Since 2010, over 2,600 Beduin living in the Negev have systematically been stripped of their citizenship due to a purported “registration error” committed by their antecedents via the Interior Ministry shortly after Israel became a state.
The punitive retroactive measure has effectively left them stateless in a country where most were born in subsequent generations.
Sawsan Zaher, senior attorney at the Adalah Center – an NGO dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights in Israel for Arab citizens – recently filed a petition to the ministry and attorney-general asking them to terminate the revocation policy immediately.
According to Zaher, MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List) began to receive a dramatic increase in complaints from disenfranchised Beduin over the past year and a half.
“Every time they would go to the Interior Ministry for a routine service, such as renewing their passports, they were told that their citizenship had been granted to them by mistake and that it would be revoked on the spot,” said Zaher on Monday.
In lieu of citizenship, she said those affected were told they would be granted “permanent residence” and afforded the right to reapply for naturalization in Israel.
“They were offered an [expedited] naturalization process, which instead of taking four-and-a-half years would be decided within a few months or a year, but what happened is that some were rejected because of a criminal background for minor offenses,” explained Zaher.
“One woman who started the naturalization process after her citizenship was revoked was rejected because she does not know Hebrew, which is one of the conditions to get Israeli citizenship in the naturalization process.”
After Touma-Sliman first became aware of the majority of rejections in 2015, Zaher said the MK reached out to the Interior Ministry, resulting in a committee meeting and protracted correspondences with Minister Arye Deri.
“This correspondence,” she said, “exposed that the policy is not about individual complaints, but that there are [far-reaching repercussions] in which citizenship is revoked on the spot if the ministry finds that it had been granted by mistake.”
The “mistake,” Zaher said, occurred between 1948-1951, when Beduin were asked to register in the Population Registrar to determine which Arabs would be deemed citizens, and which would be considered refugees, and not granted citizenship.
“In the Arab sectors – including the Beduin areas – there was military rule back then, and people were not allowed to go in or out of the country unless they had authorization from the Population Registrar, but many Beduin didn’t know they had to register there, but were inside Israel,” she said.
“So basically, we’re talking about the grandparents of the people who are now affected and don’t know what happened under military rule, and then suddenly in 2010 they were told that because their grandparents were granted citizenship by mistake, now they will be stripped of their citizenship.”
Zaher continued, “A lot of people who were citizens for decades after being born in Israel to at least one parent who is Israeli, based on Israeli citizenship law, were now suddenly told they are not [considered] Israeli.
“So, despite participating in parliament elections for many years, now they are told that they cannot vote anymore because they are not citizens.”
Moreover, Zaher claimed that due to the seemingly precarious nature of the policy, in numerous Beduin families the ministry determined that one child was considered a citizen and one was not, and subsequently stripped of citizenship.
“So, we really found out that the effect has been disastrous for Beduin because all these thousands of people are becoming stateless,” she said.
“And even many of those who have political awareness and are willing to start a naturalization process have been denied [citizenship] because they may have a criminal background, even if it is something minor, or because they don’t speak Hebrew.”
Meanwhile, after Touma-Sliman initiated a legal aid program to those affected, Zaher said it was determined that there is no law in Israel that authorizes the Interior Ministry to revoke citizenship based on a mistake made by the state itself.
“They are basically punishing thousands of people [for a mistake],” she said.
“And it doesn’t matter if it was a mistake or not, because a state’s mistake in providing citizenship has never been acknowledged by the Israeli citizenship law as a condition that authorizes the Ministry of Interior to revoke their citizenship.
“So, this policy is illegal, and in contravention to international law, because you cannot leave someone stateless – especially on the spot when they go to the ministry to get a routine service.”
“So, our main claim is that this policy is illegal and unconstitutional,” she added.
According to Zaher, one of the few cases in which the Interior Ministry can cancel citizenship occurs when new citizens provide false information during the naturalization process.
However, she emphasized that the law stipulates that even if it is determined that false information was provided during the naturalization process, the ministry must wait three years after the citizenship was granted to revoke it.
“And, if you go beyond the three years, then you need the court [to intervene],” she said.
“So now, this mistake is not only not authorized by law, but even if it happened – and nobody really knows what happened between 1948 and 1951 – the punishment was dealt in 2010, more than three years after it was made.”
In terms of the immediate impact of the retroactive measure, Zaher said that while she and Touma-Sliman are attempting to eliminate the policy through the ministry and High Court, those affected will remain stateless unless they submit a naturalization process motion.
“Basically, they will have regular social and economic rights, but they are not allowed to participate in parliament elections,” she said.
“Citizenship is not something you can revoke on a daily basis like a service,” Zaher continued. “It is the most important constitutional right of every human being, and is regarded as the mother of all rights.”
Indeed, Zaher noted the critical role citizenship has played throughout Jewish history.
“During the Holocaust, the German’s stripped all Jews of citizenship in order to be able to carry out the ethnic cleansing they did,” she said.
“Because when a government takes away citizenship they don’t owe the person anything because they are not part of the state.”
In a statement, the Interior Ministry on Monday claimed that the number of Beduin affected by the policy was inflated, and that it is taking measures to rectify the error.
“The group of citizens includes about 150 people, and not 2,600,” a ministry spokeswoman said.
“No one means to harm them,” she added. “Now the ministry is asking them to legally re-register so they will remain citizens.”