Thousands of East Jerusalem Arabs Stranded Due to Israeli Interior Ministry Strike

Residents are unable to travel outside of Israel, causing cancellation of pilgrimages to Mecca. Interior Ministry strike also labeled completely ineffective.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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A Palestinian in Silwan, East Jerusalem.
A Palestinian in Silwan, East Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fittousi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Interior Ministry’s office in East Jerusalem has been on strike for the past week, causing severe disruption to the area’s 360,000 Palestinian residents.

Because most East Jerusalem Palestinians are permanent residents rather than Israeli citizens, the strike has had a dramatic impact on their lives. For instance, since they have no passports, they can’t go abroad without obtaining a laissez-passer from the Interior Ministry.

A sign posted on the door of the East Jerusalem office for the last week told residents they could obtain services from ministry offices elsewhere in the city. But Palestinians who tried going to offices in West Jerusalem said the clerks generally refused to serve them.

Moreover, the West Jerusalem offices can deal only with issues related to the Population Registry, such as issuing new identity cards or registering births. They can’t issue the special documents needed by East Jerusalem residents, such as laissez-passers or residency permits for relatives applying for family reunification.

Workers said they were striking because the ministry has worsened their working conditions. The ministry said the strike was an unjustified response to its efforts to put an end to illegal bonuses.

On Monday, Interior Ministry offices in West Jerusalem held a solidarity strike for a few hours. It was not clear whether the solidarity action would continue Tuesday.

Many East Jerusalem residents had tales of how the strike had affected them personally. For instance, Ajad Nasser al-Din wants to go to Jordan to visit his terminally ill sister in the hospital, but can’t get a laissez-passer to leave Israel. Abu Fuzi Julani, a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shoafat, also had to cancel a planned trip abroad. Most East Jerusalem residents travel via Jordan, because they find it easier than traveling through Ben-Gurion Airport.

In another incident, a bus full of pilgrims to Mecca, who had already paid for their plane tickets and hotels, weren’t allowed to cross into Jordan, so their trip had to be canceled; their money is unlikely to be refunded. And many students who study abroad and came home during the semester break can’t return to college because of the strike.

“Everyone is shouting, but no one is listening,” said Shaher Shahabana, a social activist from East Jerusalem. “If there were a strike like this in West Jerusalem, everyone would know about it already.”

The strike is also causing problems for residents in the midst of family reunification procedures: In order to live here legally until the process is completed, the relative who lacks Israeli residency needs periodic permits from the Interior Ministry. Failure to renew a permit on time automatically turns the permit holder into an illegal alien who can be deported.

Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual said it has encountered several cases like this over the last few days. For instance, A. and his wife H. are in the middle of the family reunification process, so last Thursday A. went to the ministry to renew his permit. Because of the strike, however, he couldn’t. And if he doesn’t do so by the end of the week, he will become an illegal alien who can’t legally work.

Moreover, both Interior Ministry officials and local residents say the strike at the East Jerusalem office is completely ineffective, because it creates no media outcry or public pressure.

Jerusalem city councillor Laura Wharton (Meretz) noted that if ministry offices in West Jerusalem had gone on strike shortly before the Jewish holidays in September, “the whole country would have been in uproar. Now, East Jerusalem residents need to go on the hajj – has anyone even heard about this? It’s not clear to me why all Interior Ministry workers in Jerusalem don’t strike together.”

Danny Bonfil, who heads the Jerusalem chapter of the Histadrut labor federation, agreed. “We’ve been striking for a week already, and nobody’s paying attention,” he said. Only when he expanded the strike to offices in West Jerusalem “did everyone wake up. It’s a disgrace.”

Bonfil said the strike was called over the ministry’s decision to stop providing a taxi service to the office from the Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, “which is part of the collective agreement,” and the cancelation of what workers view as a risk bonus – which takes the form of payment for an extra hour they don’t actually work. “They claim the bonus is illegal, but they’ve given this bonus for 10 years,” he added.

The ministry termed the strike “unjustified and harmful,” and attributed it to “demands for illegal wage increments and benefits, of which the most prominent and scandalous are that a personal taxi be put at the disposal of one worker who’s a member of the workers’ committee, and that workers be paid for hours when they aren’t in the office ... This is a direct blow to accepted civil service norms.”

The workers’ demands are opposed not only by the ministry’s management, it added, but also by the Finance Ministry’s wage director and the civil service commissioner.

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