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Appallingly headlined story in the Australian mishandles the facts

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The latest edition of the Weekend Australian has provoked outrage over an offensive and unprofessional headline used to accompany an article by its Middle East correspondent John Lyons that failed to include some vital facts, resulting in some very questionable journalism.

The story recounts the sorry saga of Israeli Arab Taiseer Khatib, who lives in the northern Israeli town of Akko (Acre) and in 2004 married Lana, a Palestinian woman from the West Bank town of Jenin.

As a result of the fact the West Bank is not part of sovereign Israel but under military occupation and therefore not subject to Israeli law, coupled with the very real ongoing threat of terrorism, under a 2003 law Lana cannot become an Israeli citizen and requires a temporary residency visa to stay with her husband in Akko.

Into this tragic example of how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict makes victims of ordinary people, steps Lyons.

The article was inflammatorily entitled Living under the cloud of Israel's cruel apartheid, which is probably the handiwork of a subeditor echoing a quote from Taiseer Khatib (see below). Yet "apartheid" wasn't even featured in quotes. Thankfully, for the Australian's online edition, the headline was changed to read Living under a residency cloud in Israel.

But Lyons does premise his story on misrepresenting the context of the Israeli law that prevents Gazan and West Bank Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from obtaining Israeli citizenship or permanent residency by omitting the zeitgeist and major reasoning of its advocates when the law was passed in 2003 i.e. the height of the second intifada. He writes:

Under Israeli law, Palestinians from the West Bank are not permitted to migrate to Israel, even if they have a spouse there.

As the Jerusalem Post's Dan Izenberg explains here, "Until 2002, Palestinians who married Israelis were allowed to obtain Israeli citizenship or residency status in accordance with a five-year procedure. During those five years, they were allowed to live in Israel but had to renew their request to remain in Israel each year".

The "2003 Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (Temporary Provision)" - the full text of a translation is here - was passed by the Knesset primarily to prevent Palestinian would be terrorists exploiting family reunion laws to enter Israeli cities.

The law was amended in 2005 to allow women over 25 and men over 35 who are married to Israelis to request temporary permits to live in Israel, but usually not citizenship.

A challenge in the Israeli Supreme Court to the law's validity was denied precisely on the basis of its counter-terrorism justification.

The Israeli Government's legal representative Yochi Gnessin told the court that 26 Palestinians who had received Israeli citizenship had been involved in terrorist attacks.

Izenberg outlines the arguments before the Court here.

Justice Mishael Cheshin, who wrote the majority opinion, reportedly stated that "in his opinion, the 'State of war against the Palestinian Authority' justifies the law, which aims to prevent the entry of elements hostile to the security of the state into Israel."

Strangely, Lyons omitted to mention this unsuccessful challenge to the law in the Israeli Supreme Court, which featured the Khatibs as the public face of the demand that the law be overturned.

Lyons presents the intent of the law as designed to prevent changes to Israel's demographic balance, which was an argument advanced by some of its advocates, but as can be seen was evidently not the primary impetus for the law's passage. He writes:

Professor Liav Orgad, from the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, a leading Israeli immigration expert, last year co-authored a paper which said: "The maintenance of a solid Jewish majority is a necessity for the country's existence and security, a normatively justified means of ensuring the State of Israel's survival. This is particularly the case regarding Palestinian immigrants, who join a large national minority in Israel and may at some future time undermine the 'two states for two peoples' solution to the Israel-Arab conflict."

Elsewhere, Lyons writes that the issue of marriage with West Bank Palestinians is a "live one due to the size of the Israeli Arab population" implying regulating this is the intent of the law.

On another important issue Lyons is also wrong, writing:

Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, called "Jerusalemites" by Israel, lose their right to residency if they marry a Palestinian and move to the West Bank. Israel does not allow Palestinians living in Jerusalem to vote in national elections, and if they leave Jerusalem for three years they lose their residency.

Under Israeli law, Palestinians who live in east Jerusalem have the right to Israeli citizenship if they want it. According to Israel's Interior Ministry approximately 5% are now citizens.

Alternatively they can choose to remain permanent residents, retaining most rights of citizenship, but not the right to vote, and with the possibility of losing residency if they cease being residents. For political reasons most have chosen not to pursue this latter course.

This is similar to the standard permanent residency provisions elsewhere, including Australia.

Importantly if Palestinians choose Israeli citizenship, they cannot lose residency rights, and they can vote in Israeli national elections.

