Text size

For me as for most citizens of independent states, the ability to study and work abroad while maintaining citizenship in one’s home country is unexceptional. But for a growing number of Palestinians with Jerusalem ID, a trip overseas can mean the loss of their right to residency in their homeland.

Consider the case of Tamam al Zobaidi, a woman whose family roots in Jerusalem span centuries. But half a world away, in Vancouver, Canada, the effects of an inequitable Israeli policy on Jerusalem identity papers are putting her and her family through a familiar ordeal.

Their new home is beginning to feel a lot like their old one, in some unexpected ways. The insecurity and lack of mobility that have become part of the Palestinian experience have followed them all the way to this far-flung corner of the Pacific. When I went to speak with her, Tamam, a 36-year-old chef and mother of two, said, “It feels strange to be confined now to my home and immediate neighborhood, but not unfamiliar.”

Since the middle of April, Tamam has joined thousands of her compatriots living in a Kafkaesque legal limbo. Without any travel documents or other ID, she is afraid to travel far from home, and can no longer work legally in Canada. She fears possible deportation, but cannot legally be deported without proper travel documents. “Where would I be deported to?” she wonders.

The life she and her family have become accustomed to since they moved to Vancouver in 2006 - with complete freedom of mobility, a thriving catering business, and her film-maker husband Sobhi’s successful doctoral work at Simon Fraser University - has been turned upside down. The relative stability they enjoyed has been replaced by constant fear and tension. When Tamam says, “We don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” thousands of other Palestinian Jerusalemites are thinking the same thing.

The family’s situation is not unique, but part of a deliberate Israeli policy where temporary residency abroad is erroneously deemed as a kind of landed immigrant status, resulting in the cancellation of Jerusalem IDs and a refusal to issue travel documents.  (According to Btselem in 2009, 707 Palestinians had their Jerusalem ID revoked for “relocation abroad”) Correspondingly, this mitigates any attempt at establishing permanent residency abroad, for fear of losing Jerusalem ID status - as was the case with Hanan Ashrawi’s daughter Zeina, and creates a perennial state of instability.

The al-Zobaidi family’s story began last October, when they went to renew the travel documents for Tamam and her 10 year old daughter, Kenza - who both hold Jerusalem IDs (Sobhi has a Palestinian Authority ID, while their youngest daughter Maleekah was born in Canada and holds Canadian citizenship). After 5 years of having their laissez-passers renewed by the consulate without issue, they were suddenly denied. The reason given was that the family owed $8000 U.S. of back taxes to the municipality of Jerusalem, for a house they last rented in 2005.

Rather than enter into a protracted bureaucratic battle to prove that it was the current tenants of the house, and not themselves, that owed the taxes, the al-Zobaidis opted to pay the tax via a lawyer in Jerusalem, and promptly sent the legal documents proving payment to the Israeli consulate in Toronto. They were told the matter would be resolved in a few days. It was not.

Faxes and repeated phone calls to the consulate led nowhere. Finally on January 19th 2012, they received a notice from Canadian immigration authorities threatening Tamam and her daughter Kenza with removal, unless they produced the necessary papers within 90 days. The family hired an immigration lawyer, whose pointed letter expressing the urgency of the situation met with complete silence.

As the April 19th deadline approached, Kenza was greatly distressed at the thought of leaving the school she had attended for years, and the family was caught in a nightmare of panic and worry. Then, at the 11th hour, on the day of the deadline, the Israeli consulate issued Kenza’s, but not Tamam’s, laissez-passer.

The reason? They did not say, but the family is convinced it was the result of a campaign by the progressive Jewish community in Vancouver (initially spear-headed by local rabbi and activist David Mivasair) who sent out a flurry of emails, faxes and letters to Canadian politicians and to the Israeli consulate and embassy in Ottawa. Unusually, they even received an email from the offices of Jason Kenney, the Canadian Minister of Immigration for the ruling Conservative Party, stating he had contacted the Israeli consulate himself.

The support of the progressive Jewish community in Canada was no small comfort to the al-Zobaidis. Sobhi says he was “overwhelmed” by the number of encouraging emails he received from supporters - even one who mentioned he had a cousin who worked at the consulate and would broach the issue with him.

However, until Tamam receives her laissez-passer, the fate of the al-Zobaidi family is still uncertain. They join the ranks of thousands of other Palestinians with Jerusalem ID, who are victims of an Israeli policy eager to eliminate the legal residency status of those who pursue higher education abroad or overseas employment possibilities unavailable to them at home.

Caught between the opportunity to improve their lot, and a desire to return to their homeland and contribute to it, these Palestinians find themselves in a legal no man’s land. It’s high time this kind of “bureaucratic cleansing” is revealed for what it is: yet another attempt by Israeli authorities to deny Palestinians their historical birthright.

But ironically, this policy may backfire - at least in Canada - as the denial of laissez-passers documents will only result in Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs being deported back to…Israel.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq, and a past contributor to The Guardian and The New York Times. She is currently researching a political/familial travelogue about her relatives in Lebanon, Israel and Palestine called Lands of Light.