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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

September 03, 2002

Digging deeper: Israeli citizenship and non-Jews

With the constant rush of headlines, we are sometimes left with no time to investigate issues a bit deeper or in a wider context. As a result, we can miss the larger picture, or end up with large wholes in our knowledge.
That is why I am starting this corner- to explore and dig a bit deeper into issues of this conflict. Please feel free to let me know about any subject you think that I should investigate.

I want to start with exploring the status of non-Jews in Israel. Two of the most common misconceptions about Israel are “only Jews can be citizens of Israel”, and “only Jews can naturalize and become Israeli citizens”.

Becoming an Israeli citizen

Under Israeli law, the acquisition of nationality is one of the few areas in which the law differentiates between Jews and non-Jews. Under the Law of Return, a Jew gets Israeli citizenship automatically when immigrating to Israel.
Non-Jews can acquire Israeli nationality in one of five ways.

1. Nationality by residence in Israel

Subject to certain qualifications, this section of the law grants Israeli citizenship to former Palestinian citizens who are currently residents of Israel and have lived in Israel since its creation on May 14, 1948, or have entered Israel legally between that time and July 14, 1952, the date the Nationality Law went into effect.

2. Nationality by birth

Nationality by reason of birth is given to any person whose father or mother was an Israeli national at the time of his birth. This provision holds true regardless of where the person in question may happen to have been born.

3. Naturalization by birth on Israeli territory in addition to 5 years immediate prior residence in Israel.

This provision grants Israeli nationality to persons who are born on Israeli territory who meet these qualifications: apply for Israeli citizenship between their 18th and 21st birthdays, have 5 consecutive years of residence in Israel immediately prior to filing a request for citizenship, have no criminal convictions for violation of security regulations, and have not been sentenced to jail for 5 years or more for violation of any other type of law.

4. Naturalization

A person 18 years of age or older may acquire Israeli nationality by naturalization if he meets these criteria: (1) is currently in Israel, (2) has been in Israel for 3 of the 5 preceding years, (3) intends to settle in the country (4) has some knowledge of Hebrew (former Palestinian citizens are exempt from this provision), (5) renounces any and all foreign nationalities, and (6) takes an oath of loyalty to the State of Israel. Completion of all of the above requirements is not essential in all instances, however, as the Minister of the Interior at his discretion has the power (for a special reason) to waive requirements (1), (2),(4), and (5) above.

5. By grant from the Minister of the Interior to certain categories of minors.

The law provides, in addition, for a discretionary grant of citizenship to minors who are not Israeli nationals but who are residents of Israel.

The number of non-Jew citizens in Israel

The Central Bureau of Statistics published today Selections from “The New Statistical Abstract” (in Hebrew). According to it, Israel's population is estimated at 6.592 million people.

Out of that number, 77.2% are Jews, 15.4% are Muslim, 2.1% are Christian and 2.1% are Druze. The rest are "unknown".

The Institute of Policy and Strategy published a paper, which explores demographic trends in Israel in further detail. The figures given there are very similar to the above.

The legal rights of non-Jewish citizens in Israel

Israel’s Proclamation of Independence states:

“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
We appeal - in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”

In that spirit, citizens who are non-Jews have freedom of religion as well as equal voting rights- Israel has quite a few non-Jewish members of the Knesset, as well as Arab parties. Arabic, like Hebrew, is an official language in Israel.
Except for the “Law of return”, one of the other few laws which differentiates between Jews and non-Jews is that the latter (specifically- Arab citizens) are not required to serve in the Israeli army. This is to spare Arab citizens the need to take up arms against their brethren. Nevertheless, Bedouins have served in paratroop units and other Arabs have volunteered for military duty. Compulsory military service is applied to the Druze and Circassian communities at their own request.

Both Jews and non-Jews can purchase land. However, of the total area of Israel, 92 percent belongs to the State and is managed by the Land Management Authority. It is not for sale to anyone, Jew or Arab. The remaining 8 percent of the territory is privately owned. The Arab Wakf, for example, owns land that is for the express use and benefit of Muslim Arabs. Government land can be leased by anyone, regardless of race, religion or sex. All Arab citizens of Israel are eligible to lease government land.

That is the legal part. In practice, as I wrote here before, Israel (like any other western country), is struggling with issues of prejudice and racism.
This situation is improving slowly, a lot due to the work of organizations like The Movement for Quality Government, The Association for Civil-Rights in Israel, The Abraham found, The Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, Adalah, (to name just a few) as well as official bodies like The State Comptroller & Ombudsman.