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Israel postpones vote on law barring thousands of Palestinian families from uniting

Vote delayed after new Israeli government fails to gather support for renewing 'racist' citizenship law
Three members of Mansour Abbas' Raam party refused to vote in favour of a controversial law blocking Palestinian families from reuniting (AFP)

Israel's new government postponed on Sunday the vote on a controversial law that blocks Palestinian families from reuniting and living together.

It marks the second time in two weeks the razor-thin Israeli coalition delayed a vote on the 2003 Citizenship Law, a nominally emergency piece of legislation that prevents inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip from gaining residency or citizenship of Israel through marriage to another citizen.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's coalition, which consists of a wide range of parties with different ideologies, faces a significant test that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is aiming to exploit in order to torpedo the government and pave the way for another election.

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Several members of Bennett's coalition in the Knesset have said they are not going to vote for the renewal of the Citizenship Law, which is required to keep the emergency legislation active.

In contrast, Netanyahu's right-wing camp, which voted in favour of it for the past 18 years, said it would not bail out the government and back the vote.

On Sunday, following the delay of the vote, members of the Israeli opposition started shouting in response: "Cowards, cowards, cowards!" while two Knesset members of the opposition were removed from the committee hearing for "unruly behaviour".

When passed, the Citizenship Law was denounced by some as racist, with some critics proposing to call it the "Racist Family Separation Law" instead of the commonly used name "Family Reunification Law."

It was passed in the Knesset at the peak of the Second Intifada that lasted from 2000 to 2005, a period of violent Israeli military assaults on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as Palestinian suicide attacks and shootings.

It is considered an emergency law, expiring on 6 July, and requires one reading in the Knesset to renew its term for another year, while regular bills need to be voted on three times and do not demand an extension.

The Citizenship Law makes it nearly impossible for thousands of Palestinian families to get approval for their applications for getting Israeli citizenship or permanent residency through marriage.

On a security basis, the law also blocks Palestinian citizens of Israel or Palestinians from East Jerusalem from requesting citizenship or residency for their spouses from Arab countries, such as Jordan and Egypt, or any other country Israel considers hostile.

According to human rights groups, the Citizenship Law bars almost 45,000 Palestinian families inside Israel and East Jerusalem from reuniting with their spouses and children, and its goal is to keep Palestinian numbers holding Israeli documents low. 

Divisions in right-wing parties

Netanyahu's right-wing camp has backed the annual extension of Citizenship Law since 2003. Still, this time, the opposition leader refused calls from the Bennett coalition to bail out the law in a bid to embarrass the new government.

Ayelet Shaked, the Israeli interior minister, appealed to the opposition to endorse the extension of the law "if they don't want to immediately naturalise 15,000 Palestinians".

If the law expires on 6 July, Shaked's interior ministry will have to block Palestinian applications for citizenship or residency through marriage without the law to enable this automatically.

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Yoav Kisch, a Knesset member of Likud party, told Kan public radio last week that though "the law is good," political machinations were at play.

"There are political considerations. We want to topple the government," Kisch said.

Last week, the Israeli government cancelled the Arrangements Committee vote on the Citizenship Law, saying that it was working to compromise with the United Arab List (Raam), Meretz and Labor parties who objected to voting in favour.

Mazen Ghanayim, Walid Taha and Saeed Alkharumi of Raam, an Islamist party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, said they would vote against the law.

Mansour Abbas, the leader of Raam, who serves as a deputy minister, is reportedly able to negotiate the language of the law but he can not impose his position on his party members.

Ibtisam Mara'ana, a Knesset member from the Labor party, and Mossi Raz and Esawi Freij, the regional cooperation minister, of the Meretz party said they would not back the vote on the law.

The Arab Joint List in the Knesset had sent a letter to the United Nations describing the law as a "racist," which prevents Palestinian families from living normally together.

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