Reality drags more East Jerusalem Arabs toward quiet Israeli citizenship

AFP — It’s a dilemma that many Palestinians from Jerusalem confront: Resign yourself to becoming an Israeli citizen or press ahead as a person without a state.

“I don’t really want to do it, but there is no other solution,” said a 28-year-old Palestinian lawyer from East Jerusalem who has applied for Israeli citizenship.

She applied in the summer of 2014 but is still waiting for a final answer.

The lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid potentially damaging her case, was given her first interview a year after applying.

She said it was “very difficult” to bring herself to apply, but concluded that having the passport “will definitely make my life far easier for travel and work.”

A Palestinian man walks past Israeli security forces standing guard at Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City on May 31, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

Fifty years after Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, the more than 300,000 Palestinians in the city are in a unique situation.

They hold neither full Palestinian nor Israeli citizenships, instead having permanent residence granted to them by Israel and access to services.

They pay taxes for work and on property, but can’t vote in general elections, though they can participate in municipal elections.

Israel can withdraw their permanent residence if it can prove they live in the West Bank or elsewhere outside Jerusalem, meaning many feel their presence in the city and country of their birth is under threat.

As a result, recent years have seen increased numbers seeking to become full Israeli citizens, lawyers and non-governmental groups say.

Figures from the Jerusalem Legal Aid Center show 6,497 East Jerusalemites applied for citizenship between 2009 and 2016, of whom 3,349 have been granted it.

The Israeli passport of a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, Israeli Ruba Mueller, stamped as cancelled because she left Israel immediately after obtaining it 10 years ago, March 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Karin Laub)

Israel’s Interior Ministry had not responded to an AFP request for comment and figures.

Figures showed a sharp increase in citizenship applications for East Jerusalem residents beginning in 2006, though the numbers have somewhat fallen in recent years.

Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, where Israel does not clai sovereignty, are not entitled to apply for Israeli citizenship, but those from East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, are.

The young lawyer recalled how getting visas to Western countries was a bureaucratic nightmare with permanent residence papers, but doing so with an Israeli passport would be straightforward.

“My sisters are out of the country and it is illogical to wait a long time to get European visas,” she said.

“Also, I need it for my work as a lawyer in Israel. My position will be stronger if I get the citizenship.”

She is expecting a decision in the next year, but knows taking Israeli citizenship will mean she cannot travel to many Arab countries which have no relations with the Jewish state.

‘Shame but no regret’

For Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, taking Israeli citizenship is a sensitive issue.

The Palestinian government sees East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while Israel sees the whole city it captured in 1967 as its undivided capital.

For many Palestinians of East Jerusalem, taking Israeli citizenship is tantamount to accepting the Jewish state’s sovereignty in the city.

“We need to raise awareness of our Palestinian identity in Jerusalem and we should not try to legitimize the occupation,” anti-settlement activist Fakhri Abu Diab told AFP.

A Palestinian boy walks in East Jerusalem, May 31, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

Ziad Haidami, a lawyer in Jerusalem, said he has had clients deciding to take the step for a variety of reasons.

“One wanted to become a police officer, another wanted to do long-term studies abroad,” he said.

All of them enter his office “like thieves” to avoid being seen, concerned that others will know they are seeking Israeli citizenship, he said.

“But Jerusalem Palestinians are increasingly making that choice because they are telling themselves that Israeli nationality will protect them and no Palestinian administration can do that in Jerusalem,” he said.

A general view of neighborhoods in Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem, close to the historic Old City, May 31, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)

Mohammed, 27, who was granted citizenship two years ago, admits there is a stigma.

“Only my close circle knows I took Israeli citizenship,” he told AFP.

“But I don’t regret the step at all. My life became much easier and more comfortable,” he added, saying dealing with the government became more practical and he can travel faster.

Palestinians who do decide to apply, however, say they face major delays and point out that interviews are conducted in Hebrew only, despite the fact that Arabic is treated as a national language in Israel.

“The ministry of interior is still reviewing applications made in 2013 and 2014,” said lawyer, who represents a number of residents applying.

Israel’s interior ministry has previously denied claims of intentionally making the process difficult, saying the large number of applications and the work of processing them is time-consuming.

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