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Ha'aretz, May 5, 1999

All in a night's misery

By Danny Rubinstein


At 6 A.M. Monday morning, there was already a long queue of several hundred people waiting outside the East Jerusalem offices of the Interior Ministry. All those in line were Arabs, and many of them had arrived outside the offices on the previous evening, spending the whole night outdoors. Angry, sometimes violent outbursts can be witnessed here every morning: shouting, screaming, shoving, even fistfights. Young men, women with babies, elderly people and pregnant women all stand crowded together for hours between the iron fences establishing the boundaries of the line, virtually turning the narrow sidewalk into a small cage. Every now and then, someone faints and an ambulance is called for.

A group of local thugs has taken control of the line, showing up at the site every evening, reserving spots on the line and later selling them to the highest bidders. The prices range from NIS 100 to NIS 300, depending on the place in the line. One of the people waiting in line said he had tried to file a complaint with the police against these thugs, but was asked to give exact names. Since he was afraid to do so, the police refused to register his complaint and open an investigation.

Most of the people waiting in line outside the East Jerusalem Interior Ministry refuse to disclose their identity, fearing that the ministry will take revenge on them by turning down their requests.

A.M. wishes to submit a request for family unification. He has an East Jerusalem identity card and has married a cousin of his from Jordan. Now he wants her to also be given a card which will enable her to reside in Jerusalem permanently. Submitting the request involves a NIS 510 fee, which is nonrefundable even if the request is denied. M.K. has married a Russian woman and wants her visa extended so she can stay with him in Jerusalem.

Many of the people waiting in line simply wish to renew their identity cards. Israeli citizens are not required to renew their identity cards, but East Jerusalem's Arabs are not citizens and must therefore come to the Interior Ministry every few years and renew their cards. Anyone failing to do so risks forfeitting his card, and maybe even his right to live in Jerusalem. In order to renew the card, residents are sometimes asked to bring dozens of documents proving that they indeed still live in Jerusalem and have not transferred their "life center" elsewhere. The documents include arnona (municipal tax) bills, water bills, electricity and phone bills, a television licensing fee receipt, a lease on an apartment, and bank statements showing transfers from the National Insurance Institute (children's allowances, old age pensions, and so on). Not all these documents are always required. Usually the clerk is satisfied with just a few of them, and at times he does not ask for any.

In this matter, as in many others regarding the East Jerusalem Interior Ministry's policies, there is deliberate ambiguity. No one knows exactly how often identity cards need renewal: After five years? After seven? Maybe ten? The directives change every now and then. The list of required documents is also not fixed. The people waiting in line claim that the directives are purposely not clear and changed periodically so as to confuse and scare them. And most of them are indeed confused and scared.

R.M. has come to register his one-month-old son on his identity card. He claims that if he does not register him within one year from the time of his birth, the Interior Ministry will refuse to do so, and he will then have to submit a request for "family unification" with his baby son. That is what happened to one of his neighbors.

Among those waiting in line, many are here seeking a Laissez Passer. West Bank and Gaza residents travel abroad today on Palestinian passports issued by the Palestinian Authority. Under the agreements, Israel forbids Jerusalem's Arabs from holding such passports and, since they are not entitled to Israeli ones either, the result is that they have no right to any passport. Most of them, therefore, travel abroad on Israeli Laissez Passer cards, or on Jordanian documents that function as temporary passports.

Around 8 A.M., when the ministry offices are scheduled to open, the shouting and shoving increase. People literally trample each other in an attempt to get to the entrance. The offices are situated in an old building on Nablus Road, which in the past housed the municipal education department of the Jordanian Jerusalem administration. Israelis coming from the northern neighborhoods of Jerusalem pass here on their way to the Western Wall and Damascus Gate.

A Tel Avivian happening across the scene stops to inquire as to the commotion. After being told what is going, on he turns to two of the Israeli Interior Ministry officials, entering the building from a side entrance, and tells them that the scene is a disgrace to Israel.

"People are being treated like animals here," he says. You are right, the two officials tell him. One of them adds that they have been complaining about the situation for years, and suggests that he take the matter up with the minister.

But the truth of the matter is that there is no point in talking to Interior Minister Eli Suissa. Before being appointed to his current position, he was the ministry official in charge of East Jerusalem. He set up this system, and no one knows how it operates better than he does. The minister and ministry's deliberate ill treatment of Jerusalem's Arabs has been widely discussed and challenged, both by the Arab media and by human rights groups.

Suissa and his Shas party have in recent years become very popular among Israeli Arabs. They flatter them, point out the similarities between them and Shas in terms of respect for tradition and religion and lack of respect for Zionism Shas has made a name for itself as a party that cares for Israeli Arabs' needs. Suissa and his colleagues get their payback on election day.

But Jerusalem's Arabs do not have the right to vote, and therefore there is no point and no need to flatter them. Instead, the Interior Ministry creates difficulties and employs a host of tricks and ruses against East Jerusalem's Arabs in an attempt to make their lives miserable, driving them out of the city by bureaucratic means - or at least preventing Arab immigration to it. According to leaks from the Interior Ministry, there is even a secret arrangement with the Palestinian Authority, under which it has agreed not to complain too much about Israel's humiliating treatment of Jerusalem's Arabs.

Shortly after 8 A.M., two Israeli security men come out of the building and ask the people waiting in line to move back so as not to trample those at the head of the line. The crowd does not listen. By 9 A.M., some 50 people manage to push their way into the offices, screaming and shoving. A nearby shopkeeper says that this is a relatively quiet morning. Sometimes the security men forcefully throw people who failed to bring the correct documents out of the offices, and then the commotion is huge. Experts on the ministry's procedures set up stands on the sidewalk and fill out forms for people for a NIS 10 fee.

Approximately half of the 300 people waiting in line will manage to get into the building by noon, when the offices close their doors to the public. The rest will go home empty-handed. Most of those turned away did not begin standing in line until after 2 A.M., considered very tardy in local terms.

Around 10 A.M. there are still more than 100 people waiting in line outside the East Jerusalem Interior Ministry. They are all very tired, their eyes are red and their nerves are shot after spending a whole night waiting in line and fighting to keep their places in crowded conditions. Around 11 A.M., one of the people who had been waiting in line all night called the Ha'aretz Jerusalem office. After waiting for another two and a half hours inside the building, he said, he and everyone waiting with him were informed that their requests could not be dealt with that day because the computer system crashed. So they all went home.



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

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