As peace is ever remote, more Palestinians in Jerusalem apply for Israeli citizenship

More than a thousand families applied for Israeli citizenship in 2016, up from 69 in 2003. However, red tape is an obstacle and more than half of all applications are rejected. Israel’s hold over the city is getting stronger with more settlements. Behind the trend is a desire to lead a normal life and avoid the fear of losing residency rights.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Last year saw a jump in the number of Jerusalem Palestinians applying for Israeli citizenship. In total, 1,081 families submitted applications, compared to 69 in 2003, 547 in 2008 and 704 in 2013, Israel’s Interior Ministry said.

According to figures first published on the Times of Israel news site last September, the processing of requests has slowed dramatically since 2014. Out of more than 4,000 individual applications, only 84 were approved, whilst 161 were rejected and the rest were pending.

Lawyers representing Palestinians say their clients have to wait months to have an appointment with the Interior Ministry, and up to three years to get a decision.

"We see a clear link between these seemingly innocent bureaucratic measures and Israel's demographic interest to reduce the number of Arabs inside its borders, especially Arabs with voting rights," said Adi Lustigman, a lawyer who has represented Palestinians seeking citizenship.

Israeli officials have denied the claim that they are trying to discourage applicants. "There hasn't been any slowing in the review process, but there are a growing number of applications every year," said Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad.

Procedures are long and difficult. Only about 15,000 Palestinians have requested an Israeli passport since 2003, the Interior Ministry said. Of those, fewer than 6,000 were reportedly approved.

Applicants need to prove they have lived in the city for at least three years and are asked to provide electricity, water and municipal tax bills for that period. They also need proficiency in Hebrew.

Grounds for refusal include minor criminal offenses or a veto by the Shin Bet security service.

The citizenship debate reflects the unsettled status of Jerusalem's 330,000 Palestinians —37 per cent of the city's population — 50 years after Israel captured and annexed the eastern sector.

The vast majority have city residency documents, allowing them to work and move about. For travel abroad, they use temporary documents issued by Israel or Jordan.

Israel's 1967 annexation of east Jerusalem was followed with an offer of citizenship, but most Palestinians refused it because it might be seen as an implicit acknowledgement of Israel’s annexation, which is contrary to the stated Palestinian goal of making east Jerusalem the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

However, as prospects for peace get slimmer, many Palestinians are opting for pragmatism. With Israeli rule entrenched in east Jerusalem, more than 200,000 Jewish Israelis now live in east Jerusalem settlements built to solidify Israeli control. Israel considers the areas to be neighborhoods of its capital.

For one Arab resident, getting citizenship ended his many bureaucratic hassles. Speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid being labelled unpatriotic by fellow Palestinians, he said he simply wants to "live normally."

Some polls have indicated that the actual number of Palestinians interested in Israeli citizenship is actually larger, mainly because of the practical benefits they can derive.

Many Arab east Jerusalem residents also feel neglected by the Palestinian government, which runs parts of the West Bank but is barred by Israel from operating in Jerusalem.

At the same time, since 1967 Israel has revoked the residency rights of 14,500 Palestinians. Arab residents are "subject to constant fear, real fear, to lose their residency," Lustigman said.

Ruba Mueller, a 37-year-old Palestinian married to a German, applied for citizenship out of fear that she might lose her residency permit because of her frequent trips to Germany. "I was born here, I am a Palestinian," she said. "I don't want a visa that says I'm a tourist."