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Quiet transfer gets even quieter

Six months ago, Interior Minister Natan Sharansky promised to change the policy of quiet transfer practiced in East Jerusalem. While the Interior Ministry no longer confiscates identity cards from Arabs who have left the city, the violation of their rights continues.

By Danny Rubinstein, Ha'aretz, Sunday, January 16, 2000

Upon the establishment of the Barak government, the new interior minister, Natan Sharansky, declared that the Interior Ministry's policy in Jerusalem - known as "quiet transfer" - was unreasonable and would therefore be discontinued. But the actions intended to end the policy that the Palestinians refer to as "ethnic cleansing" are being implemented sluggishly, and the changes that have been introduced are only partial. Even the familiar sight of the overcrowding in the long, humiliating line at the entrance to the Interior Ministry's offices in East Jerusalem remains unchanged, because of the delay in the transfer of the branch office to its new home. Why are the old policies still in place?.The term "quiet transfer" is used to describe the policy involving the confiscation of Israeli identity cards from those Arabs who at one time lived in East Jerusalem (which is Israeli territory) and then moved outside the city. In fact, Arab residents of East Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens and they are instead defined as permanent residents of the State of Israel, or the holders of "residency rights" in Jerusalem. In other words, their Israeli identity cards grant them all the rights of Israeli citizens except the right to vote or to be elected in Israeli elections (which is why they vote in the elections for the Palestinian Authority). They are also not permitted to carry Israeli passports and if they leave the city, they are liable to lose their Israeli identity cards.

The confiscation of Israeli identity cards from Jerusalem Arabs began in 1995, during the final months of the previous Labor government. It was presided over by the current National Infrastructures Minister Eli Suissa, then in charge of the Interior Ministry office in East Jerusalem. The confiscations were extended following the appointment of Suissa as interior minister in the Netanyahu government. While the Interior Ministry did not actively track down those who had left the city, it did carefully scrutinize those who contacted the ministry. Any time an Arab came to the ministry branch to register something - marriage, the birth of children - or to request various documents and any suspicion was aroused, he was asked to present ministry officials with proof of residence in the city. The proof could be in the form of receipts for municipal tax payments, electric or telephone bills or anything else that indicated that the person and his family had indeed lived within the borders of Jerusalem in the previous years.

There are no clear figures on the number of Arabs who lost their residence rights in Jerusalem since 1995. According to estimates, a few thousand are involved. But this policy posed a threat to tens of thousands of Arabs with Israeli-Jerusalem documents who left Jerusalem for the larger Arab neighborhoods built between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank. They left Jerusalem because of the construction restrictions imposed on Arabs in the city. The confiscation of their Israeli documents means the loss of a number of rights, including the right to enter Israel freely, which translates into the loss of the possibility to make a living.

A few weeks before the formation of the Barak government, the Supreme Court handed down an injunction instructing the Interior Ministry in East Jerusalem to reveal the procedures used in the past concerning residence rights. This came in the wake of a claim by someone who had left the city in 1995 who had not been aware of the change in procedures. Only when he returned to his home in Jerusalem did he discover that he had lost his right to live in the city.

Even after Sharansky announced the change in policy, officials in the East Jerusalem Interior Ministry branch continued to demand that Arabs return the Israeli identity cards they held. In August 1999, Attorney Eliyahu Avram, director of the legal department of the Civil Rights Center in Jerusalem, sent a letter to the State Prosecutor's Office in which he warned against the continuation of the practice, demanding that it be discontinued. In late August, the State Prosecutor's Office stated that identity cards would no longer be confiscated from those who had lost their right of residency.

About a month and a half later, in mid-October, a meeting was held on the matter in the presence of Sharansky, Minister Haim Ramon and Justice Minister Yossi Beilin. It was followed by an announcement that the Interior Ministry would no longer revoke the permanent residential status of Jerusalem Arabs who had left the city. Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein was party to the discussions on the matter, and in late October, the State Prosecutor's Office informed the Supreme Court, "At this time, identity cards will not be taken from those whose permanent residency license has been found to have expired."

While the wording of the most recent announcement guarantees that no more identity cards will be confiscated from Arabs, it does in fact make it possible to continue to revoke residency rights, thus turning many of East Jerusalem's Arab residents into illegal aliens in their own homes.

By the beginning of November, five months after the formation of the Barak government, complaints continued to arrive in the offices of civil rights organizations in Jerusalem. More than 100 Arabs complained that they had received notices from the Interior Ministry in East Jerusalem informing them that they had lost their residency rights. This means that the policy continued although technically, the identity cards were not confiscated. Only in November did complaints cease. In an interview about two months ago with the East Jerusalem daily Al Quds, Sharansky claimed that the identity card confiscation policy had been discontinued.

The minister's announcement calmed the fears of Arab residents of Jerusalem, many of whom had appealed to the Interior Ministry for documents of various kinds and to register births, marriages and other life events. Very soon, however, it became clear to those turning to the Interior Ministry that nothing had changed and that the previous Interior Ministry procedures that demanded they prove their residency in the city were still in effect. Many of the requests of those who had appealed in the past to register births and marriages went unfulfilled, while the requests of those who asked to have their confiscated identity cards returned were ignored.

Many Arabs living in East Jerusalem do not have identity cards for numerous reasons. According to different estimates, the situation applies to thousands of Arab families whose registration in the city has not been set in order. For example, there are couples in which one person is not a resident of Jerusalem; their children, therefore, are also not registered as permanent residents of Israel. These children are not eligible to study in Jerusalem schools or to receive medical care. Another typical case involves a man who does not have an Israeli identity card and who therefore cannot legally live with his wife and children.

Three weeks ago, attorney Avram again appealed to the Supreme Court to ask it to order the Interior Minister to specify its policy and procedures in this vein, in consideration of the suffering caused to thousands of families. The State Prosecutor's Office, in response, asked the court for an extension of 45 days in order to translate the change in policy into clear instructions for East Jerusalem Interior Ministry officials. The extension will end at the beginning of February, and at that time we will be able to find out if the previous policy - the purpose of which was to remove Arabs from Jerusalem - has indeed ceased to exist.

Copyright 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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