Comfortable interiors

The Interior Ministry has opened its new offices in east Jerusalem

interior ministry 298 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
interior ministry 298 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Earlier this week, the Interior Ministry finally inaugurated its new offices in the Wadi Joz neighborhood in east Jerusalem, close to the Hebrew University's Mt. Scopus campus and the Hyatt Hotel. The spacious new site, with its grassy areas outside, pleasant waiting space and computer terminals to provide services to residents, was established only after repeated intervention by the Supreme Court. In December 2003, in response to appeals brought by residents of east Jerusalem, the Court had ordered that the ministry relocate by mid-2005. But even that date was missed when the move was held up due to a feud between the Amidar governmental housing company and the Finance Ministry. Until last year, the Jerusalem Municipality had been paying about NIS 1 million a year for security at the new site, after local residents took the state to court over land rights and squatters and criminals were using the building, the Jerusalem Post reported earlier this week. The Interior Ministry is ever-present in the lives of all Israelis - it issues mandatory identity cards, passports, and other documentation; confirms entitlement to rights such as insurance, welfare and old-age pensions; and registers births, deaths and name-changes. It is even more present in the lives of the residents of east Jerusalem, who have a special "residency" status. Although they carry blue (Israeli) identity cards, residents are not provided with Israeli passports, but rather carry "laissez-passer" documents, issued by the Interior Ministry. Furthermore, in order to continue to benefit from the social services offered by the State of Israel, permanent residents must continually prove that they do indeed live in Jerusalem by presenting rent or property-tax bills to the Ministry at various intervals. Most significantly for many residents, the Ministry also handles family unification requests, a process intended to reunite families split by the green line or the security barrier. The process of obtaining permission can take up to ten years and requires repeated personal appearances at the Interior Ministry. "Israelis want us to live together in a united city," said Abed abu-Salah, 37, who owns a clothing shop near the Damascus Gate. "But they've treated us like cattle. To me, the Interior Ministry is the worst symbol of Israeli control over our lives." Mayor Uri Lupolianski called the former location "a disgrace." Located in a building never intended to provide services to large numbers of residents, with its turnstile entrance and forbidding exterior, it looked more like a prison than a government office. Because there was no waiting room, applicants would have to line up outside on the sidewalk, no matter what the weather conditions. Due to security concerns, few Israelis were willing to work at the Ministry, so with inadequate staff and short office-hours, the lines were long and moved slowly. Local "entrepreneurs" (or thugs, as abu-Salah calls them) would "offer" to stay in line overnight in order to guarantee a spot in the morning - for a price, usually several hundred dollars. In at least one case, Israeli officials were convicted of extorting sex and bribes in exchange for securing a better place in line. Outside, surrounded by the impatient crowds, enterprising men would, for a fee, type out the required forms on manual Hebrew-language typewriters, since few of the forms are available in Arabic and almost none of the required forms or documentation can be downloaded from the web-sites, as they can be in Hebrew. Speaking at the inauguration, Lupolianski said, "Anyone who tells me that he doesn't understand what the Arabs in east Jerusalem are so angry and bitter about, and why they feel discriminated against, should have visited the former Interior Ministry offices. That branch had become the symbol of discrimination." Abu-Salah came to the Interior Ministry this week to renew his laissez-passer. Even as he looked at the new building, he sounded bitter as he remembered the last time he had to renew the document. On the first day, he joined the line, which was already winding down the sidewalk, at 6:30 a.m. He waited in the rain until the doors closed at noon and went home empty-handed. So he took off another day from work and was in line at 5:00 a.m. But he didn't get in that day either. "At least it wasn't raining," he muttered. Unable to close his nearby-shop for a third day, abu-Salah paid an "intermediary" US$ 450 to stay in line overnight to keep his place. He himself arrived at 5:30 a.m. and was able to get into the building. He received his laissez-passer six weeks later. "I hope that this isn't just a better building," he said as he walked through the security and into the well-lit spacious entry-hall. "I hope that the Israelis will offer us better service, too." Deputy Interior Minister Ruhama Avraham confidently declared, "This is a holiday first and foremost for the 250,000 Arab residents of east Jerusalem as well as for the workers of the Interior Ministry." But Jihad Jubarrah, 37, a family physician, is less sure. "Of course it makes the occupation more comfortable. But we are still at the whim of the Israeli authorities. Family unification is our main concern, and an Israeli bureaucrat can make decisions over our lives," she said. Israeli officials have promised to improve the quality of the services offered and to enable residents to submit some forms at post offices, as Israeli citizens do. Abu-Salah said that might be enough, at least for now. "I don't want to think about the ideology or politics," he said firmly. "I want to be able to conduct my life, as a Jerusalemite, in a respectful way. I want to be treated like any other resident of this city. And getting a new Interior Ministry, even if it really doesn't change the political situation, makes a real difference."