Across the divide

After the Six Day War, many east Jerusalem Arabs, optimistic that the capital would soon be redivided, eschewed Israeli citizenship. They are still ambivalent.

fence 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
fence 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
'I have never understood what the meaning of Jerusalem Day for Israelis really is. If you are celebrating the city itself, that is one thing. We all love Jerusalem and wish it would thrive and bloom. However, if you are celebrating the unification of Jerusalem after the Six Day War, then I'm puzzled, because then it doesn't make any sense. If you are to unite with someone, like in marriage, it shouldn't be against the other party's will." This view, expressed by Jumana Abdullah, a student of Bir Zeit University, is shared by many residents of east Jerusalem, who according to demographic surveys form at least 35 percent of the city's population. In this part of the city, not surprisingly, Jerusalem Day is not a huge hit. In 1967 when the war was over, a special solution was created for the Palestinians in east Jerusalem who now found themselves under Israeli rule: They kept their Jordanian passports and were granted an Israeli identity card. However, they were not granted citizenship, but rather the status of "permanent residents" of Israel. At the time, those who wished to could apply for an Israeli passport, but most chose not to do so. Now, east Jerusalem Arabs who apply are usually denied. According to a B'tselem fact sheet on east Jerusalem, "The primary right granted to permanent residents is to live and work in Israel without the necessity of special permits. Permanent residents are also entitled to social benefits provided by the National Insurance Institute and to health insurance; they have the right to vote in local elections, but not in Knesset elections." "If we stay in the city, our center of life is in the city. But if we live outside of the city for seven years, then we have no right to come back. In practice, it works differently. Sometimes you are away for two to three years for studies or work and then you find out your car license and your insurance are canceled. We are not allowed to carry Palestinian [Authority] passports, but at the same time we are not full-fledged citizens of Israel either," says Huda al-Imam, director of the Center for Jerusalem Studies at al-Quds University. Abdullah lives in Wadi Joz, not far from the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus, which according to her, stands on occupied Palestinian land. Abdullah says she isn't against the university or any other Israeli establishments built in east Jerusalem, however she strongly believes that they should equally serve both populations. "As a resident of east Jerusalem, with my ID card, I will be considered a foreign student in Hebrew University. That means, I have to pay much more than any Israeli student - about NIS 20,000 per year - and I'm not entitled to any grants or scholarships. So how can I celebrate Jerusalem Day, if I'm a second-class citizen in my hometown? I was born and raised in this city, but with every passing day I feel that the Arabs, including myself, are literally thrown out of Jerusalem, if it is by means of the wall, or discrimination or any other means," she says. Almost all east Jerusalemites interviewed for this article had a lot to say about the striking differences between the western and eastern sections of the Holy City. "Unification? Jerusalem has never been united. If you do not believe me, just take a walk in our neighborhoods, and then switch to west Jerusalem; surely you will see a difference. We pay property taxes, but the municipality hardly ever bothers to remove the trash in Silwan or Shuafat," says Tamara Amasheh, a recent graduate of Al-Quds University and a Peace Now activist. "We cannot enroll our kids in municipality schools, since there are not enough classrooms," adds Nura Abd a-Salam, a mother of three from Anata. Not one of those interviewed will be taking part in the coming Jerusalem Day celebrations. "First of all, we have our own Jerusalem day - International Al-Quds Day [held on the last Friday of Ramadan to assert Islamic claims to Jerusalem]," says Ramzi, a young Hamas supporter from Silwan. "We celebrate Al-Quds Day, together with the Muslim world, which feels solidarity with the Palestinians and the occupied city, since al-Quds and all of Palestine belongs to all Muslims [Filastin - mulk lil-Muslimin - a sentence commonly used in Islamist rhetoric - K.S.]," adds a young man, who believes that Jerusalem should be united - by a Palestinian state. Such views, however, are not shared by the majority of east Jerusalem residents who spoke to In Jerusalem. Many of them support a two-state solution, with Jerusalem divided between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Tamara Amasheh, who took an active part in Peace Now's alternative Jerusalem Day activities, says that this is the only solution which is able to bring peace to the city and to the region. "De facto, east Jerusalem was never a part of the Israeli capital. It should become the capital of the Palestinian state, according to all the initiatives and agreements." But if political developments continue in the current direction, that will hardly be possible, says Amasheh, who doesn't sound very optimistic. She explains that with the wall cutting a large chunk of east Jerusalem neighborhoods from the city and the economic hardship, which is driving people out of town, life in east Jerusalem has already changed and the situation is deteriorating rapidly. This is a view also shared by Ramzi, who warns of a "Judaization of Jerusalem - "tahwid al-Quds." "Israelis do not want any Arabs in the city, so they build settlements in the heart of Arab neighborhoods, such as Ras el-Amud and Silwan. They even do not allow people to get married, since the spouse of an east Jerusalemite [who is] from Jordan or the PA cannot obtain Israeli ID; however an American or Russian Jew can bring his wife to the city, even if she is not Jewish herself." However, not all Palestinians from east Jerusalem would wish to become Palestinian Authority passport holders if Jerusalem were redivided. Some of them would rather stay under Israeli sovereignty and become full Israeli citizens. Maria (a pseudonym), 31, who was born in the Old City and now lives in Beit Hanina, has repeatedly asked for naturalization. She is ready to give up her Jordanian passport and get an Israeli one, something she isn't entitled to today. Maria first applied to the Interior Ministry in 1996. Eleven years later there is still no progress in her case. This young woman and her family wouldn't want Beit Hanina to become part of the PA, since the poverty rates in the PA are higher and living standards are lower, however they also protest being second class citizens in their city. "Why all this fuss about the reunification of the city? The Israeli authorities do not want any Arabs in Jerusalem. They would rather have us transferred to Ramallah or even preferably to Jordan." For political reasons, not many residents of east Jerusalem would ask for naturalization - even fewer would admit to the fact. "Our governments could sign a deal tomorrow, and east Jerusalem might be controlled by the PA. Then our neighbors would perceive us as traitors, and our lives could be in danger. In any case - we are stuck," says Maria's husband.