Perseverance, East Jerusalem, c/o Israel

By: 
Michal Schwartz

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Fifty years after the 1948 war a new refugee camp has grown up in East Jerusalem. Orient House, the Palestinian Authority's unofficial headquarters in the city, has dubbed it Sumud: Perseverance. Its inhabitants are victims of a bureaucratic campaign waged by Israel's Ministry of the Interior against the city's Arabs. The aim? To create favorable demographic facts before entering negotiations on the final status of Jerusalem. The "quiet deportation," as it has been called, began eighteen months ago, when the Interior Ministry changed its policy toward all Palestinians who have Jerusalem identity cards. B'tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights (see box), estimates that 170,000 Palestinians hold Jerusalem ID's. Of these, 70,000 do not live in the city proper. Nor is that an accident: for decades Israel has encouraged the Arabs to leave. For example, the municipality created a severe housing shortage by refusing building permits. (See Challenge # 43). Or another method: whenever a Jerusalem woman married a non-Jerusalem man, the Interior Ministry would refuse to grant him Jerusalem status, thus forcing the couple to move. When a Jerusalemite left, however – whether to a nearby village or abroad – his or her right to return was not in jeopardy. Or so it was thought.

At stake is not merely the right to live once again in the "holy city." There are practical issues as well. The Jerusalem status entitles one to an Israeli Identity Card. The latter, blue in color, has taken on tremendous importance ever since Yitzhak Rabin put the Territories under siege in March 1993. Palestinians can no longer enter Israel unless they have either a special permit or this blue ID. Without it you are excluded from the cycle of life, cut off from work, hospitals, religious shrines – and often from family as well. You are also cut off from the National Insurance Institute, which provides all blue-card holders with social benefits, including health care and a monthly allowance for the children. These "Israeli advantages" are the boons that the government granted the Arabs of East Jerusalem as the price of annexing their part of the city in 1967. In industrialized societies people move frequently in quest of work. In our political context, however, the loss of the Jerusalem ID entails a descent from the fringes of the first world into the darkness and oblivion of the third.

The thousands who live outside the city – and even those who live inside but lack the papers to prove it – are now in danger of losing their status. This has already happened to six hundred of them, estimates Eli Suissa, the Interior Minister. In the summer of 1998, moreover, he plans to issue new ID's to all Israelis. The Palestinians of Jerusalem fear they'll be dropped by the thousands from the computer. The issue of status makes for cruel absurdities. Sometimes a village or neighborhood is split, one part in Jerusalem, the other not. Often one spouse has the blue ID, the other an orange one – signifying, in official parlance, "a non-Jewish resident of Judaea and Samaria." In such a case the blue-card holder must ask for "reunification of families." Now that the new policy has gone into effect, couples are afraid to file such requests; they might be "re-united" in the wrong direction – i.e., the blue card may become orange, or blank. To some extent the fear of losing the "license to life" has boomeranged against Israeli aims. Thousands of "blue" families that had earlier moved out have hastened back. They are renting whatever they can find. The new trend has put tremendous pressure on the housing market, causing a steep price rise – too steep for many. That is where Sumud, "Perseverance," comes in.

Established by Orient House in August, Sumud may have started out as a kind of demonstration, but five months later it is taking on the lineaments of tragedy. Eighty-five families live in the camp. Their number is increasing daily. Azmi Abu Su'ud, manager of the Department for Civil Life at Orient House, told Challenge on December 2 that 350 families have signed up for the camp. He was able to register only the hundred severest cases. "We might have to erect new 'Sumud' camps in other areas of Jerusalem," he said, "if the Interior Ministry does not reconsider its racist policy." Mahfuz Abu Turk guided me around the camp. A well-known professional photographer, he is also a resident here. Mahfuz was born in Jerusalem in 1949, but some members of his family found work in Hebron and moved there. After 1967 he was imprisoned by Israel for six months. When asked where he lived, he gave the police his family's address in Hebron, and that is what appears in his ID. The fact is, however, Mahfuz has always resided in Azzariyah, just east of Jerusalem. His wife Sabah was born in Jerusalem and has a blue ID. And then there are the children. The eldest daughter appears in her mother's ID, the rest in the father's orange one.

After reaching the age of 16, a child must have its own card. Mahfuz and Sabah recently requested one for their eldest daughter. The ministry asked for the mother's ID, but the family feared it would go in blue and come back orange – or merely as an order for eviction. They did not pursue the matter, and the daughter must live as an outlaw.

