Mohammed Amira took a day off work recently, rose early and went with his wife to the Population, Immigration and Border Authority office in East Jerusalem.
The 65-year-old bus driver and his colleagues are supposed to go on an organized tour in a month’s time. But it isn’t clear he can leave Israel.
Amira, from East Jerusalem, waited with dozens of others crowding the entrance, armed with his and his wife’s ID cards and his phone, containing the precious summons to the office.
The security guards were unimpressed. “If you don’t have an appointment, go home,” they told him.
“There’s no talking with them,” Amira sighs.
Children crying. Women fainting in the heat. Overcrowding. Men climbing the window bars: All routine sights at the population authority’s East Jerusalem office.
In recent days, videos and images showing the lengthy line there went viral, leading to calls for a mass protest outside the office – like the protests against the metal detectors that were (briefly) installed at the entrance to the Temple Mount last summer.
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This week, Israel also gave its answer to a High Court of Justice petition (the fourth) on the subject, but offers no immediate solutions.
Zakaria Masharki has been trying for weeks to get an appointment for an ID card for his 15-year-old son. He keeps calling and is put on hold for hours, only to hear that no appointments are available, he relates.
Unlike most Palestinians in East Jerusalem – which was effectively annexed by Israel in 1967 – Masharki has Israeli citizenship. However, he can’t go to the population authority office in West Jerusalem; he tried calling them and was told to complain about the situation.
Last week, his brother’s wife elected to give birth in Nazareth – nowhere near their Jerusalem home – in order to avoid future complications with the population authority.
Appointments aren’t necessary for other population authority offices, and Haaretz discovered that getting one in East Jerusalem is nearly mission impossible. The authority uses the government’s My Visit app, and recently offered some dates in May, June and July. However, attempts to secure a date showed that no appointments were available. Nor were appointments available in August, the last month offered. You can try and call the office but, as Masharki relates, either there’s no answer or no appointments are available.
The rumor among the people waiting in line is that appointments sometimes open up on My Visit – and swiftly get snapped up. To get one, you have to stay on top of the app all day.
Any Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem seeking to extend his travel document (or laissez passer, issued in place of a passport), renew an ID card or register a child’s birth can’t – at least not in the months to come. But the app shows plenty of appointments in West Jerusalem from April onward.
Waiting in line next to Amira is Abed Abu Shkhadeh, a Wadi Joz resident who lost his wallet and with it his ID card. A truck driver, he has to pass checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel. He can’t work without an ID card and decided to try his luck, coming to the office without making an appointment. When he tried to schedule an appointment, they offered him one in seven months. “What am I supposed to do, sit at home for seven months?” he asks.
Khader Muhammad did get in, along with his wife and baby, after arriving at 6 A.M. They wanted to arrange travel papers, but were told they needed a photo of the baby and that couldn’t be taken on the spot because he was crying. And then they wouldn’t let him back in, he complains.
Yusef Jaradat got his appointment three months in advance, after a policeman demanded that he replace the worn plastic cover on his ID card. “I took the day off and came at 6 A.M., but haven’t gotten in yet,” he said, four hours after arriving. “I can’t get even close to the security. There’s no respect.”
The guards canceled an appointment for “Muhammed” – not his real name – after they claimed he banged on the window bars and yelled. “I’ve had my appointment since October,” he complained. The guard responded that “as far as he cared, I could have had my appointment from 10 years ago, and that nobody would get in until I went away.” (The next day, his wife came back without an appointment and managed to push in. “She got lucky,” he observes.)
Ikram Zaban made her appointment six months ago. She came with her 16-year-old son to get him an ID card, and is sitting on the sidewalk outside the line. “He’s tall and they keep stopping him at the checkpoint,” she says by way of explanation, noting they’d already been waiting for 90 minutes.
The population authority office has had a bad name among East Jerusalem residents for decades. Moving to a big new building in Wadi Joz solved nothing, and maybe even made things worse.
Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are restricted to using the Wadi Joz bureau. The problem is amplified by the fact they need to use the population authority more often than Israeli citizens.
For example, Israeli citizens renew their passports every five or 10 years (depending upon the type of passport), but East Jerusalem residents have to renew their travel papers every two to five years to go overseas. For them, registration with the authority is critical, since that is the proof that their center of life is still in East Jerusalem. If they can’t prove that, they may lose their permanent residency status or their right to benefits. So, a seemingly routine thing like replacing a ripped ID card, or registering a birth or change of address, is an especially sensitive issue for them.
Another reason for the exceptional workload in the East Jerusalem office is the family unification process for thousands of city residents, which requires a lot of visits to the Interior Ministry (which oversees the population authority).
The rising number of applications for Israeli citizenship among Palestinian residents only adds to the pressure. Last June, when the issue of biometric certification began, a new factor emerged: The Interior Ministry instituted a new policy requiring a prior appointment to go to the East Jerusalem office. In other offices, getting biometric certification is merely a case of waiting in line.
Thus, long lines form at the entrance every morning, joined by the dozens of people going to the employment service bureau in the same building.
Some years ago, after a member of the public went to court, the employment bureau placed automated registration machines outside the building in a bid to reduce queues. It didn’t really help.
Sometimes, tensions flare between the two lines as they brandish papers, trying to get the attention of the guards. There were several occasions in recent weeks where the guards actually shuttered the offices, sometimes for hours, until the crowd calmed down.
The wait is usually two hours, but can be much longer. There is no restroom or shelter from heat or cold.
The line outside is only the first obstacle. Once inside, people pass through security inspection; after that, they are directed to the waiting room, where they must first receive a number at the information counter and then wait for the clerk.
While dozens wait outside, the air-conditioned interior remains practically empty through most of the day – a fact confirmed by the state’s reply to a petition by the workers’ organization WAC-Maan and human rights organization Hamoked against waiting conditions at the office. The petition lists numerous cases of fainting and injury as a result of the overcrowding.
In its response to the petition this week, the Interior Ministry admitted to “significant” buildups in waiting lines, adding that the solution lay in opening more offices in East Jerusalem. But this will take a long time. The ministry resolved to add another metal detector at the entrance, but qualified that by noting this would take three months – since adding the detector would require structure revisions and heavy costs.
The population authority said in response that the issue has been a top priority for a long time, and it is considering moves to relieve the overload – including opening another office in East Jerusalem.