Osama Abu Khalaf flew to Rome last year. Like other Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, he isn’t an Israeli citizen and therefore has no Israeli passport, just a laissez-passer (temporary travel permit).
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“The clerk at the airport in Rome saw that under nationality it stated ‘Undefined,’” Abu Khalaf, 27, recalled. “She asked if I’m a refugee – she thought I was Syrian. I said, ‘I’m not a refugee. I live where I was born, but it’s occupied territory.’ It’s very humiliating to be without citizenship.”
“I didn’t migrate from anywhere to anywhere,” he added. “It’s the state that came to us, not we to it.”
Abu Khalaf has been trying to obtain Israeli citizenship ever since he turned 18. But like thousands of other East Jerusalem residents, he has repeatedly been turned down, on various pretexts.
Only recently did he discover that under a forgotten clause of the Citizenship Law – which was enacted precisely to solve the problem of stateless people like him – he should have been given citizenship almost automatically. But the Interior Ministry ignores this provision, which could result in thousands of Palestinian residents from East Jerusalem receiving citizenship very quickly.
Some 37 percent of Jerusalem residents are defined not as Israeli citizens but as permanent residents of Israel. This status, which was conferred on East Jerusalem’s Palestinians shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967, was supposed to be a temporary solution for the Arabs already living there when Israel annexed it. But it remains in force until this day. Moreover, this status was granted under the Entry into Israel Law – as if these Arabs had entered Israel rather than the state entering their lands.
This status creates numerous problems. Permanent residents must repeatedly visit the Interior Ministry’s crowded East Jerusalem office to prove they still live there, or to replace lost documents or change their address. They can’t vote in national elections and, above all, permanent residency is relatively easily revoked.
For decades, very few Palestinians sought Israeli citizenship, viewing it as recognition of Israeli rule of the city. In recent years, though, due to economic, social and political changes in Palestinian society, the number of citizenship applications has risen steadily – from 200 in 2006 to over 1,000 last year.
But the application process is very lengthy, very bureaucratic and very difficult, so few Palestinians ultimately succeed in receiving citizenship.
All applicants must prove their center of life is in Israel; that they have lived in Israel for three of the last five years; and that they have a “strong, constant affiliation with Jerusalem.”
To achieve this, they must submit dozens of documents, from water, electricity and municipal tax bills to school registration forms. They also must pass a Shin Bet security service check and have no criminal record – Abu Khalaf’s application, for instance, was delayed for five years because of a minor criminal case involving a dispute with a neighbor.
In addition, applicants must demonstrate proficiency in Hebrew – even though Arabic is an official language in Israel – and those with Jordanian citizenship must prove they have sent a letter to the Jordanian Embassy renouncing it.
Finally, if all of their documents are approved, they must go to the Interior Ministry office and swear loyalty to Israel.
All of the above requirements stem from Article 5 of the Citizenship Law. But Article 4a, enacted in 1968, allows a Palestinian who was born in Israel and has no other citizenship to obtain Israeli citizenship almost automatically – as long as he applies between his 18th and 23rd birthdays, has been an Israeli resident for the previous five years, hasn’t been convicted of a security crime and hasn’t been sentenced to five years or more in jail for any non-security crime.
This provision was irrelevant for the first 20 years, because East Jerusalem Palestinians were still officially Jordanian citizens. In 1988, however, Jordan stripped all Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem of Jordanian citizenship. Today, therefore, tens of thousands of young Palestinians meet the requirements of Article 4a.
Nevertheless, not a single person has been granted citizenship under this provision, and the Interior Ministry admits it doesn’t even have a procedure for processing applications under Article 4a.
Rami Yovel is one of several lawyers who have been trying to change this, so far to no avail. In 2012, he petitioned the High Court of Justice on behalf of Nadel Rashaq, who was born in East Jerusalem in 1993, grew up in Be’er Sheva and only discovered she wasn’t an Israeli citizen when she tried to enlist in the army and was rejected on that ground.
Though the state initially opposed her petition, saying she had not proved that the center of her life was in Israel or that she had no other citizenship, Rashaq was suddenly granted citizenship under Article 5, prior to the first hearing taking place.
Yovel is convinced this speedy action was taken in order to prevent the court from ruling on his Article 4a claims.
About a year ago, Yovel filed a similar petition on behalf of Nasser al-Fakir, a 21-year-old Bedouin from Be’er Sheva who, like thousands of other Bedouin, never received Israeli citizenship even though all his relatives are citizens. The first hearing will be held early next year.
Abu Khalaf’s lawyer, Adi Lustigman, said that when she tried to obtain citizenship for her client under Article 4a, an Interior Ministry official told her, “It wasn’t meant for minorities.”
But Dr. Amnon Ramon, who recently published a book (in Hebrew) on the legal status of East Jerusalem residents, is convinced Article 4a was meant to resolve the problem of East Jerusalem Palestinians. True, it was submitted to the Knesset before the Six-Day War even began – to fulfill Israel’s obligations under the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness – but it was passed months after the war ended.
Ramon charged that the Interior Ministry simply doesn’t want to use it because it would result in many more Palestinians potentially receiving citizenship. Lustigman, meanwhile, noted that the law is unlikely to apply to Jews, since even new immigrants were never officially stateless in their country of origin.
The Interior Ministry declined to respond to a number of questions by Haaretz, saying only: “Over the past 10 years, no applications for citizenship have been filed under Article 4a of the Citizenship Law. This clause of the law is an active article, but it isn’t widely used.”