When East never meets West

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My eight-month-old daughter still does not have a birth certificate. Although a seemingly routine task to accomplish for new parents, we have found obtaining this innocuous piece of paper to be a daunting and essentially fruitless effort.

My children, like their father, were born in East Jerusalem, which means that their birth certificate must be issued by the Israeli interior ministry. Since I am not an official resident (for countless reasons), the certificate is only issued at the ministry itself, as opposed to receiving it by mail. Easy enough, one may say. But anyone who actually goes to the cold, gray building with an iron turnstile on Nablus Road knows that a trip to the interior ministry is nothing but heartache.

Barring other people’s experiences, my husband endured a 12-hour wait – from four in the morning until four that afternoon – just to get his foot inside the ministry door. But given that others had been waiting for days on end, guarding their places within the cramped railings outside the gate, his wait had been useless. After 12 wasted hours, we were still one birth certificate short.

The Israeli guards at the door allow only a trickle of people into the second floor of the ministry, where a few uncooperative employees grudgingly serve the exhausted men and women at their booths. At 12:30 in the afternoon, the iron door just inside the turnstile is slammed shut, and everyone unfortunate enough to have waited so long but not entered is told to go home.

Should my daughter still not have a birth certificate by the time she turns one, the only way she could ever be registered as an East Jerusalem resident and therefore be eligible for its municipal services such as national and medical insurance, is by applying for family reunification. This is yet another long and frustrating procedure, whereby a resident parent or spouse seeks to obtain an ID card for a non-Jerusalem resident in the family.

But we are by far not the only people with problems related to Israel’s government policies in the eastern sector of Jerusalem. Over the years, Israeli measures against Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have become increasingly arbitrary and discriminating, circling in on the Arab minority in the Holy City, trying to squeeze them out.

“At present, we have more than 200 files for Jerusalem residents,” says Adi Landau, attorney for Hamoked, Center for the Defense of the Individual. “Most of them are complaints about family reunification, children’s registration, national insurance and ID confiscation.”

The Center takes countless cases to Israeli courts to counter some of Israel’s worst discriminatory policies against East Jerusalemites. Landau explains that it is a constant uphill battle, a bit like Sisyphus’s struggle to push his boulder to the top of the mountain. “Most cases regarding family reunification are settled, not with actual verdicts but by settlements,” Landau maintains, implying that they usually end up with less than they had hoped for.

Landau explains, in a nutshell, how Israel can carry out these measures within the scope of the law. Residents of East Jerusalem are bound by the Israeli Law of Entry, which gives any immigrant to Israel the same rights of an East Jerusalem resident.

She says there are three instances where the state can deny residency status. The first is if a resident leaves Israel for a period of seven and sometimes only six years, their residency status can be revoked. The second instance is if a resident gains status in another place, such a obtaining a Green Card. And the third is for “security reasons,” which could basically be anything. “This hasn’t happened to date, except with people involved in bombings,” Landau reassures.

One can say that this ongoing struggle for residents of East Jerusalem began in 1967, when Israel unilaterally annexed the eastern sector of the city during the Six Day War. Although Israel offered citizenship to all residents of East Jerusalem, it wasn’t without plentiful strings attached. For one, new citizens had to swear allegiance to the State of Israel.

Palestinians, who had witnessed the usurpation and conquest of their country by this foreign invader, were less than enthusiastic to show any loyalty to their newly found state. They were also starkly aware of the blatant discrimination practiced by the Israeli government between Arab residents of Jerusalem and their Jewish counterparts. While Palestinians were made to meet a number of conditions before being granted citizenship, including a fair knowledge of Hebrew, new Jewish immigrants were automatically granted citizenship upon arrival in accordance with the Israeli Law of Return.

So, for mainly political reasons – Palestinians wanted to maintain a demographic balance between Arab residents and Israeli citizens in the city – only 2.3 percent of all Palestinian Jerusalemites became Israeli citizens. The others were given the status of “permanent resident,” which they have since spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to preserve.

