On line at Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority offices in Wadi Joz, East Jerusalem. Emil Salman

50 Years After Six-Day War, East Jerusalem's Palestinians Remain Prisoners in Their City

Study shows how ambivalent Israeli policies and denial of the problem have created a status that doesn't exist anywhere else on earth: Native-born residents who are not citizens of the state in whose capital they live



In October 1967, Faik Barakat, director of the East Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce, complained to Israel’s interior minister about the terribly long lines at the Israeli Population Registry bureau. Hundreds of Arab residents were coming to obtain Israeli identity cards, and were starting to queue up at 4 A.M. “A large percentage of the women are being pushed among the men in a way that is unpleasant and unacceptable,” Barakat wrote.

Lots of things have changed in Jerusalem since then: The population has quadrupled, huge neighborhoods have been erected, roads have been paved, interchanges built, embassies have come and gone – but the line at the Interior Ministry offices hasn’t changed. On Monday, June 5, exactly 50 years after the Six-Day War began, attorney Hagar Shechter accompanied one of her clients to the Population Registry. As on every day, people began arriving in the early morning to get a place on line.

“At a certain point, a woman who was afraid that if she moved she wouldn’t be able to return, nursed her baby inside the revolving entrance gate,” Shechter said.

Teddy Brauner/GPO
Emil Salman

The daunting lines at the Interior Ministry offices in East Jerusalem result from a combination of discriminatory and disparaging treatment by Israeli authorities, and the shaky legal status of East Jerusalem residents, who require the population bureau’s services far more than ordinary Israelis. That’s because the 320,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem whose neighborhoods were annexed by Israel a few weeks after the war are permanent residents, not citizens. Israeli law essentially treats them as foreigners who one morning in June 1967 migrated to Israel and settled there.

In a comprehensive study published last week as a book titled “Non-Citizen Residents,” Dr. Amnon Ramon of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research analyzes the irregular, hybrid status of East Jerusalem’s Palestinians. He shows how ambivalent policies, narrow interests, an unwillingness to decide and denial of the problem have created a status that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world: Native-born residents who are not citizens of the state in whose capital they live.

This legal status has shaped Jerusalem since 1967, and the question of Jerusalem’s future, and that of the whole State of Israel, is to a great extent a question of what changes will or will not be made to this status.

‘Tact is a great thing’

The legal status of the then-60,000 Arabs who lived in those areas that became part of Jerusalem arose immediately after the war. In a cabinet meeting on June 11, the day after the war ended, Housing Minister Mordechai Bentov (Mapam) said, “To those who support immediate legislation [to annex East Jerusalem], I want to remind them of one thing. We are a democratic country; if there is a law that Jerusalem spreads to all the new territory the Arab residents of the other part of Jerusalem will become Israeli citizens.” Minister Without Portfolio Menachem Begin cut him off. “Not automatically,” he said.

That remark by Begin set Israeli policy at the time. The ministers assumed that, as in 1948, when a large number of Arabs likewise didn’t get automatic citizenship, over time the East Jerusalemites would request citizenship – an option granted only to them and not to other West Bank residents – and integrate into Israeli society. The ministers did not take into account the strong ties these Arabs had to the West Bank and Jordan, and the unwillingness of Israeli society to absorb a large Palestinian population.2

Ariel Schalit/AP
Fritz Cohen/GPO

As a result, East Jerusalemites were Jordanian citizens until 1988, when, during the first intifada, King Hussein of Jordan decided to sever his country’s ties with the West Bank and Jerusalem (although Jordan continued to give residents of these areas travel documents).

After the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel recognized the ties East Jerusalemites had to the West Bank and allowed them to vote for the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah. This made their legal status even more complicated: permanent residents of the State of Israel with Jordanian travel papers and the right to vote in Palestinian Authority elections.

This anomalous status affects East Jerusalemites throughout their lives. At birth most residents register their babies with both the Israeli population registry and the Jordanian population registry, which operates in East Jerusalem. As he grows, the child will learn in schools funded by the State of Israel but that teach the Palestinian curriculum. (Before Oslo, it was the Jordanian curriculum.)

Life gets more complicated for him as an adult. He will register his marriage with both the Israeli Interior Ministry and the Sharia Court. If he wants to buy an apartment he will find that as a non-citizen he won’t be able to get a mortgage. If he wants to study abroad, he puts his status as a Jerusalem resident at risk, because the state may void his residency status by claiming that he’s moved “the center of his life” abroad. If he advances through the civil service, he will eventually discover that only full citizens can qualify for senior positions.

