Last year set an all-time record for the number of Arab residents of East Jerusalem who were stripped of residency rights by the Interior Ministry. Altogether, the ministry revoked the residency of 4,577 East Jerusalemites in 2008 - 21 times the average of the previous 40 years.

In the first 40 years of Israeli rule over East Jerusalem combined, from 1967 to 2007, the ministry deprived only 8,558 Arabs of their residency rights - less than double the number who lost their permits last year alone. Thus of all the East Jerusalem Arabs who have lost their residency rights since 1967, about 35 percent did so in 2008.

According to the ministry, last year's sharp increase stemmed from its decision to investigate the legal status of thousands of East Jerusalem residents in March and April, 2008. The probe was the brainchild of former interior minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) and Yaakov Ganot, who headed the ministry's Population Administration.

The ministry said the probe uncovered thousands of people listed as East Jerusalem residents but were no longer living in Israel, and were therefore stripped of their residency. Most of those who lost their residency for this reason did not just move from Jerusalem to the West Bank, but were actually living in other countries, the ministry's data shows.

Those deprived of their residency included 99 minors under the age of 18.

Attorney Yotam Ben-Hillel of Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual said the 250,000 Arab residents of East Jerusalem have the same legal status as people who immigrated to Israel legally but are not entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return.

"They are treated as if they were immigrants to Israel, despite the fact that it is Israel that came to them in 1967," he said.

A resident, unlike a citizen, can be stripped of his status relatively easily. All he has to do is leave the country for seven years or obtain citizenship, permanent residency or some other form of legal status in another country, and he loses his Israeli residency automatically.

Once a Palestinian has lost his residency, even returning to Jerusalem for a family visit can be impossible, Ben-Hillel said. Moreover, he said, some of those whose residency Israel revoked may not have legal status in any other country, meaning they have been made stateless.

"The list may include students who went for a few years to study in another country, and can now no longer return to their homes," he said.

Officials at Hamoked, which obtained the ministry data via the Freedom of Information Act, said they were concerned that some of those who lost their residency rights may not even know it.

"The phenomenon of revoking people's residency has reached frightening dimensions," said Dalia Kerstein, Hamoked's executive director. "The Interior Ministry operation in 2008 is just part of a general policy whose goal is to restrict the size of the Palestinian population and maintain a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. The Palestinians are natives of this city, not Johnny-come-latelys."

Sheetrit, however, insisted that the operation was necessary. "What we discovered is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "The State of Israel pays billions of shekels a year in stipends to people who don't even live here. We sent notices to every one of them about the intention to revoke their residency; we gave them time to appeal. Those who appealed weren't touched."

The ministry data shows that 89 Palestinians got their residency back after appealing. Sheetrit said the probe revealed very serious offenses - such as 32 people listed as living at a single address that did not even exist.