Israel's Population Authority has launched a plan to cut the waiting time for Palestinians in East Jerusalem applying for Israeli citizenship. Following a petition to the High Court of Justice, the plan aims at handling applications within a year, down from the current six.
Some 95 percent of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens, although they live in land annexed by the state in 1967. Soon after the annexation, the Israeli government decided that the city's Palestinian residents would only be granted permanent resident status, but could apply for Israeli citizenship.
The status of permanent resident permits Palestinians to work and receive social rights in Israel but not vote in national elections. The residency status makes it difficult to travel abroad and can be revoked.
Over the past decade, the social taboo in East Jerusalem against applying for citizenship has receded, and there has been a rise in applications to an average of 1,000 a year in recent years. In the past five years, 4,908 applications have been made and 54 percent have been approved.
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“When I tell people it will take five or six years they throw up their hands in despair,” said Amnon Mazar, an attorney handling citizenship requests. He added that despite the Population Authority's optimism, lines are still long. When looking to set an appointment for one of his clients, he was offered one for August 2022.
Mazar believes that if Palestinians see shorter waits, the numbers of applicants will rise. “When it becomes something that looks doable, the numbers of applicants will grow,” Mazar said.
Osama Abu Khalaf, a resident of Kfar Akab who has applied for citizenship, says, “I think that if people see they are getting answers they will stream over here in large numbers.”
The wait for opening a file has until now lasted about three years and the entire process can stretch out for six years. Furthermore, Israeli authorities have placed many obstacles to those seeking citizenship.
A large number of applicants were rejected for various reasons, such as a failure to prove the center of their life was in Jerusalem, a lack of knowledge of Hebrew, a lack of documentation, or any sort of connection to Palestinian prisoners jailed for security offenses.
In the last year the authority has been criticized for the long wait and the conditions at the East Jerusalem office, followed by bureaucratic difficulties. A petition was filed with the High Court against the authority, leading the Knesset Interior Committee holding a discussion on the issue.
In response to the petition, the authority committed to easing the conditions and shortening waiting times. During a visit to the office last week, Director Hagit Tsur presented the improvements that have been made, such as a new office opened at the Qalandiyah crossing.
The new office will have eight waiting lines, in addition to the 12 in East Jerusalem. Twelve more will be opened in a new National Insurance building in the area, and Palestinians will also be permitted for the first time to use the Interior Ministry office in West Jerusalem. The authority also plans to set up a website for online applications.
Roee Cohen, deputy director general of the Population Authority, said that improvements to the East Jerusalem office "require investment, and new thinking." Tsur added: "We are at a turning point, we’re already past the big catastrophe."
Both officials rejected complaints that the long lines are intentional to prevent East Jerusalemites from gaining citizenship. “We operate according to the law. We’ve never received any other instructions,” Tsur said.
The authority has also told the court it will drastically cut the waiting time for citizenship applications. By the end of April, all applications submitted in 2016 will have been handled and all those from 2017 by the end of July, and by the end of the year, all applications from 2018. The plan also calls for handling all applications turned in during 2019 by 2020. Some of this year’s applications are already being handled.