In recent weeks, Israel has circulated reports that tens of thousands of Palestinians residing in occupied Jerusalem may obtain Israeli citizenship, even though there are 330,000 of them in the eastern part of the city. The Israeli Interior Ministry has published guidelines to apply for citizenship under clause 4a of the Citizenship Law. It is worth noting that this is happening after almost 55 years of the Israeli occupation of the city, during which time only 15,000 Palestinians in the city have obtained citizenship.
A third of Palestinian Jerusalemites possess temporary Jordanian passports; the remainder have no citizenship, but their status in Israel is permanent residency. The use of the new procedure to implement an old legal clause may lead to a change in the relationship of the political forces within Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents and their relationship with the Israeli authorities, as the situation in this city is unique.
Since the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has taken no steps to promote citizenship for the Palestinians living there, given their lack of interest and Israeli opposition to such a move. The Palestinians have generally refrained from applying for Israeli citizenship because it could be interpreted as recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the city.
International bodies have not demanded that Israel should grant citizenship to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem because, according to international law, the city is occupied territory and its annexation by the occupation state is not recognised. Hence, procedures expressing sovereignty, including granting citizenship, are not legally valid. Statelessness has not had a great impact on the lives of Jerusalemites with Jordanian passports, albeit not full citizenship, which allowed them to move around the world.
For many years, residents of East Jerusalem enjoyed the status of “adequate residency” despite the difficulty of maintaining such status, which prompted many to move to suburban neighbourhoods outside the municipality and remote villages. Until the 1990s, this did not have long-term consequences as there was a geographical connection between Israel and the West Bank that allowed Jerusalem’s residents to move freely between their homes and their places of work and study in the West Bank.
During the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987, Israel restricted movement between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The building of the separation wall has since tightened restrictions on such movement. Living in the suburbs outside the municipality could lead to loss of residency rights, and then the loss of access to the city itself. This has led to a growing interest among residents of East Jerusalem to obtain Israeli citizenship as the only guarantee against losing the right to enter the city.
Israeli citizenship requires the renunciation of previous citizenship, fluency in Hebrew, and a permit from the security services because it is not only a request to enter Israel but also naturalisation for those who live there. Naturalisation is subject to the discretion of the Minister of the Interior who may impose political considerations. There is also a new clause stipulating that citizenship is granted to those born after the establishment of the state who have no other citizenship and have lived in Israel for five consecutive years.
Clause 4a in Israel’s Citizenship Law provides an opportunity for 20,000 Jerusalemites to obtain citizenship, and an additional 7,000 every year henceforth if this significant increase in the percentage of East Jerusalem citizens goes ahead. This will have a great impact on the identity and status of the Palestinian community in East Jerusalem.
If Israel grants citizenship to so many Palestinian Jerusalemites, it will strengthen the state’s claim of sovereignty over the occupied city. The problem for the Palestinians, of course, is the Israeli occupation, not the question of citizenship. Having more Jerusalemites with Israeli citizenship will reduce even further the possibility of East Jerusalem being the capital of an independent state of Palestine.
Since 1967, Israel’s control over Jerusalem has been based on the inferior status of the Palestinians in it, as residents, not citizens. In the past decade, petitions to the Supreme Court have forced the government to deal with citizenship requests. Three years ago, the Netanyahu government reduced a third of the population of Jerusalemites by shrinking the municipal border, stifling planning in Palestinian neighbourhoods, and increasing the number of demolitions of their homes.
Despite all of the Israeli policies to expel Palestinians from Jerusalem, the Palestinians remain determined to stay in their city. They may be weak and persecuted, but they have enough steadfastness to force the Israeli authorities to grant them their rights.
However, this is only part of the picture. There are also those in East Jerusalem who deny the legitimacy of the Israeli government and oppose citizenship because the right-wing in Israel sees Palestinian citizenship as evidence of the “unity of Jerusalem” but does not give all residents the same rights as the Jewish population.
The citizenship issue will not change the right-wing policy which is based on inequality in Jerusalem as elsewhere. Hence, it will not threaten the Israeli occupation, which is reassuring for right-wing Israelis.
Naturalisation in its current form serves the logic of Israeli sovereignty throughout occupied Jerusalem and contradicts the idea of demographic separation that characterises the Zionist left-wing. There are fears that the Jewish majority in the city will be at risk, which is a racist position that implies the arbitrary suppression of the Palestinians.
Israel has opted for the policy of occupation and apartheid towards Jerusalemites, after the failure of the two-state solution. Supporters of the state justify this at the expense of the basic rights of the Palestinian Jerusalemites. If the latter are fed up with waiting for a state of Palestine and want to see what they can achieve on an individual basis with Israeli citizenship, who is to argue?
The Jerusalemites have the right to live a “normal” life and be respected by the Israeli authorities, as well as have the freedom to choose the means to achieve their goals, even if they live under constant persecution. However, the reality is that they should be allowed to do so without having to submit to Israeli citizenship plans that serve a malicious settler-colonial occupation rather than the rights of the people.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.