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Discrimination vs. Coexistence

A capital question

More Palestinians are losing their right to live in Jerusalem than ever before.

The Economist
May 10, 2007

On May 15th, “Nakba [Catastrophe] Day”, Palestinians mourn the loss of most of their homeland to the newborn state of Israel. In a grim irony for them, this year's “Jerusalem Day”, the date in the lunar Jewish calendar when Israel celebrates its “reunification” of the city after capturing the West Bank in the 1967 war, falls the day after.

The 245,000 Palestinians from Jerusalem itself will feel the irony extra sharply. Last year 1,363 of them, many from generations-old Jerusalem families, lost their right to live in the city—up more than six-fold on the year before, and the highest annual total ever.

Demography has been the chief battle-ground for control of the holy city ever since Israel annexed the eastern, Arab part. It tried to consolidate its hold by building Jewish neighbourhoods (illegal settlements, in the eyes of international law) around the Arab ones. Systematic under-funding of municipal services in the east also drove many Palestinians to live in nearby Ramallah or Bethlehem, in the West Bank. Still, Jews today make up only 66% of the city's population, compared with 74% in 1967; a study published this week reported that the Arab growth rate is nearly twice that of the Jewish one.

Israel, meanwhile, has found various grounds to revoke the “permanent resident” status granted to most Arab Jerusalemites after the annexation. This bestows the right to work, get social benefits and vote in local elections, but not a passport or a vote in Israel's national elections—nor, apparently, permanence. In 1995 Israel began to strip the status from Palestinians who could not prove that their “centre of life” was in Jerusalem. It stopped four years later, after it emerged that the policy was making more of them move back.

Now they lose their status if they live abroad for more than seven years or get residency or citizenship in another country. In this respect, Israel treats them like other non-naturalised immigrants, “though it was Israel, in effect, that immigrated to them,” points out Yotam Ben-Hillel, a lawyer at HaMoked, a legal-advice centre. Last year's spike in revocations, the interior ministry wrote to B'Tselem, an Israeli human-rights group, was because of “an improvement in working procedures and control at the ministry, above all at border crossings”.

Even so, Arab Jerusalemites can get their residency back if they have visited Israel at least once every three years. The trouble is that they lose it automatically, sometimes without knowing, and then have to prove their right to it. Ahmed Jubran, who moved abroad in 1989 and has had American citizenship since 1997, says he has come back to visit his relatives at least once a year. Two years ago Israeli border officials began stamping his American passport instead of the laissez-passer that Israel issues to Arab Jerusalemites. They also warned him that he might not always get a visa. Only three months ago did he learn that he had lost his residency. “I'll do anything to get it back,” he says. “Hell, I'll even become Jewish if they want.”

Off you go

However, Jerusalemites who live elsewhere in the West Bank can lose their residency too. Since merely leaving the city entails no border-crossings and thus leaves no records, the authorities subject anyone they suspect of living outside it to a battery of checks, from producing municipal tax receipts and utility bills to enduring frequent home visits from inspectors who poke through sock drawers and kitchen cabinets.

Jerusalemites might have more say over their fate if most did not boycott municipal elections. They stay away partly out of protest, but partly, says Rami Nasrallah, head of the International Peace and Co-operation Centre in Jerusalem, because the fear of losing residency shapes all their contacts with the authorities. “They have become more individualistic,” he says. “It's a survival strategy.”

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Additional Resources

Human Rights Watch – Second Class: Discrimination Against Palestinian Arab Children in Israel’s Schools

Jews for Justice – The Arab Citizens of Israel


Association for Civil Rights in Israel

Seeds of Peace

Mossawa Center: The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel

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