Demise of Israel's oppressive marriage law is hardly a human rights victory

The politics surrounding the law were cynical and short-sighted

I first started paying attention to Israel’s 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law when a close friend of mine, a nurse at a Jerusalem hospital, told her family that she wanted to marry a man she loved from Bethlehem.

She has Israeli citizenship, and met her Palestinian husband at the hospital while caring for his sick father in the intensive care unit. Her family was concerned about the law and what it would mean for the couple’s future children. Being born to a Palestinian and an Israeli would make for a legally tricky upbringing, and in the event the couple divorced, matters would get even more complicated. All of this played a role in her eventual decision to end the relationship.

For those it affects, the Citizenship and Entry can have life-altering consequences. It is a piece of temporary legislation barring Palestinians hailing from the West Bank and Gaza from citizenship through marriage to Israeli citizens. The law was introduced in 2003 during the second Palestinian intifada, and its supporters argue that it is essential for preservingIsrael’s security. They rely on data showing that in the past dozens of Palestinians have used marriages to Israelis to make it easier to plan or carry out attacks. But the numbers are relatively low, particularly in comparison with the number of innocent families affected by the law. According to HaMoked, an Israeli NGO, more than 9,000 families in Israel and East Jerusalem are affected by it.

There is simply no hiding the law’s use as a tool for discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel by depriving them even a basic freedom to marry whomever they choose in the same way as their fellow citizens. The law is meant to maintain the separation between Palestinians inside of Israel and in the Palestinian Territories. And that separation helps to maintain a de-facto superior status for Jewish citizens over Arabs. Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister, confirmed this in a tweet he posted in the run-up to a recent session in the Knesset, in which an effort to renew the law failed. Mr Lapid wrote: “There is no need to hide from the essence of this law. It is one of the tools meant to ensure a Jewish majority in the state of Israel. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and our goal is for it to have a Jewish majority. In addition, the law is important for security.”

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There is simply no hiding the law’s use as a tool for discriminating against Palestinians

Israel’s new coalition government, which includes an Arab party, is so broad, diverse and politically incoherent that it could not unite enough votes to renew the law. And so, for the first time since it was passed, it was allowed to expire.

Some of the Members of Knesset who voted to try to renew it were Arabs. Unsurprisingly, they attracted significant anger from Israel’s Palestinian community, including social media influencers. After the backlash, Mansour Abbas, leader of Raam, the Arab party in the coalition, claimed that his party reached a compromise within the government, in which it would back the law in exchange for temporary residency for 2000 people, social rights such as medical insurance to a few thousand more, and only extending the law for half a year instead of one. But those concessions seem marginal compared to the gains the citizenship law’s eventual fall is now making. The short-sightedness that saw Arab votes back a law like this was alarmingly out of touch with the sentiments of many Palestinians in Israel, who want equal rights on a more fundamental level.

Now that the law has fallen, there is considerable excitement in the air. The law’s opponents are happy about a supposed step forward for Palestinian rights. Even the law’s supporters are happy, because its failure speaks to the larger failures of Israel’s first coalition government to include an Arab party.

I fear the most likely outcome is that the law’s failure will not mean much in the end. The government will find a way to legislate another law, and a host of bureaucratic obstacles still remain for Arab applicants for Israeli citizenship – plenty to still make life difficult for those who are now supposedly better off.

The continuation of the status quo would only empower groups who prefer to stay in the opposition instead of making compromises. For it to mean anything for Israel’s Palestinians, and ultimately for the broader peace effort, the law’s fall must be an opportunity for meaningful change.

Updated: July 16th 2021, 4:00 AM

Anwar Mhajne

Dr Anwar Mhajne is a political scientist and assistant professor at Stonehill College