About two months ago Ahmed Issawi, a 26-year-old resident of the Issawiya neighborhood of East Jerusalem, decided to request Israeli citizenship. Like many Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, the difficulties stemming from the fact that he is considered a Jerusalem resident but not a citizen, had become difficult to take.
Non-citizen residents get government social welfare and medical benefits and can vote in municipal elections but not the Knesset election. They can’t get an Israeli passport, however, instead receiving a travel document that requires visa applications in most countries. They encounter exhausting bureaucracy from the Interior Ministry, and worst of all, they are likely to lose their residency rights if they leave the country for an extended period.
“I live in Israel like anyone,” Issawi said. “I don’t understand why there has to be a difference among people. I want to leave the country easily like anyone. I don’t think there should be differences among people.”
Israel annexed East Jerusalem following its capture of that part of the city in the 1967 Six-Day War. Although in principle the law allows Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to receive Israeli citizenship, the obstacles on the way have become more and more difficult over the years. Simply getting an appointment to present the necessary documents has taken three years. Then it’s another three to four years until there is a decision.
Ground for rejection of applications include insufficient Hebrew, questions about loyalty to the country and suspicion that the applicant owns property in the West Bank.
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Interior Ministry policy?
Lawyers are convinced that this is not something initiated by officials in East Jerusalem but rather a deliberate Interior Ministry policy to prevent the city’s Palestinians from becoming citizens. “It’s clear that the Interior Ministry doesn’t want these applications. They don’t want to pollute the Population Registry with more Palestinians,” said Adi Lustigman, a lawyer specializing in the issue.
The Interior Ministry flatly denies that it is deliberately making it difficult for East Jerusalemites to apply for citizenship, and explained that the delays are the result of the volume of requests. It has committed to the High Court of Justice to clear up the backlog over the course of this year.
Issawi, like most East Jerusalem residents, decided to hire a lawyer from the outset. He quickly received an appointment, for November 2021, three years after filing his application. If all goes well, he may become an Israeli citizen in 2025.
More than 95 percent of East Jerusalem’s Palestinians have residency status rather than citizenship. While the number of applications for citizenship has grown, from 69 in 2003 to more than 1,000 in 2018, very few receive a positive response.
Mohammed Baghdadi, a bus driver, started the process in 2011. Two years later, he was informed that the application process was being suspended because there was a criminal case against him, after he was the victim of a sting. Following correspondence with the police, that case was closed without an investigation.
In 2016, he reopened his application and again faced red tape. He was required to submit a string of documents proving that the center of his life was in Jerusalem, including proof that he paid utilities in the city, documentation from the National Insurance Institute and pay slips. He provided everything, but his request was rejected on the grounds that the center of his life was not in Israel but in the West Bank town of Ramallah, because there was an apartment registered in his father’s name, where his father lived 20 years ago.
Baghdadi appealed the decision, but it was quickly denied. This time the reason was different. His loyalty to Israel was in doubt since he had visited his brother, a security prisoner, in prison. “The last time I visited my brother was four years ago,” he told Haaretz. “My mother is 78 and she had difficulty traveling alone. I couldn’t say no.”
His lawyer petitioned the High Court of Justice but withdrew the petition when three justices hinted that they would reject it. He intends to file a new citizenship application.
There are endless examples of applicants who have received rejections. One woman had gone to London with her husband so he could study there. She was suspected of wanting Israeli citizenship to emigrate more easily. Another applicant was penalized for not declaring that he was married to an Israeli woman.
Then there was the man who was turned down after he was said to have a criminal file. He had once submitted an assault complaint against someone who filed a counter-complaint against him. The matter was not investigated and the file was closed. Lustigman said the situations are Kafkaesque, but applicants are used to what he said is the abuse involved in the process.
“Everything seems logical to them,” he said, adding that it is less complicated for a foreign citizen to obtain citizenship on the grounds of family reunification, which he said takes four and a half years.
Nallah Shahtit has her own story. She submitted a citizenship application for herself and her five children. Three years later, an official from the Interior Ministry called her and conducted a short telephone interview. At the end of the interview, it was determined that she did not know Hebrew at the required level for receiving citizenship and her request was rejected – along with those of her five children.
“The very requirement for knowing Hebrew by Jerusalemites is not clear,” said Lustigman. “This requirement may be in the law, but the law is not intended for natives of [Jerusalem].” This demand for Hebrew proficiency also harms women in particular, because in general their level of Hebrew is poor compared to men, who work in the Israeli market.
'My dream is to travel the world like a normal person'
Sometimes the long period of time that passes since a request is submitted until it is dealt with complicates matters even more, as is the case of the Jarah family, who began the process three and a half years ago.
“We asked, my wife, son, daughter and I,” says Amjad Jarah, the father. “I was born in Jerusalem, my father, grandfather and grandmother were all born in Jerusalem, where do they want me to go? To Jordan? To Syria? I want citizenship because I live here.”
His son was 15 and a half when the request was submitted, but after all these years he is now an adult. As a result, the Interior Ministry recently informed them that the son will be removed from the citizenship request. Only after legal correspondence and threats of going to court did the ministry agree to allow the son to resubmit the forms as an adult without having to wait again for years.
Then there is the case ofJanah Rajbi, 26, who submitted her request in 2016. “Since then I graduated, found work, got married, had a baby and I’m still waiting,” she said. “Once I asked in the Interior Ministry and they told me: Forget about it, it will take years, there is no possibility of knowing where it is stuck and why it is stuck.”
This answer will not surprise attorney Amnon Mazar. “They blame it on the fact that they have no manpower,” he told Haaretz. “But it is as clear as crystal that there is a hidden intention here too, maybe orders from above to reduce the number of citizens.”
For now, Rajbi is forced to wait. “I want to live a life in which they won’t ask me all the time who I am and where I came from. My dream is to travel around the world like a normal person.”
Lustigman and others have petitioned the High Court of Justice over the issue on several occasions but the court has accepted the Interior Ministry’s explanation that the delays are the result of a lack of sufficient staff, changes in computer systems and other bureaucratic difficulties. In response to a recent court petition, however, the ministry acknowledged that it had 3,252 citizenship applications pending and committed to expedite the process.
It agreed to process applications from 2015 by the end of this month and those from 2016 by the end of April. Applications filed in 2017 are to be dealt with by the end of June, while citizenship requests filed last year are to be processed by the end of this year.
In response for this article, the Interior Ministry said the long waits for appointments are the result of the large number of applications that have been submitted. “At the same time, the [ministry’s] Population Authority is working to find a solution to ease the situation for applicants and the issue is being examined by professionals. The claim that there is purportedly a policy of making it difficult for residents of East Jerusalem to apply for citizenship is, of course, baseless. Every request for citizenship is considered based on applicable laws and regulations.”