Israel has been gradually stripping thousands of Palestinian Bedouins from various villages in the southern Negev region of their citizenship status, claiming that they had been granted nationality in error – a move residents and legislators say is part of a state plan to do away with the minority population.
Although Israel has employed the revocation policy for more than two decades, Knesset Member Aida Touma-Suleiman of the Joint List says it has since 2010 become an increasingly “widespread phenomenon” that is in clear violation of Israel’s Citizenship Law.
“I found out about this [policy, implemented by the interior ministry] by chance during a site visit to one of the villages in the Negev – I was approached by some individuals who informed me of their dilemma,” Touma-Suleiman, who has been researching the policy and its effects for more than a year, told Al Jazeera.
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Bedouins who approach the Israeli Ministry of Interior for routine procedures to renew passports or issue new ones are informed on the spot that they are not citizens of state – despite being born in Israel and having lived there their whole lives. Residents say the policy is applied arbitrarily.
There are at least 200,000 Bedouins living in Israel, but are mainly centred in the country’s southern region.
According to Touma-Suleiman, representatives of the interior ministry had pointed out during an urgent Knesset meeting, that the policy is in place to correct a “state error” dating back to 1951 – three years after the establishment of the State of Israel. In their response to Touma-Suleiman, the ministry said that Palestinians were required to register themselves under a population registry between 1948 and 1951.
But for a period of 17 years, Palestinian Bedouin villages and towns were declared closed military zones when Israel declared itself a state in 1948, making it impossible for residents to leave these areas without a permit.
And due to the military rule that was in place, many of the residents at the time were unaware of the registration requirement.
The ministry claims that there are “2,600 Arabs” whose citizenships have either already been revoked, or are under threat of revocation, according to Touma-Suleiman.
“I think that the number is much higher than this,” she said, adding the policy is clearly targeting the Bedouin community in specific.
“They [Bedouins] already reside in unrecognised villages – when you deny them living rights, you deny them the right to exist in that area.”
For decades, Israeli authorities have been regularly carrying out home demolition orders in the Negev, claiming that villages lack necessary building permits, which residents say are impossible to obtain. Instead, Jewish-only towns have been encroaching on Palestinian lands, forcing families out of the areas.
Those who remain have no access to basic infrastructure or development opportunities. To date, some 40 unrecognised Bedouin villages – tens of thousands of Palestinian homes – are under existential threat in southern Israel.
“When they strip them of their citizenship, they are ultimately stripping them of their only remaining weapon [their rights as citizens – used to fight against forced evictions],” Touma-Suleiman explained.
Similarly, Adalah lawyer Sawsan Zaher believes that the citizenship revocation policy is not a single occurrence.
“One cannot ignore that this policy is being enforced in the Negev, while parallel to that there are other policies of forced eviction and home demolitions of Bedouins in place to establish new Jewish-only towns,” Zaher told Al Jazeera.
Describing the policy as “absurd”, Zaher explained that those who wish to reinstate their citizenship status are advised to apply as foreigners or newcomers to the state.
Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, is now representing Touma-Suleiman in an effort to cancel the policy and pressure the state into restoring citizenship status to those affected.
“We’re trying to tackle this collectively as a policy and not on an individual basis,” Zaher said.
In a letter addressed to the Israeli interior ministry, Adalah explained the defects of the policy, demanding that the policy be immediately cancelled and citizenship be returned to those who lost it.
Israel’s 1952 Citizenship Law does not grant authority to the state to revoke citizenship, even in the case of an error in registration. According to Zaher, such authority only lies with the high court.
“The only scenario where they can cancel citizenship is if you’re a foreigner and asked for a naturalisation process – and then provided the state with false information,” Zaher said.
“Only then can citizenship be revoked and only by the interior minister no less than three years from when the citizenship was granted – otherwise … the high court is the only entity that can revoke citizenship.”
According to Zaher and Touma-Suleiman, the interior ministry has not denied the existence of such a policy. The ministry has not made a formal acknowledgment and did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter in time for publication.
Following months of parliamentary work, both Touma-Suleiman and Zaher say that they have exhausted all of the legal channels available in tackling this phenomenon.
“I received a letter from the Ministry of Justice [earlier this week], and in their response, they clearly shy away from providing an honest answer – and this is why we are now considering to approach the high court in this regard,” Touma-Suleiman said.
Currently, there are families with mixed statuses, with some members recognised as citizens, and others rendered “stateless” – a status that violates international law.
Sallam Al Saraheen, a 23-year-old resident of the Bir Hadaj village, says that he has been trying to obtain Israeli citizenship for the past year.
“Five of my brothers were successful, but three of us [siblings] were not,” he told Al Jazeera. “The policy is almost arbitrary and is used intermittently to keep us quiet,” he said.
Similarly, 50-year-old Salim Al Dantiri told Al Jazeera that he has been “chasing his tail” for more than two decades.
On a routine visit to the interior ministry, Al Dantiri was told that he was “not a citizen of the state”.
“I told them I’m most definitely a citizen – I used to go and vote in the parliamentary elections, how am I then not a citizen?” Al Dantiri recalled.
“Many of us were unaware that this policy existed – we, Bedouins, lead a simple life, and most of the time never have to leave the country at all – so we live/operate with our IDs, which clearly state that we are Israeli citizens.
“Some people until today are under the impression that they are citizens, and never had the need to issue a passport – but many rushed to do so just to make sure that they were, in fact, citizens.”
Over the past 25 years, Al Dantiri faced mounting difficulties in his attempts to issue visa for travel. Often times, his Israeli travel document is not recognized by many embassies representing numerous countries around the world. To date, he was able to visit Jordan for a limited time of two weeks, which he says was a onetime exception.
“Every single time I got my papers in order, proved that I was born in the state, and submitted a comprehensive application, they tell me to wait at home for six months and say they will send a package … But I waited time and time again and never received anything,” he said. “They never provide a valid reason,” he said.
Residents of the villages who fall under such a policy are hoping that their parliamentary representatives can resolve the matter in time. But Touma-Suleiman says that Palestinian Bedouins need to address and respond to the matter as a united front.
“We have to work to educate the people of the Negev about this policy – unfortunately, many of those who had their citizenships revoked were under the impression that this was an administrative procedure,” she said.
“We must empower those who are under the threat of revocation and must work to form a united front when dealing with this case.”