Revoking citizenship: Israel’s new repressive tool

The revoking of Alaa Zayoud’s Israeli citizenship sets a dangerous precedent.

Umm al-Fahm
Israeli Palestinians pray during a rally in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm on March 30, 1999, protesting land confiscation by the Israeli authorities [AP Photo/Eyal Warshavsky]

There are very few firsts when it comes to the ways in which Israel has selectively and disproportionately singled out Palestinians for differential justice. In early August, the Haifa district court ruled to strip Palestinian Alaa Zayoud of his Israeli citizenship after he was convicted of four counts of attempted murder. This ruling was a first even for Israel.

The stripping of Zayoud’s citizenship is based on Israel’s 2008 “Nationality Law”, which gives the court the right to revoke citizenship in cases of “breach[ing] of loyalty to the State of Israel” including, for example, terrorist acts. That Israel will selectively apply the law is not surprising. As the organisation, Adalah, noted, “there has never been a request to revoke the citizenship of a Jewish citizen, even when Jewish citizens were involved in serious and grave crimes”. This includes the case of Yigal Amir who assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are 20 percent of Israel’s population. They are what remains of the Palestinian population within today’s Israeli borders after expulsion, displacement and killing, which Palestinians refer to as al-Nakba. Israeli citizenship for this group of Palestinians is far from inclusive and has often been used as a tool through which the state can further promote Jewish supremacy, acting on its fears of the demographic growth of the Palestinian population. 

READ MORE: Israeli citizenship law tears Palestinian families apart

Israel’s Nationality Law is one way of reconfiguring – albeit slowly – the Israeli population. It could be used in the future in systematic campaigns to keep the Palestinian minority’s numbers low and unthreatening to the Jewish majority. 

The Israeli state perceives and treats its Palestinian citizens as a security threat, not as individuals who hold full citizenship rights.


Israel was “generous” enough to add a stipulation in the law providing permanent residency to any citizen who becomes stateless after being stripped of their citizenship. But Palestinians know all too well how easily Israel revokes permanent residency; case in point – the nearly 15,000 Jerusalemites, who since 1967 have had their residency permits cancelled and who cannot stay in their city of birth.

The ruling of the Haifa court on Zayoud’s case also comes on the heels of the killing in al-Aqsa Mosque compound of two Israeli policemen by three Palestinians from Umm al-Fahm – the same city which Zayoud is from. Um al-Fahm is also part of “the triangle” of Palestinian towns and villages, which Israel has contemplated transferring to a future Palestinian state in exchange for illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

This proposal met anger by Israeli Palestinians, not only because of its clear intent of stripping their citizenship, but also because it signals that ultimately only Jews will be allowed to remain within Israeli borders, not Palestinians. 

Judge Avraham Elyakim of the Haifa court, who ruled on Zayoud’s case, stated that: “for every citizen, alongside his rights, there are commitments”. But why are commitments demanded when rights are not really fully extended to the Palestinians in Israel? What has the Israeli state done for them? It has required their strict loyalty in exchange for a second-class citizenship, the guarantee of which is now proven to be arbitrary.

READ MORE: Israel to revoke Jerusalem residency of Palestinians

Judge Elyakim went on to say: “We cannot allow an Israeli citizen to impact the lives and dignity of other Israeli citizens, and whoever decides to do so in acts of terror removes himself from the general society of the country”. What he should have added is that this is applicable only if the person in question is a Palestinian citizen of Israel – because this is what this law and its application to Zayoud’s case is really about.

Responding to the revocation of Zayoud’s citizenship, Interior Minister Arie Deri who initially filed the request to strip him of citizenship stated: “the court decision strengthens the deterrent and strengthens our campaign to protect the security of the country.” And this is exactly how the Israeli state perceives and treats its Palestinian citizens – as a security threat, not as individuals who hold full citizenship rights. 

Zayoud is entitled to an appeal of the decision to revoke his citizenship, but it does not matter whether he wins it or not. The precedent has already been set and the “disloyalty” argument has been validated in court. This ruling is one of the starkest examples of the deeply embedded and systemic anti-Palestinian sentiment in the laws, policies, and politics of Israel.

This case gives us a glimpse of what is yet to come in terms of Israel’s delayed but persistent attempts to finish the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. The stripping of citizenship will be one more way for Israel to exercise collective punishment on Palestinians and to normalise and legalise it.

Maha Hilal is the inaugural Michael Ratner Middle East fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, and a co-principal investigator of Tulane University’s Torture Trauma Initiative. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.