Maintaining residency is not as easy as it sounds. In 1995, the Israeli interior ministry introduced the “center of life” policy for Palestinians with Jerusalem ID cards. In order to keep their residency, Palestinians were made to prove that their center of life revolved within Jerusalem’s municipal borders. Today, all interior ministry procedures for obtaining birth certificates, family reunification or travel documents require that this demand be met. Residents must produce endless papers including electricity and phone bills, Arnona tax papers and children’s school records in order to prove that they live in Jerusalem. If applicants are unable to produce these documents, their ID cards could be confiscated and all services provided to Jerusalem residents revoked.

According to the Jerusalem Center for Social and Economic Rights, incidents of ID card confiscation increased by over 600 percent after implementation of the center of life policy.

And no one is immune to this policy either. Palestinian Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi, who lives in Ramallah, has repeatedly been threatened by Israeli authorities to have her Jerusalem ID card revoked. In November of 2001, then internal security minister Uzi Landau requested interior minister Eli Yishai to revoke the Jerusalem ID card of Ashrawi and other figures allegedly connected to the Palestinian Authority.

“Anyone who is not a Jerusalem resident and does not pay taxes there, and who primarily identifies with the Palestinian Authority, is not entitled to be an Israeli resident,” he told a Jerusalem Post reporter.

It was, no doubt, only a threat. But the fact remains that if the interior ministry chooses to do so, it has every legal backing to carry out the confiscation.

Israeli citizens, of course, would never have these problems. For one, any Jew from any part of the world has the “right to return” to Israel and is granted Israeli citizenship upon arrival. Besides, should they have to visit the interior ministry, the West Jerusalem branch is no more aggravating then any government facility in any other country.

Located on Hamelkah Road, the West Jerusalem interior ministry is a far cry from its cramped sister ministry in the east. After enduring the ubiquitous security check, visitors are immediately served a number according to the desired service and directed to a large hall where they wait their turn. True, there are not always enough seats, and the wait may seem interminable, but the offices are open through the afternoon and nobody is returned without being tended to.

Problems for East Jerusalem residents are not confined to their personal status alone. Should an East Jerusalem resident marry someone from the West Bank – which is of course, common in Palestinian society – they are obliged to apply for “family reunification.”

Back at the infamous interior ministry, paper upon paper must be produced, including all the documents that prove the applicant’s center of life is in Jerusalem, in addition to the marriage license, birth certificates and ID cards.

Usually, the process is long and painful. Either applicants are outright rejected – usually for the hackneyed Israeli excuse of “security reasons” – or the process takes years and much effort and money to produce any results. The outcome is that there are many families living in Jerusalem where one of the spouses is “illegal” according to Israeli law.

Ibrahim Firawi is in such a predicament. Married in 1996, he applied for family reunification one year later. The government was then under the current Israeli Minister of Finance Benjamin Netanyahu, who refused all new applications.

“In 1999, we tried again and were refused again, for no given reason,” says the burly man in his 30s from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

In the meantime, the couple’s family had grown. Two girls were born by 1999, to be followed by another girl and a baby boy a few years later. All of the children were registered on their father’s ID card, which means that when they reach the age of 16, they will be issued individual Jerusalem ID cards.

But this was not the case for his wife, Feda. Originally from a Bethlehem area village, her status in Jerusalem remained precarious, at best. Then, last May, they were slapped with a written order from the interior ministry saying that she had 48 hours to return to “Palestinian Authority” areas, or else she and her husband would face the wrath of Israel’s legal system.

“I immediately appealed to the High Court,” says Ibrahim. “What would I do if my wife were deported to the West Bank? I would have to remain in Jerusalem with my four children.”

The catch-22 is that if Ibrahim followed his wife to live in the West Bank, the interior ministry would revoke his Jerusalem ID card since his “center of life” would no longer be in the city.

One year later, the court granted a stay of three months for Ibrahim’s wife to remain in Jerusalem, until the case could be looked into further. They have not heard from the authorities since.

The legal problems related to residency rights in East Jerusalem are endless and the Israeli policy is clear – try to tip the demographic tables in the city even more. At present, only one-third of Jerusalem residents within the Israeli municipality borders are Arab. And if the experience with my daughter’s birth certificate is any indication, the number is sure to go down even more.

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