In Precedent-setting Ruling, Israel's Top Court Recognizes East Jerusalem Arabs as 'Native-born Residents'

Over 14,000 Arabs have had their residency rights revoked since 1967 because they were absent from Jerusalem for more than 7 years. Court ruling challenges practice that treated them like immigrants in their own city.

Security forces check a Palestinian woman at an East Jerusalem checkpoint in June 2016.
AP

In a precedent-setting ruling, High Court justices have ordered the Interior Ministry to restore the residency rights of a Palestinian man born in East Jerusalem who was denied permission to live in the city after being away for many years.

The ruling challenges a ministry policy of denying residency to many Palestinians born in the city once they're away for more than seven years.

A three-justice panel ruled that residents of East Jerusalem "have a strong affinity" to the city which must be taken into consideration with respect to residency rights.

With the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel in 1967, Palestinians did not receive Israeli citizenship but the status of permanent residents, entitling them to freedom of movement. In effect, the state has treated them as immigrants rather than native-born residents. 

Since 1967 the Interior Ministry has denied the status of more than 14,000 Palestinians from East Jerusalem citing various reasons. It has been ministry practice, backed by a previous court ruling, to regard Palestinian residency in the city as having "expired" once the person is gone for more than seven years.

This rationale has been the most commonly cited by Israeli authorities for denying residency to Palestinians from the city. It has been used against families who moved to the West Bank or to students who studied abroad and did not return within seven years.

Jerusalem-born Akhram Abdalhak, 58, was nine when the annexation took place and moved three years later to the United States with his parents. He went to school there and received U.S. citizenship. In 1989 he tried to return to Israel and discovered his legal status had expired and the ministry rejected his request to renew his residency.

He married women from the occupied territories twice and moved to Jerusalem, illegally. Three years ago a district court judge, David Mintz, rejected an appeal by Abdelhak of the ministry's having denied him legal status in Israel.

In 2014 he appealed to the high court and on Tuesday, justices Uzi Fogelmen, Meni Mazuz and the court president, Miriam Naor, found in his favor and instructed the ministry to restore his status.

The ruling's significance is in the fact that the justices accepted the principle argued by Abdulhak's attorneys that East Jerusalem residents are not immigrants but have rights due to the fact they were born in the city.

Experts say the ruling may bear significance for similar cases involving Palestinians seeking to return to the city.

Fogelman wrote that "when the interior minister must examine a request to restore a permanent residency to a resident of East Jerusalem, they must consider the special circumstances of these residents – that as opposed to immigrants seeking status – they have a strong affinity to the place where they live, as people born in this area – and sometimes even their parents and grandparents were born there – and where they have enjoyed family and communal life for years."

Mazuz added: "Under these circumstances, the appellant ought to be viewed as someone who has renewed their affinity to Israel and considering the special status of East Jerusalem residents as native born – as opposed to those who won the right to permanent residency by license after immigration – has enough to justify his request to renew recognition in his status as a permanent resident."

Naor consented to these rulings, but added that each case must be judged on its own merit.