Racism at the East Jerusalem Interior Ministry Office
My wife and I were born in east Jerusalem before Israel’s 1967 occupation of the city. Our youngest daughter, Dina, was also born in Jerusalem.
We have kept a home in Jerusalem, a city which continues to be the center of our lives, despite the fact that I have had to travel a lot for work.
This week we spent an entire day at the only Interior Ministry office that is allowed to provide legal residency documents to Palestinians. The entire 350,000-strong population of east Jerusalem can only use a single Interior Ministry office, located in Wadi Joz, while they are for all practical purpose denied use of three other ministry offices (including offices in Gilo and Har Homa, that are located within settlements in areas occupied in 1967.
For Palestinians in Jerusalem the mandatory visit to the ministry is as hated as a visit to the dentist. You have to wait in line for hours just to enter the building and once inside you spend a few more hours until you get your turn and then you face a very unpleasant official who is looking for ways to trap you rather than help you. Every Palestinian wishing to get a travel document or an ID must visit this unwelcoming office. Getting our daughter’s permanent- status blue ID card was no different.
This visit is a huge operation for Palestinians in Jerusalem. You need to prepare all kinds of documents to prove that Jerusalem is the center of your life, even though in the end you are at the mercy of an Israeli official who ultimately makes the final judgment call.
We had done everything possible to help our daughter Dina, who was now eligible to get her own personal ID proving her residency in Jerusalem. We had brought our house rent contract, our utility bills and the arnona (municipal tax) for our house. Our daughter, who is studying at a prestigious boarding school in Jordan, has spent every summer in Jerusalem to show her connection to the city and she brought the needed document to show that she was attending a boarding school.
Four hours after arriving at the ministry we finally had a chance to meet the official who would determine her status. Within minutes of clicking on his computer the Israeli Jewish official (almost all those dealing with Palestinians are Israeli Jews) concluded that our daughter can’t get her ID because she is not living permanently in Jerusalem. The fact that she is going to a boarding school in Jordan appears to have been the smoking gun that the Israeli official latched on to deny her the right to receive her residency ID. “That means you are not living here and there is no need for you to have an ID,” he said without blinking an eye. “When you decide to live here permanently we will discuss giving you an ID.”
My protests that she will have a hard time moving around and even crossing the bridge to Jordan did little to change his mind. Typically, proving permanent residence means spending at least six months a year in Jerusalem, and therefore for the next four years of her studies abroad our daughter will not have an ID that confirms that she is a permanent resident of Jerusalem.
In many ways, the rights of about 350,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem are as fragile as our daughter Dina’s. They are similarly in the hands of Israeli officials whose main goal appears to be to find ways to deny residency to as many Palestinians as possible. Even after getting the coveted residency ID, Palestinians can lose their permanent residency in many different ways, including if Jerusalem is not the center of their lives (to be determined by the very same Israeli officials) or if they gain another residency or another citizenship.
Technically a permanent resident can apply for Israeli citizenship, but there is no automatic guarantee that he/ she will get citizenship. Most Palestinians spend their entire life not having a nationality other than the blue Israeli ID card vouching that they are permanent residents.
A prolonged stay away from the country for work or any other reason can easily be grounds for losing this right and therefore the ability to return to your birthplace unless as a tourist with limited permission to stay.
Palestinians in east Jerusalem don’t have passports from the Palestinian government, which is denied any right to represent or speak on their behalf. A children’s puppet festival was canceled by the Israeli authorities a few years ago because the Jerusalem-based Palestinian National Theater had received a Norwegian grant by way of the Palestinian Culture Ministry.
The status of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Jerusalem continues to be decided by Israeli officials who decide whether to grant or deny them possession of the very document that allows them residency in their city of birth. Some officials seem to quietly celebrate every time they deny the right of a Jerusalemite while grinding their teeth whenever they are forced to endorse such a right.
Nowhere is pure racism and discrimination practiced on a daily basis more often than at the Interior Ministry office in Wadi Joz. Sure, bureaucrats working there will insist that they are enforcing the law – which has put an entire population’s residency status in question – but that doesn’t make their work any less discriminatory against Palestinian Arabs.
After being denied her ID card, our daughter was upset but very determined. “Had I gotten the ID I might not have returned for many years because of college, but now that they denied me my right I will do everything possible to return and spend the necessary period in Jerusalem in order to gain my permanent residency,” Dina announced at our family dinner in Jerusalem that night.
Pressure, harassment and unadulterated racism is ugly, but it will not stop Palestinian Jerusalemites from insisting that they are not going anywhere. A serious effort needs to be made to address their complaints and honor their right to live and thrive in their city of birth.
The author is an award winning Palestinian journalist, former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and a resident of Jerusalem. Follow him on twitter.com/daoudkuttab