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A series on Statelessness: Palestinians in East Jerusalem fighting complete erasure

November 17, 2014 at 11:18 am

This November marked 60 years since the 1954 United Nations convention which first promised to tackle the issue of statelessness was adopted. Today however the problem is far from resolved and being stateless – not considered a national of any state-effects at least 10 million people worldwide. To mark the 60th anniversary of the UN’s pledge, MEMO has produced a series of articles on Palestinian statelessness. The article below looks at statelessness in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, unlike their Jewish neighbors are not defined as citizens of Israel, nor are they considered citizens of Palestine. Instead they balance precariously in a state of half existence, battling through papers and bureaucratic barriers that have been put in place with the aim of completely erasing them.

Following the 1967 war, Israel took control of the whole of Jerusalem, annexing East Jerusalem which was under the control of Jordan at the time. After the annexation, Israel conducted a census in these areas and granted permanent residency status to those present. Persons not present, many who were forced to flee as a result of the violence, lost their right to reside in their beloved city overnight.

Decades on, the situation remains much the same for the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. Despite being born in the city, they are denied the rights of a citizen and obtaining citizenship of any other country would bring an end to even their limited status. Becoming a citizen of a state that has illegally annexed their land also does not appeal.

As permanent residents they are passport-less, cannot travel freely across Israeli borders and cannot vote in Israeli national elections. For them, staying in their city is hinged on what is called the “Centre of Life Policy”. In December 1995, without prior notice, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior decided that permanent residency, unlike citizenship, was to be a matter of daily reality. The policy means to retain residency you must continuously prove that the center of your life is in Jerusalem.

In order to prove their “center of life” to the ministry, Palestinian residents must endlessly collect documents such as receipts of medical treatment in Jerusalem hospitals or school registration forms. The authorities scrupulously pore over these papers, even sending unannounced inspectors to investigate deeper.

Obtaining citizenship or permanent residency in another country, despite not being considered a citizen of any state, results in revocation of their status. Spending too long abroad can also lead to the same- all East Jerusalem Palestinians who had not lived there for seven year or more lost their right to after the 1995 decision. Since 1967, more than 14, 000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem have had their status as permanent residents revoked by the State.

Those who have had their status revoked face a life in hiding if they wish to remain, unable to register for university studies, apply for a job, sign up for an HMO or open a bank account.

In contrast, seventy percent of Jewish Israelis may hold two passports and can travel freely and relocate without fear that their citizenship will ever be revoked.

“You are constantly under watch all the time, from the day you are born and it doesn’t leave you until the day you die,” said Noa Diamond from Israeli rights group HaMoked. “It is a life facing the unknown. You have to plan your life on the Ministry of Interiors decisions.”

The Ministry can be especially cruel when it comes to the checks, scrutinizing the amount spent on electricity and saying it is too little for the whole family to be using it or the size of the apartment on the tax bill will be highlighted and the authorities will question if all the children can actually fit in this. The impromptu investigations can include inspectors checking the wardrobe of the family and deciding whether there is sufficient clothing in it or opening the fridge and evaluating its contents. “We are talking about the poorest socio-economic population, and the Ministry of the Interior is using their terrible socio-economic situation against them,” added Diamond.

The myriad of rules and regulations make normal family life difficult, even impossible. For example if X who holds a Jerusalem permanent resident ID marries Y from the West Bank, Y will not automatically be granted the right to reside with his wife- the couple can apply for “family reunification” when Y is 35 years old or over.

X won’t be able to live with her husband in the West Bank without fearing her residency rights will be revoked as her “center of life” will no longer be in Jerusalem. If she did move to the West Bank, like many Jerusalemites are forced to as a result of an artificial housing crisis brought on by discriminatory planning regulations, she will also not automatically receive a Palestinian ID card.

If they did apply for family reunification, which is normally a process that results in citizenship or permanent residency for the spouse in other countries, Y will only ever be eligible to receive an army permit which has to be renewed yearly indefinitely and limits all their actions (children from 14 onwards who apply for family reunification also only receive this). A change is Israel’s policy following HaMoked’s petition to the supreme court finally allows holders of permits to work as of 2013, but Diamond insists this is just “lip service” since high taxes make hiring Palestinians in this situation uneconomical.

If Y leaves the country and fails to renew this permit every year, he loses his right to ever return. Right of residency will not automatically pass onto their child. X will have to prove her centre of life is in Jerusalem before her child can be registered. Until she has done that the child will have no official residency status and will be exempt from certain social benefits.

People have a constant anxiousness about their status changing, noted Diamond. She said: “The main thing that strikes you when you meet people in this situation is they are constantly worrying about the bureaucracy to prove their centre of life is Jerusalem.”

“This is a tool Israel is using in order to push people out” said Diamond. “The goal is to have the minimum amount of Palestinians as permanent residents.”

Jalal Abukhater lived in this precarious situation for most of his childhood. Once a school boy studying in Ramallah, while living in East Jerusalem to retain his Jerusalem ID, he talked to MEMO about life being stateless. “I am not a full citizen of the state of Israel. Neither am I a full citizen of the Palestinian Authority. I am not even Jordanian. I do not hold any official nationality nor am I allowed to hold any.”

Life was like “living in purgatory,” he said. The separation wall that encircled Jerusalem turned the ten minute journey to school into a much longer ordeal as traffic waiting to get through the checkpoint clogged the road. His West Bank ID holding friends could not visit him.

But he added: “Staying in Jerusalem is resistance.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.