In 2018, Wasim Masis, 54, submitted an Israeli citizenship application. Like roughly 95 percent of Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, Masis only has temporary residence status in Israel, but he is entitled to claim citizenship by law. On his application, he included his four-year-old daughter Nili, but not his wife, Georgette – although she lives with him in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, she’s originally from the occupied territories, and therefore cannot apply for citizenship.
Many East Jerusalem residents decline to go through the lengthy process, for various reasons. In 2019, following a number of petitions to the court about the long processing delays, the process was streamlined. Before then, an average of just 250 applications were approved per year. Last year, 1,826 Palestinians (including minors included on their parents’ applications) received Israeli citizenship. Yet while the number of approved applications rose, so did the number of those rejected – to 1,150.
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The reasons given for the rejections include insufficient knowledge of Hebrew, minor criminal offences from many years ago and flimsy suspicions of ties with people suspected of security offenses. The most common reason has to do with the “center of life.” An applicant must prove that the center of their life is in Israel and that they have no intention of settling anywhere else, including in neighborhoods near East Jerusalem that are officially in the West Bank. This means that even Palestinians who were born in the city and have lived there all their lives must present a whole array documents, like municipal tax receipts, utility bills, proof of membership in one of the health management organizations, school transcripts, pay stubs and rental contracts.
A year ago, Israel’s Population authority rejected Wasim Masis's application, arguing that he owns a house in the al-Ram neighborhood, which is outside the Jerusalem municipal boundaries. Masis says this was his grandfather’s house and that it is standing empty due to a dispute over the inheritance.
Masis appealed the decision and in August, two Population Authority inspectors, accompanied by a police officer, showed up at his Beit Hanina home unannounced, to check whether the family actually lived there. The inspectors examined the food in the refrigerator, the clothes in the closets, the way the linens were kept, and asked about the sleeping arrangements in the house and about the state of the toothbrushes in the bathroom. The application was rejected, Masis filed an appeal, and three months later, inspectors and police officers paid the family another visit.
On both occasion, the inspectors were convinced that the family lived on the premises, but also thought it was just a temporary residence until they obtained citizenship, after which they planned to move to the territories. The Interior Ministry argued that the clothing, objects and furniture in the house were essentially props meant to convince the inspectors that the family lived there.
The inspectors found “an excessive amount of cleaning and laundry products… Shirts in the closet were still in the same packages as during the previous visit, indicating that these were props intended to persuade us of the family’s residence at the property,” the inspectors wrote in their report.
They said the house was arranged illogically. "The property appears cramped. Explanations were given as to why it was divided in this way, but they do not make sense and it did not seem plausible that in these circumstances it could serve as a long-term residence," the report goes on to say.
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They also took issue with the fact that there were names on the toothbrushes, and with how overly keen the family seemed to show them proof that they lived there, such as the daughter’s homework. "Wasim’s volunteering to show us the contents of the refrigerator and the fact that the toothbrushes had names attached raises doubts and reinforces the impression of prior preparation in order to demonstrate presence at the residence.” The Population Authority also informed Masis that it had spoken with “a relative” whom they would not identify and said this person testified that the family does not live in Jerusalem.
“They showed up all of a sudden, came inside, took pictures, checked the refrigerator, took pictures of the toothbrushes. They asked me about the apartment in al-Ram. I told them – You can come right now and see that it’s empty. They said there was no need,” Masis recounts. “I was born in Israel, I live in Israel, I pay all my taxes in Israel – Why can’t I get citizenship?”
Meanwhile, because his citizenship application was rejected, so was his wife’s application to obtain permanent status in Israel, and as a result she lost her health insurance. “The health fund invited me to get vaccinated but I won’t do it. I can’t take it myself while my wife can’t. When your house is on fire you don’t run away and leave your family behind,” Wasim says.
Attorney Adi Lustigman, who represents many Jerusalem Palestinians seeking citizenship, expressed outrage at the Interior Ministry’s conduct. “The visit was not coordinated beforehand. The government contends that the petitioners furnished the house, hung laundry on the line outside, hung pictures of their deceased parents, filled the refrigerator and the freezer, filled the closets with clothes, outfitted the bathroom with toothbrushes and razors – all as ‘prior preparation’ for the visit from the Population Authority inspectors who, I repeat, arrived unannounced,” she wrote of the state’s response to the petition.
Just as infuriating, says Lustigman, is the allocation of personnel for this purpose. The citizenship department at the East Jerusalem office is seriously understaffed. Until a year ago, the waiting time to open a case was three and a half years. Following the petitions, it has been cut, but it still takes a year to see someone. “In this situation you have two inspectors and a police officer making two visits to a person’s house to see if they live there... It’s just insane."
In its response to the court, the Population Authority maintained that it did not stand to reason that a family that owned a large property in al-Ram would choose to live in the tiny apartment in East Jerusalem.
“The petitioner’s claim of center of life in Israel is not supported by documents that prove this as required and does not match the findings that arose in the examination of his application. The petitioner claims that he lives in a small rented apartment of 33 square meters, in which a single living space is separated by a curtain, in the Beit Hanina neighborhood in Jerusalem, together with his brother and wife, and in the past also with his father… The picture that arises from all the evidence supports the conclusion that the petitioner has not permanently settled and does not plan to permanently settle in Israel.”