Israel’s Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, has ordered his department to hurriedly draft the country’s first immigration law to protect Israel’s Jewish majority.

He said a Basic Law was needed within eight months, the expiry date of the temporary Nationality and Entry into Israel Law. The Knesset has repeatedly renewed the law since the it was first passed in July 2003 to prevent Palestinians from the occupied territories who marry an Israeli from gaining residency or citizenship rights in Israel.

However, the temporary law has faced a series of legal challenges in the courts which the government fears may eventually see it overturned. Although the Supreme Court dismissed the latest batch of petitions against the law last month, a slim majority of the judges intimated that the law in its current, overtly discriminatory form cannot be allowed to stand for much longer.

The new immigration law, Ramon announced on 25 May, would permanently prevent Palestinians and other Arabs from gaining rights in Israel, even if married to an Israeli citizen. "The State of Israel, which designates itself a Jewish and democratic state, is authorized to limit entry via its borders," he said.

Currently, naturalisation in Israel is governed by two separate pieces of legislation depending on the applicants’ ethnicity. Jews gain automatic citizenship under the Law of Return of 1950, and are also allowed to bring with them a spouse, children and grandchildren.

Non-Jews must apply for residency under the Nationality Law of 1952, which requires them to apply for temporary residency permits for five years after marrying an Israeli. At the end of process, they are eligible for permanency residency, and possibly citizenship if the security services approve their application and the applicant renounces his or her existing citizenship.

The 2003 temporary amendment modified the Nationality Law so that Palestinians were barred from gaining such rights through family unification. Human rights groups have denounced the measure as racist because it exclusively damages the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. Marriages between Palestinians in the occupied territories and Arab citizens are common because of ethnic and national ties between the two groups.

As Israelis are banned under military regulations from entering Palestinian-controlled areas, the law effectively makes it impossible for these couples to live together. The government has reported there are at least 6,000 couples affected by the temporay law.

Inconsistently, Ramon has claimed that the new law will allow naturalisation based on "universal principles" while adding that it "will give priority to Jews returning to their homeland". It will also, however, prevent residents of "enemy states" – meaning Arabs — from becoming Israeli citizens.

Ramon is reported to favour legislating the immigration bill as a Basic Law so that its constitutionality cannot easily be challenged by the Supreme Court.

Although the temporary law has been justified on security grounds – to prevent Palestinians who marry an Israeli from using their citizenship to launch attacks – most observers accept that the government’s real motivation is demographic.

Family unification is the sole route to naturalisation in Israel for Palestinians, and many senior Israeli officials fear that, once Israel effectively seals its borders through Ehud Olmert’s "convergence" plan, unification could allow Palestinians "a right of return through the back door".

Pointing to the need for tighter immigration policies, senior Haaretz commentator Avraham Tal recently noted: "An effective barrier should be erected to protect the state from being flooded by foreigners, especially Palestinians, who could threaten the state’s character as a national home for the Jewish people."

Tal did not note that Palestinians are not "foreigners" but the indigenous people of the area, stateless and living under Israeli military occupation.

In the Supreme Court hearing last month, the majority leader, Judge Michael Cheshin also referred ellipticly to demographic reasons for legal restrictions on Palestinian residency rights. He said the Nationality and Entry into Israel Law was needed to "protect the face of Israeli society". This was presumed to mean its Jewishness.

In drawing up the new law, Ramon’s officials are expected to draw on the recommendations of an immigration committee, headed by Israel’s foremost constitutional law expert, Amnon Rubinstein, that published its draft report in February.

According to the Rubinstein committee, residents of hostile states, meaning Arabs, should be banned from all unification rights on marrying an Israeli and other non-Jews would face income and age restrictions and be expected to affirm a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

– I’lam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel is a non-profit organization based in Nazareth. It was founded in 2000, by a group of Arab journalists and academics. As the only Arab Palestinian media organization in Israel, I’lam is deeply committed to the democratization of media policies, media practices, and the media landscape in Israel.