In the early postwar years, says Ramon, there were efforts by politicians and senior officials to cope with the problem and deal sensitively with East Jerusalem residents. For example, during the first Jerusalem Day celebrations in 1968, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol refused to allow a torch-bearing march around the Old City. “After all there are 60-70,000 people ‘whose dead lay before them’ [forced to watch] endless celebration and mirth. I know and believe we have the right, but tact is a great thing.”

Another expression of the relatively enlightened policy of the early years was a law, finally passed in 1973, that enabled East Jerusalemites to be compensated for property they abandoned in western Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence, similar to the rights of Jews to get back the property they had to abandon in East Jerusalem during that same war. In the end, the compensation offered was paltry and very few Palestinians tried to claim it. But the debates on the law at least demonstrated an effort to right the wrong.

Ariel Schalit/AP

“You can see how much Israel has changed since then,” notes Ramon. “[Then], all the MKs, even the most right-wing ones, said it was inconceivable that Jews could get back their property while they [the Arabs] couldn’t.”

According to Ramon, the three personalities who best represented that relatively liberal attitude toward East Jerusalem were Mayor Teddy Kollek, his deputy Meron Benvenisti, and Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira. But the efforts by them and others at “enlightened colonialism” ended abruptly after the Yom Kippur War. “The desire to correct the injustice became less of a priority after 1973, and even more so when the Begin government came to power” in 1977, Ramon writes. Subsequently the main focus of Israel’s governments in East Jerusalem was land expropriations and building new Jewish neighborhoods. The Palestinians continued to live in legal limbo.

Hollow sovereignty

In recent years there has been considerable talk about the “Israelization” of East Jerusalemites, as reflected in the labor market, the desire to study the Israeli curriculum, and the increased number of requests to get full Israeli citizenship. Ramon warns right-wingers against thinking that this process will eventually lead Palestinians to accept the occupation of East Jerusalem. “So long as the international community doesn’t view East Jerusalem the way it views the Galilee or Wadi Ara – and this isn’t happening even in the Trump era – there will be no change,” he says.

The truth is that Israeli society isn’t exactly embracing the East Jerusalemites, as indicated by the incredible obstacles they must overcome to obtain Israeli citizenship. Until a decade ago, few applied for citizenship – it wasn’t socially acceptable and also unnecessary since East Jerusalemites have Jordanian travel papers. But the construction of the separation barrier changed that, and requests for Israeli citizenship have increased dramatically. The number of those actually obtaining citizenship, however, is dropping, with citizenship being granted to only a small percentage of applicants.

Ramon believes that the East Jerusalemites’ anomalous status contributes to instability and violent outbursts, as well as the international community’s refusal to recognize Israel’s legitimacy in Jerusalem. Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem, writes Ramon, “is to a great degree hollow, since it relates to the territory of East Jerusalem and not necessarily to its Arab residents.”

Olivier Fitoussi
Moshe Milner/GPO

In his book, Ramon analyzes the option of granting full citizenship to all East Jerusalem residents. This would have far-reaching consequences in terms of being able to reach a peace agreement, as well as from a demographic and electoral perspective. Such a move would undoubtedly be a big step toward the evolution of a binational state.

One of the most significant outcomes of this ambiguous residency status is the determination of Palestinians to stay in the city. During the 1990s, following a resonant ruling by Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, the Interior Ministry began revoking the residency status of Palestinians who had left the city. “Leaving” for this purpose could be as simple as moving across the road if the new home was in an area considered the West Bank. Over the years some 14,000 Jerusalemites lost their residency status this way.

The fear of losing their residency status has forced Palestinians to remain in Jerusalem, which has caused overcrowding in many areas and led to widespread illegal construction, since there are few options for legal construction in these areas, another aspect of how Israel ignores the residents’ needs. Residents were afraid to travel elsewhere to study or even to move. Only three months ago the Supreme Court began to undermine Barak’s ruling, when three justices ruled that Palestinian residents’ ties to Jerusalem must be taken into account and that they should be considered “native residents” whose residency cannot be easily revoked, rather than simply as migrants.

Ramon suggests expanding on this approach, adding that so long as there is no peace agreement, there should be a “protected residency” status that would preserve the rights of East Jerusalemites even if they leave the city for a protracted period. Such a status upgrade would be welcome by everyone, including the international community, says Ramon.

“It will allow life to be normalized; it will remove the threat of revocation of residency,” he says. “This threat, along with the issues of construction and education, are what cause the most distress and the feeling that all Israel wants is to make life difficult for them so that they emigrate. They say, ‘You’ve turned us into prisoners in our own city.’

“But it’s not just the formal status,” adds Ramon. “We have to understand that they are a real part of the city, that they have a place.”

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