Who Are East Jerusalem’s ‘Permanent Residents’?

They were born and bred in the capital, but they aren't Israeli citizens and their status is anything but permanent. In some cases, it may even be revoked.

Ariel David
Ariel David
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A map of East and West Jerusalem.
Ariel David
Ariel David

It is called permanent residency status, but like many other things in the Middle East, it can be anything but permanent.

With the recent flare-up in violence centering around Jerusalem, the Israeli government has been threatening to revoke the residency, or citizenship, of East Jerusalem Arabs who are involved in terrorism – even if only by association through a relative.

Interior Minister Gilad Erdan made good on this threat recently by ordering the deportation to the Palestinian territories of the widow of one of the two terrorists who attacked a Jerusalem synagogue on November 18, killing four worshippers and a policeman.

Erdan also revoked the residency permit of the East Jerusalem Palestinian driver for the suicide bomber who carried out the attack on the Dolphinarium club in Tel Aviv in 2001, killing 21 people.

East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will advance a law to revoke the residency rights of terrorists and their relatives, as well as imposing a ban on those convicted of incitement from receiving state benefits.

But who are these permanent residents who are among those at the center of the storm? What exactly is their status and in what way can they be considered akin to immigrants in their own home?

When Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the Six-Day War of 1967, it granted the inhabitants of the newly captured neighborhoods permanent residency status and offered them citizenship.

At present, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, out of a total population of 815,000, there are now some 300,000 Arabs in Jerusalem. Only 12 percent of them have Israeli citizenship, the Interior Ministry reports. Obtaining citizenship demands various procedures like swearing allegiance to the Jewish state and showing some knowledge of Hebrew, but rights groups say the main problem is the social taboo surrounding such a move: Palestinians feel that the process implies recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which they claim as capital of their future state.

That is why most East Jerusalemites continue to live in the city as permanent residents, the same status afforded to non-Jewish foreigners who move to Israel (Jewish immigrants can easily obtain citizenship thanks to the Law of Return).

Permanent residents are issued the same blue ID card as Israelis, which allows them to live and work anywhere in the country, grants them social benefits and health insurance, and gives them the right to vote in local elections – although most Palestinians boycott the polls for the same reason they refuse to go through the citizenship process.

Unlike full citizens of the country, they cannot vote in national elections, have no passport and, as Palestinians, they remain stateless. “They live in a legal no-man’s land,” says Steven Beck, director of international relations at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

The status of these individuals is similar to that of the Druze living in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights: The latter have permanent residency and largely refuse to take Israeli citizenship but, unlike Jerusalem’s Palestinians, they are officially considered Syrian nationals.

The blue ID card offers East Jerusalemites undoubted advantages compared to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who have green ID cards issued by the Palestinian Authority in coordination with Israel. Holders of those cards need a permit from Israeli military authorities to enter or work in the country, and must go through long lines at army checkpoints. For residents of Gaza, which is almost completely sealed off, permits are granted even more rarely and usually only for humanitarian or religious reasons.

A Palestinian rift

The difference in rights between East Jerusalem Arabs and their West Bank neighbors has created rifts between the two Palestinian communities and can greatly influence the daily lives of their members, Beck explained in a telephone interview with Haaretz.

For example, when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem marries a Palestinian woman from outside the city, the couple will often have to move to the West Bank, as Israel rarely grants family-reunification requests, he said.

Despite its name, the residency permit is also not necessarily permanent. Figures compiled by the B’Tselem human rights group show that since 1967 Israel has revoked the residency of more than 14,000 Palestinians, often without warning. While links to terror groups have prompted such a step in the past, most revocations were done because the person had moved for a period to the West Bank or had gone to study or work abroad.

The number of cases in which residency has been rescinded has fluctuated

wildly over the years, in keeping with oscillating Israeli regulations. According to B’Tselem, between 1995 and 2000, people who had not lived in the city for the previous seven consecutive years lost their residency, even if they had periodically returned. Following a petition to the Supreme Court, this policy was amended.

In response to a request from Haaretz, the Interior Ministry said that currently permanent residency status “expires” only if a person has lived abroad for more than seven years without returning.

Citizenship is also not exactly permanent, as the law allows for it to be revoked in cases of treason, espionage and terrorism. According to ACRI attorney Oded Feller, only two Arab Israelis have been stripped of their nationality on this basis.

Human rights groups strongly oppose revocation of residency or citzenship even in the cases of those who commit even the most heinous crimes.

“Residency status and social security benefits are not a favor granted by the authorities,” B’Tselem said in a statement last week. “It is Israel’s fundamental obligation toward all individuals living within its territory, be they citizens or permanent residents. As long as Israel considers East Jerusalem part of the country, it cannot eschew these obligations, and they remain in effect even when citizens or residents break the law.”

The organization also condemned measures taken “against the innocent family members” of people who have broken the law.

The Interior Ministry declined to comment further on the government’s steps in this regard, referring reporters to remarks made recently by Erdan. Following his decision to deport the wife of one of the synagogue attackers, the minister stressed that such moves constitute a deterrent.

“Everyone who is involved in terrorism must take into consideration that there are liable to be consequences for his family,” Erdan said.

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