Palestinians who choose to study and work abroad are finding out - too late - that they have imperiled their right to return to their hometown.
Last Wednesday afternoon a "shabah," an illegal sojourner, sat in the small conference room of Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Solberg. That's how he was described by Solberg and a representative of the Interior Ministry, attorney Gur Rosenblatt. The illegal resident reads and writes Hebrew, but in the small room he had difficulty following the learned claims of the judge to the effect that a person born in Jerusalem's neighborhood of Sur Baher 43 years ago, whose parents and grandparents and great-great grandparents are from there, who went to elementary school and high school in Jerusalem, who recently paid NIS 120,000 for a construction permit from the Jerusalem municipality, is an illegal sojourner. In other words, a criminal.
Meet the criminal: Dr. Imad Hammada. He's a father of three, with a fourth on the way. Married to a nurse who works for the Leumit HMO in Jerusalem. This biography includes other elements that could sound very Israeli: studied electrical engineering in the United States and worked in Silicon Valley to pay for his doctoral studies and to get experience. Speciality: nanotechnology (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter ). Frequent visits to his family at home, in Jerusalem.
True, his stay abroad lasted longer than expected, from 1989 to 2007. That's familiar to us, too. Now, three months after receiving his doctorate, in August 2007, he and his family packed their suitcases and returned home, a year after he received American citizenship. An Israeli company and an American company with a branch in Israel wanted to employ him and changed their minds. The Interior Ministry informed them that he was a tourist.
Tourist? How come? That is how he discovered that the Interior Ministry had revoked his residency status. Through attorney Leah Tsemel he petitioned the Jerusalem District Court sitting as a Court for Administrative Matters, against the revocation of his permanent residency permit. For the past three years he has been living in his homeland, in his city, in his parents' home - without health insurance for the children, without rights, in constant danger of arrest and expulsion.
"The prolonged illegal stay in the country is to the detriment of the petitioner," said Judge Solberg in a stern voice. He said that it could be a reason for rejecting the petition out of hand. In the corridors of the District Court on Salah al-Din Street it was said that as opposed to liberal judges David Cheshin and Yehudit Tzur, who have left, Solberg is known for summarily rejecting similar petitions. It turns out that this time Solberg had inner conflicts, as he put it.
It's natural to go abroad
On the one hand, he said, the illegal stay causes us "to say that this is a reason for rejecting the petition out of hand." On the other hand, the judge said: "It's natural that people go [abroad] to study and stay for a while. There's room for a certain amount of forgiveness when you read that the man works in Herzliya (for a Taiwanese company with a branch in Ramallah ) and his wife works.... My initial feeling is that his connection with Israel is sincere."
Attorney Rosenblatt mentioned the "illegal stay" of the petitioner several times. Tsemel objected: This argument has not come up until now. My client entered legally and was born here and you know that it's his right to be here. In principle, said Rosenblatt, "he can leave the court and be arrested by a policeman because he's an illegal sojourner." And Tsemel: "In principle he can leave the court and be arrested because he's an Arab."
Solberg tried to calm things down. He said he was actually seeking a compromise. Let the petition be erased, he suggested, and let Dr. Hammada ask to begin a proceeding for "family reunification" (with his wife ). The parties had to reply by today. Afterward, next to the stairs, Rosenblatt would explain to Tsemel that it was nothing personal, but that he was operating according to the law.
The 1952 Law of Entry into Israel determines that anyone who is not an Israeli citizen or the holder of an immigrant's permit or immigrant's certificate does not have the right to live in Israel, and his residency in Israel is conditional on a residency permit that has been granted to him according to this law." The Law of Entry was imposed on Palestinians living in that part of the West Bank - East Jerusalem and the surrounding villages - that was annexed to Israel in 1967. "Israel entered us," bitterly say the people to whom the Law of Entry applies, "It wasn't we who entered it." Solberg mentioned that there is logic to the statement that the case of a (non-Jewish ) Frenchman who immigrated to Israel is not the same as the case of a Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem. But it wouldn't be right, he said, to discuss the matter of principle in connection with the present petition.
