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Thursday, April 08, 1999

City of their birth

By Amira Hass

On April 22, the High Court of Justice will consider a petition submitted by five Israeli human rights organizations and 14 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem whose residency rights have been suspended by the Ministry of the Interior.The petitioners will claim that in 1995 the Interior Ministry launched a residency policy quite different from the one it had applied since the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967. They will claim that Israel retroactively suspended the residency of thousands of Palestinians who were born in the city. They will assert that those residents had long understood from the "Open Bridges" policy that Israel acknowledged the vagaries of employment, studies and family and recognized their right to live outside the borders of Jerusalem for defined periods - and their right to return to the city to live.

Responding to the petition, Interior Minister Eli Suissa stated that there had been no change in policy and that the rise in the number of people whose residency had expired stemmed from, among other things, a huge increase in the number of Palestinians trying to live in Jerusalem with their families even as official inquiries show that they have long since moved the "center of their lives" to another location.

The interior minister also informed the court that he had restored the residency rights of seven of the 14 petitioning families. In other words, their right to live in Jerusalem was restored in the wake of the petition, submitted on behalf of the Palestinians by attorneys of the Center for the Defense of the Individual.

Despite Suissa's brief, Supreme Court President Aharon Barak ruled that the state had filed insufficient data in support of its defense, and ordered it to file additional material by next Tuesday, April 13.

What is at issue is not any new law that took effect in 1995, but the reinterpretation of old laws. That year, when the IDF began redeployments in the West Bank as the first stage of actions that would lead to final status deliberations, the Labor-Meretz government sought to alter and influence the facts on the ground. It quickly attempted to reduce the number of Palestinians residing in Jerusalem.

This was not a new policy, but until 1995 it had taken a different form, namely: gross discrimination against new construction for Palestinians, many of whom were forced to live in neighborhoods just outside the city.

But here is what is at issue in the High Court of Justice, and let every Israeli citizen be a judge: When Israel annexed East Jerusalem and its environs, the Palestinians in the area were declared "permanent residents" under the law that governs entrance into the country - despite the fact that these were not Finns who decided to take up residency in the city, nor Palestinians who entered Israel; this was Israel "entering" the Palestinian realm.

A permanent resident, unlike a citizen, is liable to lose his status if he lives outside the residential area in question, whether a city or a state.

For example: A Palestinian whose grandparents and great-grandparents were born in the city and who himself was born in the Moghrabi Quarter was forced to move out of the city in 1967 because Israel destroyed the homes in the neighborhood, which was in the Old City near the Western Wall. If this man was then to build a house in the nearby village of Anata, in all likelihood the authorities would say that he had "moved the center of his life" beyond the borders of the city.

In contrast, a Jew born in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood who moves to Pisgat Ze'ev - next to Anata and built partly on land belonging to that Palestinian village - continues to be considered a Jerusalemite. Where is the justice?

Or: A Jewish Jerusalemite woman who marries a U.S. citizen - Jewish or not - can live with him in Jerusalem or in Chicago forever and keep her Israeli identity card. A Palestinian woman from Jerusalem who marries a Palestinian from Ramallah stands to lose her residency sooner or later. Is that just?

At first glance, this is a historiographic argument over interpretations that contradict the sources and that paint the past in conflicting ways. In effect, it is a battle being waged in Israeli society over its nature and over the principles and values that will lead it into the 21st century.


(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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