(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A government program to distribute identity cards to high school pupils continues to enjoy surprising success in east Jerusalem, where anti-Israel sentiments periodically flare up, and where violent demonstrations were a near-daily occurrence during Operation Cast Lead.
A total of 1,920 east Jerusalem high school pupils from 20 schools have applied this year for the "To Be A Citizen" project, taking advantage of the joint Interior and Education Ministry effort to ease teens' acquisition of their first ID cards by having them delivered to the schools themselves.
The program began about seven years ago. During the first year, 355 east Jerusalem teens applied for ID cards through the program, but in the second year, participation jumped to 1,897. Since then, the number of pupils participating in the program has remained steady at close to 2000.
"After the first year, we had a huge influx of [east Jerusalem] schools saying they wanted to participate in the program," said Hagit Weiss, the Interior Ministry employee who runs the project.
"This year was similar as far as the numbers go, but we were pleasantly surprised that so many pupils were still enthusiastic about it, even after the violence in Gaza and the demonstrations that took place in east Jerusalem."
Though east Jerusalem residents hold Jordanian citizenship and overwhelmingly identify themselves as Palestinians, they are considered permanent residents of Jerusalem by the government and municipality. As a result, east Jerusalemites are entitled to an Israeli (blue) ID card.
Interior Ministry officials said while acceptance of such IDs had originally been a taboo, more and more east Jerusalemites were putting in requests to receive them.
"There was actually a drop in the number of participating pupils in east Jerusalem this year," said Weiss. "But that's only because the principal of one of the schools from last year, used the program as leverage with misbehaving pupils. He told them that if they didn't behave they wouldn't get to take part. So you can see the kind of desire there is in east Jerusalem for this program."
Weiss also said that while the war in Gaza brought tensions to a boiling point in many east Jerusalem neighborhoods, most residents were still keen on exercising their residency rights.
"East Jerusalemites used to be embarrassed to get their ID cards," she said. "We used to have a special room for them in the Interior Ministry, so they could come and fill out their forms in private.
"But today it's much more open. I think there are more and more people who have decided that they care more about their homes, their livelihoods and putting food in their kids' mouths, than the people that you saw demonstrating during the war in Gaza."
Weiss said her office was happy to comply with the requests and that the new ID cards - the pupils' first, as they're now turning 16 - would be distributed in each school in a special ceremony.
"The kids are happy to have them, and their parents are thrilled, because they know that this card brings with it opportunity to lead a better life," Weiss said.
"What we're trying to do is provide an answer to a lot of the problems east Jerusalem residents face. Some of the kids aren't 16 yet - they're 14 or 15, but they look older, and they're constantly getting stopped by the police. In those cases we issue them an ID card as well, because we're trying to make things easier for them.
"That's the bottom line here," Weiss continued. "We want to assist in bringing these people closer, and making things better for everyone."
Others, however, made it clear that the ID card was simply the key to better opportunities, and that neither Israeli citizenship nor acceptance of the Jewish state was on the minds of east Jerusalemites.
"I have a house in the [Palestinian] territories, but I moved to Jerusalem in 1994," said east Jerusalem resident Badea Ismael, who drives a taxi. "Do you know why? So that my children would have an ID card. It's everything, it's health care, it's the ability to work, it's like money in your pocket. Those that don't have them can't do anything.
"I'm dying to move back to the territories," he said. "But I stay here so my kids can have a better life.
"Listen, Palestinians are tired of politics," Ismael continued. "If you ask people in east Jerusalem what they want, they'll tell you - we want our own state with east Jerusalem as its capital. But they also want to feed their kids and live in peace and quiet."