JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Israel's Supreme Court upheld a law yesterday that prevents Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from gaining legal residency to join spouses and children who are Israeli citizens.
In an unusually close 6-5 decision, the justices rejected the petitioners' argument that the measure is illegal by blocking family unification on the basis of ethnic or national origin.
The measure, which bars most Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from legal residency or citizenship in Israel, was imposed in 2002 at the height of the Palestinian uprising. A year later, it was passed into law on a temporary basis by the Israeli parliament and has been extended by lawmakers since. The measure is to be considered again in June.
In the court case, the government said restricting the entry of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip is part of a broader effort to prevent attacks on Israelis by Palestinian militants.
In 26 of 148 suicide attacks in Israel during the past five years, officials said, Israeli identification documents obtained through family unification have been used in some way, such as by a person driving the bomber to the target.
"It is a staggering 18 percent of suicide bombings that could not have otherwise been carried out, and this is the law's importance," said Yochie Gnessin, the government lawyer representing the state attorney's office.
As a result of the law, married couples have been kept apart or, in cases in which the Palestinian spouse has entered Israel illegally, live in fear of deportation, said Yoav Loeff, a spokesman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, one of the groups that challenged the law.
Several Supreme Court justices criticized the measure as overreaching, but the majority ruled that Israel's overall security needs outweigh the harm to families seeking to be unified.
Arab politicians and rights groups in Israel said the decision was a sign of Israel's discriminatory approach toward its Arab citizens, who make up about one-fifth of Israel's population of 7 million.
Critics said the law affects perhaps thousands of Arab citizens of Israel by blocking their Palestinian spouses who live in the West Bank or Gaza Strip from gaining residency or citizenship in Israel.
"It's a bad ruling for human rights in Israel. The court did not give remedy to the victims of the racist law that deprives fundamental rights from individuals based on their ethnicity," said Orna Kohn, a lawyer for Adalah, an advocacy group for Israeli Arabs.
Israeli lawmakers amended the measure last year to allow temporary stays for Palestinian men who are at least 35 and women 25 or older. But the law's opponents say other provisions left authorities with great leeway to deny applications on security grounds.
Also yesterday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian intelligence officer and five other men during raids in the West Bank town of Jenin and the nearby village of Qabatiyeh, Palestinian security officials said. The army said that in both places troops seeking to carry out arrests were fired on and returned fire.
An American teenager wounded last month in a Palestinian suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv restaurant died yesterday, doctors said. Daniel Wultz, 16, of Weston, Fla., was eating lunch with his father when the bomber struck. His death brought the toll of those killed in the April 17 attack to 11.
Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.