number of people whose Israeli citizenship has been revoked, the Bedouin find it hard to accept explanations in regard to bureaucratic mistakes.

al-monitor Bedouin women react during a protest against home demolitions in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, which is not recognized by the Israeli government, near the southern city of Beersheba, in the Negev Desert, Jan. 18, 2017. Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

aida touma-suleiman, voting, west bank, aryeh deri, interior ministry, negev desert, citizenship, bedouins

Aug 21, 2020

Are Israel’s Ministry of Interior and the Population and Immigration Authority trying to deny citizenship to Bedouin residents of the Negev Desert? Both the ministry and the attorney general’s office claim that the problems are the result of registration errors, which are currently being fixed. Nevertheless, the number of complaints is still large. Bedouin who have lost their citizenship have appealed to the office of Knesset member Aida Touma-Suleiman of the Arab Joint List, asking her to investigate the situation. Meanwhile, Attorney Sawsan Zaher from the Adalah Legal Center appealed to Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, demanding that the policy be overturned. Her appeal claims that this has been happening since at least 2010.

According to Adalah, when Bedouin in the Negev go to the Interior Ministry to take care of their mundane affairs — a change of address, obtaining a birth certificate, registering a name, and so on — their status, and that of their parents and grandparents, is checked against the population registry, reaching as far back as the 1948 founding of the state. In certain cases, the ministry informs them right then and there that they received their citizenship by mistake, and then changes their status on the population registry from citizen to permanent resident.

Adalah says that those people whose citizenship is revoked are given no explanation as to why, nor are they granted the option to appeal. Instead, the ministry staff suggests that they submit a request to begin the normal naturalization process to obtain citizenship.

Upon appealing these cases with the minister of interior, Adalah has found that some of these Bedouin have been citizens for 20, 30 and even 40 years. They paid taxes, voted in the elections and in, some cases, even served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Then, a bureaucrat at the Ministry of Interior came along and revoked their citizenship, turning them into permanent residents. They can still vote in local elections, but they cannot run for office, and they cannot vote or run for office in national elections. They receive social benefits — health insurance and social security — but they cannot obtain a passport, and if they leave the country for an extended period, their status as resident could be revoked. Nor is their status transferred automatically to their children, as it would be with citizens.

Surprised by this, and in the absence of anywhere to appeal the decision, they do not know what to do. Some submit a naturalization and citizenship request, while others simply give up. Zaher said that many of the requests to obtain citizenship are rejected because documents are missing, the applicant has a criminal record — which is not grounds for the denial of citizenship — or even for being unable to speak Hebrew. Among those denied citizenship are people born in Israel to Israeli citizens. They have seen their status changed to permanent resident, even if their parents are still citizens. There are even families in which one child is a citizen, while the other child is a permanent resident. Some lost their citizenship when they went to renew their passports so that they could make the pilgrimage to Mecca, as required by their religion. Only then did they find that their citizenship had been revoked.

Salim al-Dantiri, 50, of Bir Hadaj, whose father served in the IDF, was denied citizenship. He said that he cannot understand why he is being denied. “In some cases — like mine — they say that there was some mistake when our parents were registered, but that was decades ago. Is that our fault?” Dantiri told Al-Monitor.

Atalla Sagaira of the unrecognized village of Rahma fought for 13 years before he received citizenship, even though his late father served in the IDF. He began his struggle in 2002, when he tried to obtain a passport. The Interior Ministry originally denied his request. He told Al-Monitor, “They said that my parents were naturalized, and that they were not originally citizens.” He then began the process to register as a citizen, and finally received his citizenship in 2015. “I insisted on obtaining my rights and fought the whole bureaucratic process on my own, until I obtained my citizenship. Still, I know that there are people who just give up,” Sagaira said. His father was a tracker for the IDF and received his discharge as an injured veteran. At the time, he had seven children. Three of them have yet to receive citizenship.

During a debate last year in the Knesset’s Interior Committee, head of Citizenship at the Population and Immigration Authority Ronen Yerushalmi explained that there are about 2,600 people who now have Israeli citizenship but for whom it could be revoked, because of erroneous registration by the ministry in the past. Later in the debate it became apparent that the main problem lies with the lack of registration for the parents’ generation from the early years of statehood, when the Bedouin of the Negev lived under a military government.

Adalah considers this entire situation to be yet another example of discrimination against the Bedouin for nationalist reasons. “There is no case of a Jewish citizen who had his citizenship revoked because of some mistake in the registration of his parents or grandparents,” Zaher noted.

Touma-Suleiman added, “I fear that what this incident has revealed so far is just the tip of the iceberg, and that what has yet to be revealed is even more serious.” She said that if she does not receive answers from the Interior Ministry, and if the situation is not corrected, she will appeal to the Supreme Court.

A senior official dealing with the situation told Al-Monitor that the Bedouin are confronted with investigations over the status of their parents and family members, because of some problematic cases in the past. He refers to cases involving West Bank Palestinians related to the Bedouin living in the Negev. These Palestinians have tried — so he claims — to obtain Israeli citizenship by exploiting the mistaken registration by the Interior Ministry.

So are we talking about mistakes or about a deliberate policy? The spokesperson for the Population and Immigration Authority told Al-Monitor that an investigation has found that this is not a case of revoking citizenship, but rather of mistaken registration, and that most cases have been dealt with already. He said, “There have been discussions recently about finding a solution that will resolve the problem within the context of the law, without detracting from these people’s status in Israel.” The spokesperson also noted that in response to Adalah’s appeal in the matter, the attorney general is now involved in dealing with it.

Deri's office said that the minister has instructed staff at the Population and Immigration Authority to do everything they can to shorten the bureaucratic process facing these citizens, in order to spare them any frustration. The attorney general's office also stated that it has instructed the authority to allow for a rapid naturalization process for anyone who is not a citizen, on condition that there are no grounds — criminal or other — to prevent the applicant from obtaining citizenship.

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