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On the Lawful Façade of Israel’s Discriminatory Policies in East Jerusalem

Yesterday morning while crossing the Qalandiya checkpoint to my way to work in Ramallah I “earned” a traffic ticket. The police officer informed me that I had violated the right of way while driving in a second lane around the circle just before the checkpoint. I pass there every day, and every day drivers proceed ever so slowly in several lanes around that circle to enter the obstructed checkpoint.

Trying to be “friendly,” the policeman who issued the expensive tickets to me and other drivers said: “I’m here to help people have the right of way.”

“In fact,” I responded, “it is the checkpoint that prevents the right of way for all of us, not my driving.”

But this was not the only “violation” I’ve committed. As a non-Jewish resident of East Jerusalem, conspiracy, smuggling and bribery are part of my everyday life.

I must conspire with friendly neighbors in order to find a parking spot for my car when I arrive home late at night: they move their cars to provide me some scarce room for parking. Too few parking places increasingly has led to ugly fighting between neighbors in East Jerusalem’s shrinking neighborhoods.

I’m also guilty of smuggling delicious goat cheese made in West Bank villages. When my friends give it to me, I hide it under my car seat and drive with a rapidly beating heart through the checkpoint, praying that the soldiers will not notice it and confiscate it or fine me, and that the cheese and I will arrive safe to enjoy a supper with my family. Israeli law criminalizes bringing meat, cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables from the West Bank to Jerusalem, leaving no legal option for someone who boycotts Israeli products. Border police sometimes even use dogs to make sure no one brings in a prohibited item.

At home, instead of chasing children jumping up and down in our cramped living room or worrying about them playing in the streets where people drive fast, I resort to bribing my nephews and nieces with my laptop, smartphone and iPad to sit quietly indoors. While West Jerusalem boasts 1,000 public parks, 34 swimming pools, 26 public libraries and 531 sports facilities, East Jerusalem has 45 public parks, 3 swimming pools, 2 libraries, and 33 sport facilities. This leaves few options for a community where the majority of children like to picnic and play outdoors.

Leisure time for Arab East Jerusalemites not only is constrained by this lack of resources, but by official policies of discrimination and segregation. In May, for example, a Jaffa schoolteacher was unable to make a reservation for a class trip to Superland, an amusement park. When he gave the real name of the Arab school where he taught he was told there were no tickets. But when he called back speaking fluent Hebrew and gave the name of an Israeli school, all of a sudden there were plenty of tickets available and his pupils were welcome. When the story went public, Superland management claimed that many schools ask to visit the park on days when only students from schools of the same ethnic group will be there, to ensure the “safety” of all visitors. Doesn’t that sound very much like segregated America in the years before the civil rights movement (see June/July 2013 Washington Report, p. 36).

On just about any given Jerusalem morning, Arab residents share photos on social media of the latest demolished home. Statistics show that building permits for Palestinians are almost impossible to obtain. While illegal settlements for Jews only continue to grow, naturally growing Palestinian families cannot legally expand or renovate their already aging and small houses. They thus are often left with no choice but to build without a permit, despite the ever-present risk of demolition which threatens thousands of buildings and puts thousands of families at risk of homelessness. Since occupying Arab East Jerusalem in 1967, Israeli authorities have thwarted its development by sparing no effort to launch legal proceedings against non-Jewish residents who build without permits.

The Jerusalem municipality not only issues and implements demolition orders on its Palestinian citizens, it also fails to provide adequate services in East Jerusalem—despite the fact that we pay equal taxes and much higher fines than Jewish Israelis. Moreover, threats of demolition orders are used to extract hundreds of thousands of shekels from Palestinian owners. Just today the Amira family from Sur Baher village, south of East Jerusalem, demolished the two-story home it built a year ago, because Israeli charts show the family lot as registered in area C, where Israeli occupation authorities forbid building by Palestinian residents. Israeli authorities threatened to send bulldozers to level the family home and bill the owner more than 200,000 NIS (nearly $60,000) to do the job on his behalf.

The gap between East and West Jerusalem when it comes to such crucial services as infrastructure, construction, sanitation, welfare, education, social affairs, roads and recreational and cultural facilities is enormous. Yet Israeli media habitually cite statistics showing that “Arab residents” have a higher incidence of household and road accidents—as if we are inferior beings, not living in a deliberately underprivileged environment.

Government offices are much more user-friendly in West Jerusalem, with special access for the disabled and longer office hours. They do have one thing in common with offices located in East Jerusalem, however: both sides display signs and use forms in Hebrew only. In the Ministry of Interior’s population registry office in East Jerusalem, for example, Arabic-speaking residents must either pay to have the documents translated or depend on the good will of the civil servants who work there.

Israel is determined to maintain a “demographic balance” in Jerusalem of at least 70 percent Jews. A key strategy is its revocation of permanent residency status for Arab East Jerusalemites—as if we were foreign immigrants. Such draconian policies as the prohibition on construction and the denial of applications for family unification with Palestinian spouses and children living outside Jerusalem have caused thousands of Palestinian families to leave their native Jerusalem for Ramallah, Jericho and other places in the West Bank where life is less difficult. In so doing, they lose their status as permanent residents of Israel—and the rights associated with it. Israel’s “right” to revoke the residency status that it “grants” to non-Jewish residents of East Jerusalem is considered “lawful”—even though it ignores that fact that we were born in Jerusalem, have lived there all our lives, and have no other home or citizenship rights elsewhere.

As I contemplate the ticket I was given for “violating the law,” it seems undeniable that Israeli regulations are scrupulously designed to make our daily life—and mere existence—unlawful in East Jerusalem, to the point where one might lose sight of who’s the offender and who the offended. Certainly Israeli laws regarding its non-Jewish residents are not consistent with international codes of human rights and ethics. Instead they serve to hijack our freedom and opportunities and cause harm to our personalities and damage to our souls, while granting a false sense of legality to our oppressors—the very opposite of what a law is meant to do!

One should not forget that it is we who are the natives of this city and this land. We belong to Jerusalem and have been here long before the disastrous moment in history when occupation seized our birthplace and enacted its discriminatory laws designed to contort us into compliant residents or shun us as delinquents and lawless intruders.

Samah Jabr is a Jerusalemite psychiatrist and psychotherapist who cares about the wellbeing of her community—beyond issues of mental health. This article was first published on wrmea.org.uk 

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