So Lyons' blanket statement about Israel "not allowing" Palestinians living in east Jerusalem to vote is just wrong.

Even the Israeli Human Rights group B'tselem, which is generally highly critical of Israel, makes it clear that east Jerusalem's Arab residents can choose citizenship or permanent residency, with the latter operating the same as permanent residency elsewhere around the world:

Permanent residents are permitted, if they wish and meet certain conditions, to receive Israeli citizenship. These conditions include swearing allegiance to the State, proving that they are not citizens of any other country, and showing some knowledge of Hebrew. For political reasons, most of the residents do not request Israeli citizenship...

Palestinians hold the status of "permanent resident" of the State of Israel. This is the same status granted to foreign citizens who have freely chosen to come to Israel and want to live there. Israel treats Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem as immigrants who live in their homes at the beneficence of the authorities and not by right. The authorities maintain this policy although these Palestinians were born in Jerusalem, lived in the city, and have no other home. Treating these Palestinians as foreigners who entered Israel is astonishing, since it was Israel that entered East Jerusalem in 1967.

Meanwhile, an AP report from January 2011 confirms that Arab residents of east Jerusalem are increasingly taking up Israeli citizenship.

Taiseer Khatib also makes the absurd claim that the inability of his wife to gain Israeli citizenship is "beyond apartheid":

"I'm talking pure racism, which is beyond apartheid. Under apartheid, there were cases where people were allowed to have mixed marriages but she (Lana) is part of me and the state is interfering in my personal choices, getting into my bed, my own room."

The argument is nonsensical because Israeli Arabs are not legally prohibited from marrying or cohabiting with anyone and certainly the State would not separate Israeli Arabs cohabiting with Jewish or non-Jewish Israelis - something that occurs reasonably often without much controversy.

Yet Lyons never seems to ask the obvious question. Why doesn't Taiseer move to live in the West Bank city of Jenin where he met his wife (a fact omitted in the story) and undertake the short 30-minute drive Lyons acknowledges it takes to travel between the two cities?

Lyons also writes what appears to be an argument for repealing the law:

Israeli law prevents immigration from "enemy states" which it defines as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and territory governed by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. This means the entire West Bank, which is under Israeli military occupation. While Israel and Hamas in Gaza continue to be in conflict, since the law was introduced in 2003 relations between Israel and the West Bank have improved dramatically. Israel and the Palestinian Authority -- which effectively replaced the PLO -- have security co-operation and Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, described the PA leader Mahmoud Abbas as "my partner in peace" at the White House.

The very same President Abbas has said Palestinians will never agree to renounce their right of return, which if it were actually implemented would entitle any Palestinian to live in not only a future state of Palestine but also Israel. At the same time, Abbas has also promised that no Jew will be allowed to live in Palestine.

Lyons interviews the director of Arab support group the Mossawa Centre, Jafar Farah who says the Arab population of Israel could help bring about peace because they have contact with both sides.

This statement by Farah is ironic in the circumstances because, according to this JPost story, Taiseer Khatib works at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin which was established in 2006 by Juliano Mer-Khamis and Zakariya Zubeidi, the former military leader in Jenin of the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades. Mer-Khamis was a pro-Palestinian activist with an Israeli Jewish mother and an Arab Christian father and was gunned down by Islamists in Jenin in 2011 for supposedly spreading anti-Islamic ideas through the theatre.

Jafar Farah also tells Lyons that Jewish settlers from the West Bank are allegedly turning their attentions to mixed cities in Israel such as Akko.

Lyons seeks a comment from the Jewish Mayor of Akko, Simon Lankry, who tells him "he wants to avoid in Akko the situation occurring in cities such as in Jerusalem where Jewish settler groups are supporting moving Jews into Arab neighbourhoods."

Lyons concludes the article with the sentence: "The question is whether the voices of moderation or extremism will prevail."

So readers are now to presume that it is controversial and an example of extremism when Jews attempt to legally and with the consent of the owners buy land or buildings in Arab neighbourhoods in Israel itself. Yet when Israeli Arabs move into so-called Jewish neighbourhoods it is almost always presented as a sign of reconciliation and integration. See, for instance, this article, which actually focuses on examples of Israelis being insufficiently welcoming of Arabs moving into predominantly Jewish cities.

Even apart from the appalling headline, the kindest judgement one can make of the piece is that Lyons shows little subtlety in handling what are very complicated issues.

- Allon Lee

 

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