In addition to the Law of Entry there are regulations for entry into Israel which stipulate that the expiration of the permanent residency permit: A person will be considered to have settled abroad if one of the following conditions exists: he lived outside Israel for a period of at least seven years; he received a permanent residency permit in that country; he received citizenship of that country. One of the three conditions is sufficient to revoke the resident status of a Palestinian in East Jerusalem.
Until the end of 1995, the authorities were flexible and made do with visits by those living abroad at intervals shorter than "seven years of absence" in order to maintain residency. But in December 1995, during the term of Haim Ramon as interior minister in the short-lived government of Shimon Peres, the policy changed. Without previous warning, people who lived abroad but came for frequent visits discovered that their resident status had been revoked. A prolonged public battle - which involved Palestinian, Israeli and international organizations - created pressure that produced results early in 2000, when the interior minister was Natan Sharansky. In a declaration to the Supreme Court, he promised that the policy would revert to the pre-1995 practice. For those living abroad for any reason, their periodic visits would once again maintain their residency, whereas those who had lived abroad in the past (or who were living, for lack of housing, in a part of the West Bank that had not been annexed to Israel ) would get back their residency status if they proved that the center of their lives was in Jerusalem. With the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, the Interior Ministry resumed mass revocation of the permanent residency status of East Jerusalem Palestinians.
Imad Hammada is one of 289 Jerusalemites whose residency was revoked in 2007. In 2008, the residency of Murad Abu-Khalaf, 33, a native of Ras al-Amud, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering, was revoked. His family lived in the Baka neighborhood in West Jerusalem, from which it was expelled in 1948. The eight pages of his resume include a series of scientific publications, areas of expertise, fields of research, lectures, awards and prestigious places of work. In 2007, he completed his post-doctorate (with a stipend from the research division of the U.S. Army ). He also visited his family periodically. He knew that upon his return it was likely that he would not be hired for work in Israeli firms, and that he would teach at university. "I wanted to get some experience in the professional world outside the university," he said two days ago in a phone conversation from his Boston home.
An engineer in Boston
Since 2007, he has been working as a software engineer in an American firm in Massachusetts, The MathWorks, whose clients are the aircraft industry and security firms, including Israeli ones such as Rafael. The U.S. requires those employed in its security industry to receive a green card. This is not permanent residency for family reasons, or that of an asylum seeker - but for purposes of work only, emphasized Abu-Khalaf in the conversation. "Had I known that a green card would lead to the revocation of my right as a resident of Jerusalem, I would have returned after the post-doctorate. But what could I have done then, without practical experience? Sold falafel?"
Deliberations on Abu-Khalaf's petition will take place in his absence before Solberg next Thursday. Since January 2009, Abu-Khalaf has been seeking legal redress, also with the help of attorney Tsemel. His frequent but short visits (because of job commitments ) in 2009 did not satisfy the authorities. The validity of his travel document expired in January 2010. Since then, he hasn't seen his parents and his brother. His entire family lives in Jerusalem. His father is a family doctor, his brother is a doctor who works at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. He lives in Boston and he misses his friends and the streets of his childhood.
Attorney Achva Berman, an assistant to the Jerusalem District Prosecutor's Office, explained her opposition to permitting his return to Israel: "The policy of the Interior Ministry is a consequence of the sovereignty of the state and its exclusive authority to decide who can remain in its territory. For that purpose stringent criteria were determined, based on weighty humanitarian considerations... The acquisition of the status of a permanent resident in another place in the world... is what leads to the expiration of residency... In recent years (the petitioner ) has even been working in the U.S. By doing so the petitioner severed his connection with Israel."
Abu-Khalaf is one of 4,577 Jerusalemites whose residency was revoked in 2008, according to the data provided by the Interior Ministry to the Center for the Defense of the Individual. That is the highest number of residency revocations since the policy began in 1995. The previous record was in 2006 - 1,363 people whose residency status expired. In 1995, the number was 91. In 1996, the number 739. In 1997, there were 1,067 cases. In 1991, the number was 20.
It's believed that the vast majority of cases are people like them - Jerusalemites who went abroad for reasons of higher education and work experience, with the aim of returning after acquiring that experience and funding - intending to ameliorate the quality of their society. Expelling them from their country and from their hometown is the other side of the statistics of poverty and misery that typify Palestinian Jerusalem, which is under Israeli control.