Israel’s government faced internal divisions Monday as it sought to renew a controversial ban on its Arab residents and citizens extending rights to their Palestinian spouses in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The measure first enacted in 2003 during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, is justified by supporters on security grounds but critics deride it as a discriminatory measure targeting Israel’s Arab minority.
The coalition which counts eight parties from across the political spectrum controls 61 seats in Israel’s 120 member Knesset, or parliament, and cannot afford defections as it seeks to pass legislation.
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Two coalition parties, dovish Meretz and conservative Islamic Raam party, have indicated they will vote against the measure supported by hardline religious nationalist Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
The premier has called for backing from the right-wing parties in opposition, led Benjamin Netanyahu, his former mentor who Bennett dramatically ousted from power last month.
“There are points where, despite everything, the opposition too must show national responsibility," Bennett said Monday ahead of a vote on the extension.
“There are things you don’t play with: The state’s security is a red line, and the state needs control on who enters it and who gets citizenship in it.
“The entry of thousands of Palestinians and giving them (Israeli) citizenship… is simply not the right thing to do," he said.
Netanyahu, who has made clear he will seek a return to the premier’s office if the coalition falls apart, has refused to help pass the bill.
“You are the government, the responsibility is yours," he said.
“You cannot form a government that is based on anti-Zionist forces (a reference to Raam) and then come to us and tell us to save you from this fracture and failure," Netanyahu added.
The controversial measure has caused endless complications for Palestinians living across Israel and territories it has occupied since 1967.
A substantial number of those affected live in annexed east Jerusalem and therefore have Israeli residency, without necessarily being citizens of the Jewish state.
In a protest against the measure outside the Knesset on Monday, some recounted the hardships of seeking permits to join their spouses, or the risks of entering Israeli territory without permission.
Ali Meteb told AFP that his wife not having Israeli residency rights had confined his family to a “continuous prison".
“I am asking for rights that the state owes us… for my wife to have Israeli ID, residency rights and freedom of movement," he said.
Jessica Montell, the head of Hamoked, an Israeli human rights group that provides legal services to Palestinians, said “tens of thousands of families are harmed by this law."
She said the debate was ultimately about whether citizens and residents of Israel “have a right to marry whom they choose, without fear of displacement of their families."
Arguments about security needs were flawed, she added, because “each individual who is applying for any status in Israel goes through a very rigorous security check."
“Nobody is saying that people should be freely granted citizenship in Israel, with no process," Montell told the Jerusalem Press Club.