Around 1,200 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem received Israeli citizenship last year, the largest number since Israel captured the eastern half of the city in 1967. The number of citizenship applications that were rejected also rose sharply in 2019.
Both increases stemmed from the fact that the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority has sped up its handling of such applications following criticism of its slow pace by the High Court of Justice.
East Jerusalem Palestinians received permanent residency from Israel in 1967 and 95 percent of them still have that status. As permanent residents, they have no passports and no right to vote in Knesset elections, and they can lose their social security benefits or even their residency if the state suspects that the center of their life is in the West Bank rather than Israel.
In principle, any East Jerusalem Palestinian can apply for citizenship. Few do so, and even fewer receive it.
Due to socioeconomic changes in East Jerusalem, more Palestinians have sought citizenship over the past decade. Since 2009, there have been 800 to 1,000 new applications annually, but only about 400 Palestinians a year have received citizenship.
The Population Authority invokes many reasons for refusing citizenship, including insufficient knowledge of Hebrew, suspicion that the applicant’s center of life isn’t in Israel (for instance, if the applicant owns property in the West Bank) or a close relationship with someone involved in terrorism. Moreover, the process is both long and expensive; applicants must produce countless documents and usually need a lawyer’s help.
After the High Court repeatedly criticized the authority in recent years for its slow handling of citizenship applications, the authority committed to address all applications submitted since 2016 by the end of 2019. As a result, the number of approved applications more than tripled, from 362 in 2018 to 1,200 last year. But the number of rejections rose more, from 340 in 2018 to 1,361 last year.
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To speed up the application process, the authority hired new Arabic-speaking employees. It also promised to fight the practice of fixers grabbing and selling appointments, which has increased applicants’ waiting times. Finally, it plans a dedicated website for citizenship applications.
Lawyers who handle such applications say that as the application process sped up, the reasons for rejections multiplied. For instance, one applicant was rejected because he lives in a shack with no running water or electricity. “It’s impossible to prove your client maintains a strong, permanent center of life in Israel,” the authority wrote his lawyer, Adi Lustigman.
In another case, a Palestinian woman born in East Jerusalem was rejected because her father-in-law once owned an apartment outside Jerusalem. A third applicant was rejected because she failed the Hebrew test, while a fourth was rejected because her answer to a question during the interview contradicted her father’s answer.
“When you were asked where your son is while you’re at school, you said he stays with his grandmother on his father’s side in Al-Zaim,” the rejection letter said, referring to a West Bank village that lies mostly outside Jerusalem’s borders. “Yet when your father was asked where your son is during your classes, he said he stays with your mother.” This woman’s attorney, Amnon Mazar, has petitioned the High Court against the rejection.
According to Amjad Jarrah, whose application was recently accepted after a six-year wait, “I was born in Jerusalem and my children were born in Jerusalem, and I have no other place.” But the applications submitted by his wife and son were rejected. His wife, Maysoon, was rejected because her Hebrew isn’t good enough.
“They called me, asked me my name; I gave it to her. We spoke for two minutes; because of that they said I wasn’t eligible,” she said in fairly fluent Hebrew.
Their son’s application was rejected because the police once questioned him as a suspect in an insignificant case; the case was closed without charges. Both Jarrah and his lawyer, Lustigman, noted that if the father’s application had been dealt with promptly, the son wouldn’t even have needed to file a separate application because he was still a minor then.
Attorneys and applicants also say the earliest appointments available to start the application process are two years from today. Thus even if the authority speeds up its handling of applications after they’re filed, the entire process will still take years.
The Population Authority said: “The applications are examined on their merits, and just as some are approved – and there are many like that – some are also rejected, depending on the circumstances. ‘Center of life’ has always been a significant part of examining whether permanent residency has been established before [citizenship] status is granted, and this is a standard criterion in many countries.”