Israel Eases Path to Citizenship for 20,000 East Jerusalem Palestinians

Following legal challenge, Interior Ministry agrees to implement 1968 clause that would make it faster and easier for young Palestinians to obtain Israeli citizenship

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Palestinians queue in front of the Interior Ministry office in East Jerusalem, 2017
Palestinians queue in front of the Interior Ministry office in East Jerusalem, 2017Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Around 20,000 young Palestinians will be eligible to expedite their requests for Israeli citizenship after a court forced the Interior Ministry to publish guidelines for the scheme on Monday.

According to experts, the updated procedure should allow another 7,000 or so young Palestinians to obtain citizenship each year as well.

Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem aged 18 to 21 who are not citizens of any other country, and who have not committed any serious offense, are eligible for a much faster and easier path to Israeli citizenship under a 1968 amendment to the country's Citizenship Law. Despite several petitions, the Interior Ministry, which oversees the Population and Immigration Authority, had until now blocked its implementation.

More than 90 percent of the 330,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens. After Israel annexed the area in 1967, the state gave Palestinian residents “permanent residence,” which gives them eligibility to vote in local elections, to receive national insurance and health coverage including monthly aid stipends, but not to vote in national or parliamentary elections, or be issued an Israeli passport. The “permanent resident” status is also relatively easier to cancel or override than that of citizenship.

The number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem seeking Israeli citizenship has grown in recent years, but the regular process, as currently defined by Article 5 of the Citizenship Law, is lengthy and complicated. Applicants must provide many documents to prove that they live in Jerusalem and that they have no property in the Palestinian territories, as well as pass a Hebrew test and take a loyalty oath to Israel.

The process can take a few years, because of very long wait times at the Population Registry office in East Jerusalem. Staff at the Population Authority are also authorized to reject the request, based on a determination that an applicant intends to settle in another city, for example, or if an applicant is the subject of any criminal or security warnings. About half of the applicants are rejected for such reasons, and many do not even file an application, or withdraw it at some point during the process.

The amendment, known as Article 4A, allows the citizenship process to be expedited for Israeli residents aged 18 to 21 who were born in Israel, lived there for five consecutive years before submitting their application, and have no other citizenship. Applicants are obliged to prove that their center of life is in Israel, but the Interior Ministry cannot object to citizenship, unless the applicant has committed a crime for which he or she has been sentenced to five years or more in prison. Open criminal cases, minor convictions and intelligence information cannot be used to deny them citizenship. This route also does not require a Hebrew exam or oath of loyalty to the state.

Jordan used to grant citizenship to Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories, but cancelled the policy in 1988 under King Hussein. As a result, thousands of Palestinians born in East Jerusalem and effectively stateless should have been able to apply for fast-track Israeli citizenship under Article 4A starting in 2006. Israeli courts have routinely rejected petitions throughout the years asking that the Interior Ministry be required to grant them citizenship.

Recently, East Jerusalem resident Khaled Shweiki applied for citizenship for himself and his family and was granted an appointment to start the process in two years. Attorneys Adi Lustigman, Hagar Schechter and Tamir Blank filed a petition with the Jerusalem District Court, arguing that the long wait for the appointment would not allow Shweiki’s son to file a request under Article 4a, because by then he would be older than 21. As part of the legal process of dealing with the petition, the Interior Ministry was forced to provide the guidelines.

Lustigman believes the ministry will keep trying to claim that East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents are still considered as Jordanian citizens with Jordanian passports. But an expert opinion provided by Asaf David, an expert on Jordan at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute, says these are passports that have no “national numbers” and do not entitle their holders to any statehood rights. Palestinians of East Jerusalem are not allowed to live in Jordan for more than three months and cannot work there. Jordan’s Supreme Court has ruled that having a Jordanian passport is not tantamount to being a Jordanian citizen and that holding one does not guarantee any citizenship rights.

Israel’s newly announced guidelines will also apply to other young people born in Israel who aren’t citizens, such as the offspring of Palestinians who collaborated with Israeli security services and were granted residency. They will also apply to children of foreign workers who have received some kind of residency status in Israel and are not about to be deported.

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