Only 5 percent of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem – 18,982 people – have obtained Israeli citizenship since the city was reunified in 1967.
The figure comes from a response by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked to a parliamentary inquiry from MK Mossi Raz of Meretz.
Only 34 percent of naturalization applications submitted by Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are approved, and in many cases final approval takes years.
The response disclosed for the first time the complete data regarding the naturalization of this group, citizenship by Palestinians living in Jerusalem, showing that in most years the numbers were negligible.
In the first years after reunification following Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, from 1970-74, hundreds of people obtained citizenship each year. The numbers dropped sharply in 1975-2004, with at most a few dozen East Jerusalem Palestinians completing the process each year. A slight rise in applications began in 2005 and peaked in 2019, when 2,372 Palestinians from East Jerusalem became Israeli citizens. This was followed by a decline, with only 1,304 naturalized citizens in 2021 and just 219 in the year to date.
Amnon Ramon of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research studies the legal status of East Jerusalem residents. He attributes the rise in the 1970s to lax Israeli policy after the 1967 war and says that most of the East Jerusalem Palestinians who obtained Israeli citizenship were city employees, police officers, businessmen and collaborators with the Israeli authorities. In subsequent years, applying for citizenship became taboo in Palestinian society, perceived as an acceptance of the occupation and as collaboration.
Ramon explains that the change that’s occurred over the last 17 years derives from the deep changes taking place in the city’s Palestinian society. The barrier separating them from residents of the West Bank as well as changes in the education and employment markets have driven many residents to reconsider applying for Israeli citizenship. The social taboo on this has also eroded. It is no longer considered an act that detracts from one’s Palestinian nationality.
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However, the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority has made the process more difficult. Over the past 20 years, only 38 percent of the 16,573 applications have been approved. The main reason cited for denial was failure to prove that Jerusalem was their primary place of residence and employment. Additional reasons include the lack of Hebrew language skills, refusal to renounce Jordanian citizenship, criminal background or security impediments.
The stringent policy is expressed in the number of Israeli citizens among Palestinians living in East Jerusalem. Fifty-five years after the city was unified, Palestinians account for 39 percent of the population but fewer than 5 percent of them are Israeli citizens.
The lack of Israeli citizenship has many implications. Without it, East Jerusalem Palestinians cannot vote in Israeli legislative elections or obtain an Israeli passport. To travel abroad they must apply for a temporary travel document (laissez passer). Some jobs are not open to non-citizens. Most importantly, their residency status can be revoked, unlike citizens. This has happened to over 14,000 Palestinians since 1967, mostly due to information showing that the center of their life was not in Jerusalem. With the loss of resident status, they lose their health insurance, livelihood and even the right to enter Jerusalem.
Over the years, the Interior Ministry has given various and sundry reasons for denying citizenship to Palestinians. This includes a family member owning land or having an electricity bill in the West Bank, or a failed short Hebrew test, or a small criminal file that was closed years ago. In one case, a person was denied because his wife, who is an Israeli citizen, published a post that mentioned the Nakba. Another person was denied because their social media profile photo showed a Palestinian flag, even though there was an Israeli flag alongside it. For many years, the ministry ignored a clause making the process easier by allowing for an expedited process for people under 21, denying applications made on the basis of this clause.
“Some people say that we’re simply trying to enjoy equal rights, or wish to go overseas with a passport. Some people say they want to vote. Many say they don’t want their children to suffer from the difficulties they went through,” says Adi Lustigman, a lawyer who represents many Palestinians seeking Israeli citizenship. “They want to know they’re giving their children a better future. … Citizenship confers security in a world in which there is none without citizenship,” she says.