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The Knesset should not extend a discriminatory law, due to expire on May 31, which prevents Israeli citizens and residents from living with their spouses from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists said today in a joint letter to Knesset members.

On May 15, the Israeli Cabinet endorsed a continuation of the law with limited exceptions based on the age and sex of the Palestinian spouse. The three human rights organizations called on Knesset members to reject this amendment, which is currently before the Knesset for a first reading, as insufficient.

“The law blatantly discriminates against Israelis of Palestinian origin and their Palestinian spouses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Thousands of married couples are forced to live apart, and children are prevented from living with both parents.”

The Israeli government enacted the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (Temporary Order) in July 2003, following a May 2002 freeze on applications for family reunification between Israeli citizens and Palestinians from the occupied territories. The law prohibits the granting of residency or citizenship status to Palestinians from the occupied territories who are married to Israeli citizens or permanent residents (such as Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem). According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the law affects between 16,000 and 21,000 families as of 2004.

The proposed amendment would provide an exception to permit Palestinian women over the age of 25 and Palestinian men over the age of 35 to apply for family reunification with their Israeli spouses. However, these limits are well above the ages at which people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories typically get married; according to the U.N. figures for 1997, the average age of marriage is 21.7 for women and 25.3 for men.

“Rather than bring domestic Israeli law in line with international standards, the cabinet has merely tinkered while maintaining prohibitions that would still bar most married couples from living together if one spouse is from the occupied territories,” said Whitson.

Under the proposed amendment, the Israeli government is empowered to deny even those applicants who fall within the age and gender exceptions if it has security suspicions against their relatives or in-laws. Such penalization by association is contrary to international legal standards that call for security measures to be non-discriminatory and applied only on an individual basis to persons considered to be a genuine security threat.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Israel ratified in 1991, even “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation,” Israel is prohibited from taking measures that would “involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, color, sex, language religion or social origin.”

International human rights law recognizes the family as a natural and fundamental unit of society that is entitled to protection. According to the authoritative commentary of the U.N. Human Rights Committee, “the right to found a family implies…the possibility to…live together….Similarly, the possibility to live together implies the adoption of appropriate measures…to ensure the unity or reunification of families, particularly when their members are separated for political, economic or similar reasons.”

Israel’s obligations to protect the family under international law derive from the duty to give the family the widest possible protection and assistance (article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and the right of all people to marry and found a family (article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

Moreover, the Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines the right of a child to be cared for by his or her parents (article 8), and the duty of the state to deal with applications for family reunification in a positive, humane and expeditious manner (article 10). Israel has signed and ratified all of these treaties and is bound by their terms.

Since the freeze on family reunification in May 2002, some twenty thousand Israeli citizens and permanent residents married to Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories have been forced to choose between living in Israel without their spouses and leaving the country to be with their spouses.

Those choosing to leave Israel to join their spouses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories face a host of additional, negative consequences. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem face a real threat of losing their own permanent residency if they move to the Occupied Palestinian Territories to join their spouses there. Israeli citizens are prohibited from entering Gaza or Area A of the West Bank, as defined under the Oslo Accords, and thus violate Israeli law if they live with their spouses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. If spouses from the Occupied Palestinian Territories stay illegally in Israel with their Israeli spouse and children, they often cannot leave the house for fear of arrest and deportation.

“It is time for Israeli lawmakers to end the intolerable situation created by this law,” said Whitson. “Families should not be forced to live apart.”

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