Interior procedures

"In Jerusalem" visits the new branch of the Interior Ministry in Wadi Joz

The brand new building faced in white Jerusalem stone at the entrance to Wadi Joz has become one of the most popular attractions of the neighborhood. Wadi Joz, not far from the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University and the Regency Hotel, has always been famous for its repair shops and garages. Last month, as reported by In Jerusalem ("Comfortable interiors," March 10), it also became the location of the branch of the Interior Ministry that provides services for residents of east Jerusalem. Since its inauguration, the steady, heavy flow of applicants has not stopped. In addition to those who genuinely need to renew their documents, obtain a laissez-passer, or invite their relatives from abroad, many come here just to explore the new facility, to walk around the halls and to confirm for themselves that these offices really do exist. After all, east Jerusalemites have been waiting for this facility for many years. Wafaa Salah, a 16-year-old student from Beit Hanina, accompanied her mother to the ministry offices. "I was curious to see what the building looks like, so I decided to come along with my mom. The building is very impressive, it's comfortable and new. Needless to say, you cannot in any way compare it to the old premises of the Ministry of Interior - that was a nightmare." In its worst days, the former offices of the Interior Ministry, located on Rehov Salah a-Din, looked like a battlefield, where the 80,000 Arab residents of east Jerusalem had to fight, argue, scream and push in an effort to be the lucky one who could actually get into the building, in the hope that once in, they would also receive services. "We tried to give the population the best possible service under those conditions, but it was simply unrealistic," admits Avi Lekah, head of the population registry department in east Jerusalem. "In addition to the regular visitors, we also receive 250 requests a day for travel documents for Jordan, which are now available at the Allenby Bridge crossing." Reflecting on his years of service in east Jerusalem, Lekah says, "The frustration of an official who goes home after a full work day, knowing that he was unable to help some or many of the people who came to the office that day, is enormous." But on a recent visit to the new site, the numerous guards at the gates quipped among themselves that the east Jerusalem branch is far more attractive than its sister facility in west Jerusalem, located on Rehov Shlomzion Hamalka. That might be true. The spacious and bright-colored building definitely complies with all of the criteria for space and style: the doorways are wide, the facility is accessible to the disabled, and all of the signs and instructions have been posted in both Hebrew and Arabic. There are even vending machines, a luxury unheard of in the old office. But has the new and shining facility inherited the ingrained problems of the old building? Entering the premises, IJ decided not to take the easy way in, available only to VIP's, but rather to go in the usual way, the way a common citizen in need of a new identity card, or a birth certificate for his or her child, must enter. Once through the main entrance, visitors must undergo a security check. By midday, more than 100 people had already lined up, waiting to go down one of the two available corridors, the one designated for men and the other for women. "I came here at 7 a.m., now it's 9 and I'm still not even close to getting inside," muttered Samira Husseini, an elderly woman accompanied by her daughter-in-law, Maha. The security procedure is very long and tiresome." But quickly she adds, "At the old building I wouldn't have been able to get anywhere near the entrance. So there is definitely an improvement." The line did not seem to move, even slightly, but with the help of a smile, apologies - and a government-issued press card - this reporter was able to move forward. Past the security check, the information booth was manned by two courteous clerks, both of them Arabic speakers. Director Lekah says he is particularly proud that the ministry "is doing everything [we can] to reduce the number of people waiting. The right information at the entrance can easily do the job if planned well." There are counters for quick service - for those who merely need to have their papers renewed or re-issued; furthermore now, as in west Jerusalem, residents may apply for many of these services through the mail and need not appear in person. Applicants with more complicated issues, such as family reunions or naturalizations, are referred to a second hall. Here, they are often even given appointments. Regarding the procedures themselves, Lekah says, "There are rules and regulations that are applied in different cases, and yes, these processes, such as naturalization and family reunions can take quite some time. In some cases it can take months" explains Lekah. But the residents waiting in line say that procedures such as family reunion can take up to a few years, and the new building has not changed this fact. Khalil Atrash, an accountant from Sur Bahir, first applied for naturalization for his wife, who comes from Bethlehem, more than eight years ago. "What else do they want from me?" he asks, bitterly. "My wife and I have submitted all the necessary paper work, we meet all the possible criteria and we are still living in this state of uncertainty. My wife is afraid to go outside, as she doesn't have the status of Jerusalem resident. She has an MA, but she cannot work and has to stay at home all the time. I feel really desperate and I don't know what else to do." Almost everybody in the waiting room has a personal story to tell and almost everybody complained about the long waiting period, which often extends for years, before they receive an answer. "Yes, the building is nice, nicer then the old one, but our problems still remain as they were - unsolved," says Nader from Beit Hanina. Like many others, Nader is concerned about the future, after construction of the security barrier is completed. "We know that there will be a post office and a branch of the Interior Ministry at the barrier itself. Does it mean we will not be able to cross freely into Jerusalem from our place of residence, which is behind the wall?" asks an elderly man who refuses to identify himself but says that he comes from Semiramis, a village which is officially part of Jerusalem but will be to the north (outside) of the security barrier. Responds Lekah, "The additional branch is just another service we offer the citizens and there is no hidden conspiracy to cut the east Jerusalemites out of Jerusalem." But the people waiting in the well-lit waiting room, joining in the conversation that also helps to pass the time, remain skeptical. "What we see right now is the cosmetic improvement, but what we really need is a change of attitude toward us and our problems. If the government wants to do something for the people of east Jerusalem, it should really be more attentive to our genuine problems and troubles," says Nader. "Next number, please," a clerk calls out, and he gets up and walks slowly over to the desk.