Lubna and Mazen Shteih find themselves in an equally hopeless predicament. Both have Jerusalem ID'S, but four years ago they took a flat in Azzariyah because they could not afford the rent in Jerusalem. Since then they have moved seven times. When the new policy became clear, they rented a small room in Jerusalem and crowded into it with their two children. But the landlord raised the rent, and they could no longer afford it. Three months ago they moved to Sumud. Lubna, pregnant once more, doesn't know how she will cope. Since Sumud does not count as a Jerusalem address, she is not entitled to medical benefits. When the time comes to deliver the baby, she will have to pay the hospital $500 (which she doesn't have). In the want of an address, moreover, where will her child be registered – if at all ? According to Israeli and Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights, 10.000 Palestinian children in Jerusalem and the West Bank have no ID numbers. Lubna's neighbor doesn't wish to be identified. She lives in the camp with her husband and four children. She has a Jerusalem ID, but her husband is a Palestinian from Jordan. She lived with him there for six years. Her application for family reunification was rejected, and since then her husband has been living with her illegally. "Three of my children are not registered. Does that mean they don't exist in this world? I'm amazed how Jews from anywhere get citizenship, while we are considered infiltrators in our own country."

Orient House is demanding that the city supply the camp with electricity, water and a sewage system, just as it has done for a group of homeless Jewish families encamped outside the Knesset. The municipality replies that it would need an official request from the landowner: The Waqf (The Supreme Muslim Council). But the Waqf does not wish to recognize the authority of the (West) Jerusalem municipality. While this jockeying goes on, the families enter their first Sumud winter. The spokesperson for the municipality told Challenge on December 3 that "unlike the Jewish campers, the Palestinians have dwellings elsewhere, and they are just trying to apply pressure in order to get Jerusalem ID's." She concluded: "But it's the Interior Ministry's problem." By their massive return to the city, and by the example of the camp, the Palestinians have shown they will not give up easily. They are determined to persevere in their identity as Jerusalemites. Their spirit may not be enough, however, against this bitter truth: the Palestinian Authority has surrendered their city. It did so that moment, four years ago, when it failed to insist that Jerusalem come first in negotiations, not at the bitter end.

Photo credit: Mahfuz Abu-Turk

The Legal Background

After annexing East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel offered citizenship to any Palestinians there who requested it. One of the conditions was that they take an oath of allegiance to the state. Most refused. Israel then issued them Jerusalem identity cards. The meaning of this card remained without clear definition until 1988. In a High Court decision concerning nonviolent activist Mubarak 'Awad, Aharon Barak (now Chief Justice) wrote that the status of East Jerusalem's Palestinian residents would be determined pursuant to the law concerning Entry Into Israel. To ordinary observers it might have appeared that Israel had entered them and not vice-versa, but as the gentlemen of Japan said, "You just don't understand these things." Under this Entry Into Israel Law, which had been intended for new immigrants, Jerusalem's Palestinians are considered permanent residents. They have the right therefore to live and work in Israel without special permits. (This right has taken on major importance since Israel's imposition of closure in 1993.) They are entitled to social benefits provided by the National Insurance Institute (NII). They may vote in local elections, but not for the Knesset. Unlike citizens, they do not have a guaranteed right to leave Israel and return. The Minister of the Interior may revoke their Jerusalem ID's at his or her discretion. The Entry law also provides that the status of permanent resident expires automatically if a person receives a similar status in a foreign country, or becomes a citizen there, or lives there for more than seven years continuously.

Until very recently these provisions were not strictly enforced. The government wanted to encourage Palestinians to leave Jerusalem – it did not want them staying on out of fear of losing their rights. The apparent liberality of former years now turns out to have been a trap. The many thousands of people who moved outside the municipal boundaries – whether to find homes or work or simply to stay together in their marriage (when one spouse was not allowed to live in Jerusalem) – now discover that their status is in jeopardy. In the last eighteen months the Interior Ministry has changed its policy and applied its new rules retroactively. There are three major changes:

1. The Ministry no longer adheres to the seven-year rule. If you cannot prove you live in the city and that your center of life is presently there, the Ministry may revoke your status without right of appeal.
2. In the past, if you lived in the West Bank or in Gaza, this was not considered residence in a foreign country. Now it is.
3. The burden of proof is on you to show that Jerusalem is and has been the center of your life. You must present your leases, bills, school certificates, and many other documents. Furthermore, in order to receive a government service of any sort – get a license, for example, or register a newborn child – the Palestinian Jerusalemite must undergo, each time, an examination of residency. If the officials decide to revoke the status, they need not explain why, and the person, together with his or her family, has fifteen days in which to pick up and leave. The family no longer belongs anywhere. Israel considers them Jordanians, but Jordanian officials, till now, have avoided taking a position on the matter. The East Jerusalemites, in short, got the status of resident foreigners in the land of their birth, and now even that is being cut out from under them. The Challenge staff has here summarized material from The Quiet Deportation: Revocation of Residency of East Jerusalem Palestinians, a joint publication of B'tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual, Jerusalem, April 1997. Additional information comes from Attorney Eliahu Avraham, Jerusalem.