Being born in Jerusalem

Joharah Baker
16 April 2003

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 being sent to me by mail. Easy enough, one may say. But anyone who actually goes to the cold, grey building with an iron turnstile on Nablus Road knows that a trip to the interior ministry is nothing but heartache.

Waiting at the gates

My husband endured a twelve hour wait – from 4am until 4pm – 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 twelve 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 year old, 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.

Squeezing out the unwanted

But, of course, we are 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 discriminatory, 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, Centre for the Defence of the Individual. “Most of them are complaints about family reunification, children’s registration, national insurance and ID confiscation.”

The Centre takes many cases to Israeli courts to try to reverse some of the worst discriminatory policies against East Jerusalemites. Landau explains that it is a constant uphill battle: “Most cases regarding family reunification are resolved, not with actual verdicts but by settlements,” Landau explains, implying that claimants usually end up with less than they had hoped for.

Landau describes 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 the same rights as East Jerusalem residents.

There are three instances where the state can deny or revoke residency status. The first is if a resident leaves Israel for a period of seven (and sometimes only six years). The second is if a resident gains status in another place, such a obtaining a Green Card in the US. And the third is for “security reasons,” which are notoriously vaguely defined and therefore open to arbitrary enactment. “This hasn’t happened to date, except with people involved in bombings,” Landau reassures.

The legacy of the Six Day war

One could 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, the apparent concession had strings attached. New citizens had to swear allegiance to the State of Israel.

Palestinians, understandably, were less than enthusiastic about showing any loyalty to this newly founded state. They were also aware of the blatant discrimination practiced by the Israeli government; the different treatment meted out to 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, although politically Palestinians wanted to maintain a foothold in the city only 2.3% of all Palestinian Jerusalemites became Israeli citizens. Those who could not bring themselves to swear allegiance were given the right to stay conferred by the status of “permanent resident.” Those with this precious but precarious status have since spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to preserve.

Where is the centre of your life?

Maintaining residency is not as easy as it sounds. In 1995, the Israeli interior ministry introduced the “centre of life” policy for Palestinians with Jerusalem ID cards. In order to keep their residency, Palestinians were made to prove that their centre 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 Centre for Social and Economic Rights, incidents of ID card confiscation increased by over 600% after implementation of the centre of life policy.

No Palestinian, no matter the status, is immune to this policy. Palestinian Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi, who lives in Ramallah, has repeatedly been threatened with having 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. This was, no doubt, only a threat. But the fact remains that if the interior ministry chooses to do so, it has every legal right to carry out the confiscation.

Israeli citizens, of course, 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.

Same ministry, different worlds

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 centre 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 rejected outright – usually for the hackneyed 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 “centre 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 scales 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.

First published at www.palestinereport.org

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