Jerusalem's Stateless Residents
When Israeli troops occupied the West Bank’s main city, Jerusalem, in June 1967, a thriving population was already living there. Jerusalem’s Palestinians did not go to Israel, the state of Israel came to them. However, while the rest of the occupied territories were ruled by an army using military law, the Israelis treated East Jerusalem differently.
Within months of their occupation, the Israelis expanded the boundaries of East Jerusalem, especially in the northern part, so that it includes Qalandia Airport and imposed Israeli civil law on the city’s population. Theoretically, the difference between living under civil rather than military rule appears more advantageous to the population. But in fact, and especially after the signing of the Oslo Accords, this advantage turned into a major liability.
As the population of the rest of the West Bank slowly moved towards statehood, received Palestinian passports and were able to participate in political life, the situation of Jerusalemites remained stagnant and in many ways worsened. Efforts got under way to separate East Jerusalem from its natural surroundings by means of an eight-metre high cement wall and strict orders were issued banning engagement by Palestinians with their legitimate leadership in Ramallah. Housing permits within Jerusalem continued to be rare and economic development received a big blow as the natural population that came to the city from nearby towns and villages all of sudden needed Israeli army-issued permits to enter.
Perhaps the single biggest problem facing the population of East Jerusalem was, and continues to be, the lack of guarantees for the right to live in one’s own birthplace. Everyone who was living in Jerusalem at the time of the Israeli occupation was granted residency, something akin to the US green card. However, unlike the green card there is no direct path to citizenship. The few residents willing to forgo their abilities to travel to Arab countries and wishing to, can apply for Israeli citizenship but are not guaranteed to get it. The issue is totally left to the discretion of the Israeli interior ministry, which considers it a sovereign right.
The vast majority of Jerusalem residents, who some say number around 300,000, chose not to apply for citizenship and continued to be allowed to live in their own city as long as they did not violate the residency rights. A leading cause for losing your residency is the issue of where you live. If, for any reason, you decide to live outside the city for a long time you risk losing your right to reside in it. Over 14,000 Palestinians from Jerusalem lost their residency rights between 1967 and 2011. Since then, hundreds have been added to the list.
Two years ago, the Israelis added a few more reasons for losing your residency, including political reasons. Four Palestinians from East Jerusalem who won seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 are now fighting for their right to live in the city because of the list they joined. The elections were conducted under international supervision and sanctioned by Israel. But because the pro-Islamic list is seen to be affiliated to Hamas, when the war between Israel and Hamas took place in Gaza these elected parliamentarians were punished by being deported and their residency rights were revoked.
Now the Israeli government is mulling a new form of collective punishment against East Jerusalem’s Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that Jerusalem residents living beyond the arbitrarily built wall might lose their residency rights. The separation barrier divided many of Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods leaving nearly 80,000 Jerusalemites living beyond it.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which has been following up on issues of East Jerusalem, complained to Netanyahu. “Not only is denying residents status unacceptable, immoral and without legal basis; but it is a further intervention into the lives of people living beyond the wall,” ACRI wrote. In their letter to the Israeli prime minister, the Israeli rights organisation noted that the wall imprisoned many Palestinians and was only approved by the Israeli high court after the state committed to providing proper services to this segment of the population.
It is not clear if Israel’s retaliatory punishment to the people of Jerusalem will achieve the desired results. The 1995 guidelines about the need for Jerusalemites to prove their connection to the city in order to retain their rights, resulted in a mass movement of people returning to the city. If the current Israeli intentions become policy, it is expected that a large number of Jerusalemites living beyond the wall will move back into the city, even at high personal cost. Families will double and triple in homes of relatives and friends rather than lose their right to live in their city. Such a move would certainly be the opposite of the perceived Israeli intention of finding administrative ways to reduce the Palestinian Arab population of Jerusalem. The attachment of Jerusalemites to their birthright continues to be seen and felt in every aspect of Palestinian life and housing decisions.