Palestians pass through an Israeli checkpoint at the Damascus Gate, Old City, Jerusalem. (photo: David H. Wells/Corbis)
Source: Jerusalem Statistical Yearbook and Municipality of Jerusalem
Palestinians wait to obtain entry into the National Insurance Institute. (photo: George Martin)
Maher Turjman had a most unusual dream. Maher, Projects Manager for CNEWAs Pontifical Mission office in Jerusalem, dreamed that he registered his marriage at the Israeli Ministry of the Interior in East Jerusalem without difficulty. Trying to get just about anything done in Jerusalem is a challenge, whether you are an Israeli or a Palestinian. But it is always more difficult if you are a Palestinian.
One morning I went to East Jerusalem to find out what the difficulties could be. A line of Palestinians stretched up the street. The entrance to the ministry was a steel gate; those at the front of the line clutched its bars, desperate to enter. A sign announced that the office was open from 8:00 A.M. to noon, Monday through Thursday, and from 4:00 to 6:00 on Friday afternoon a total of 18 hours a week.
I asked some people how long they had been waiting. One man arrived at 1:00 A.M. Fifty people were ahead of him. Another said he had come for three consecutive days without getting in; it was difficult for him to stand in line, he continued, because of back problems. He had no choice: He had to renew his Jerusalem identity card. Without this card he could not live in Jerusalem legally or obtain the travel permit he needed to visit family in Jordan.
They put so much pressure on people, he said, referring to the short office hours and long lines. Another man said there should be a hall for people to sit while waiting, instead of having to stand outdoors exposed to the elements.
This is not modern management, he said. This is not humane. The Interior Ministry office in West Jerusalem, which serves Jews, was quite different, however, with seating areas and other amenities.
Everyone with whom I spoke in East Jerusalem had his or her own tale of sorrow. One woman came at 2:00 A.M. to renew a visitors permit for her brother-in-law, but now she was leaving, full of despair for not getting in before the office closed. A Pontifical Mission employee had to pay a lawyer an exorbitant fee to register his childrens births with the Interior Ministry, after his wife made repeated unsuccessful attempts at standing in line.
Some of those who were lucky enough to get into the Interior Ministry also shared their frustrations: Papers they always want more papers, said one. A woman came for a death certificate for her just-deceased father, but his name was misspelled on Ministry records and did not match hospital records. The clerk refused to issue a death certificate. The woman exploded. What do you want me to do bring in his body? She was told to come back in two weeks.
While Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, must interact with the Israeli Interior Ministry for a variety of matters, including routine changes of address, the most crucial matter is maintaining a current Jerusalem identity card. Since the Israeli annexation of Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967, Jerusalems Palestinian residents have lived in a kind of never-never land.
Much of of the territory of todays Jerusalem was not part of the city before 1967. Present-day Jerusalem includes West Bank villages that stretched from Bethlehem in the south to Ramallah in the north.
When Israel annexed East Jerusalem, it gerrymandered its boundaries to include as much land but as few Palestinians as possible. In some cases, Palestinian towns were halved; a portion was annexed to Israel as part of Jerusalem, leaving the remaining half as occupied territory on the West Bank. The Israeli government has permitted those Palestinians who live in Jerusalem to apply for Israeli citizenship. But most Palestinians do not want to assume an Israeli identity they hope that East Jerusalem will eventually become the capital of a Palestinian state.
Israel requires Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who are not Israeli citizens to carry identity cards, which permit them to live and work in the city and to apply for social benefits. Israel considers them permanent residents of Jerusalem, but it is a fragile permanency. For example, an Interior Ministry form letter revoking permission to live in Jerusalem reads, I hereby notify you that your permanent residency permit expired
Having or not having a Jerusalem ID makes a big difference for the 200,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem. Without a Jerusalem ID or a special permit one cannot enter Jerusalem to get to work. Without a Jerusalem ID, one cannot obtain a building permit to erect a house, even on land one already owns. Without a Jerusalem ID, one cannot get an Israeli license plate for ones car, and cars without such plates cannot be driven into Jerusalem.
In the late 1990s, the Interior Ministry made a concerted effort to confiscate the Jerusalem identity cards of Palestinians whom the government believed were not fulfilling requirements for permanent residency. Human rights monitoring groups termed it a quiet deportation.
Earlier this year, the Minister of the Interior, Natan Sharansky, announced an easing of the policy; human rights groups are generally taking a wait and see attitude toward the results.
According to Ziad Hammoury, Director of the Jerusalem Center for Social and Economic Rights, Israels policy to reduce the Arab population of Jerusalem remains intact; this new leniency applies to only about 20 percent of the situations. A woman from Bethlehem who marries a Jerusalem resident, for example, still has difficulty getting permission to live with her husband in Jerusalem.
Although the quiet deportation may have eased, housing restrictions have not. Since annexation, Israel has confiscated over one third of the land, largely for the building of housing projects exclusively for Jewish Israelis. Another significant portion of Palestinian land was declared a green area. Ostensibly arranged to preserve the environment, the green area actually prevents the expansion of Palestinian neighborhoods into adjacent empty lands. Israel has never developed master zoning plans for many Palestinian neighborhoods, and without master plans no permits are granted to build houses. There are Palestinian residential areas where zoning plans have been in the works for many years, with new construction frozen.
This leaves 14 percent or less of East Jerusalem available for Palestinians to build houses, forcing land prices beyond most Palestinians means. A building permit and related fees can run as high as $30,000 and take more than three years to obtain.
Building size is also restricted. One Palestinian Catholic businessman, the father of three, wanted to join his in-laws and erect a three-story building with apartments for himself and two of his in-laws families. They were given permission to build only a two-story building, limited to 875 square feet on each floor. On the other hand, Israeli housing projects are often high-rise buildings, which allow for a greater population density on the same amount of land.
The reasons for the restrictions on Palestinian housing are no secret: as a matter of policy, Israel tries to manipulate the demographic balance of Jerusalem, ensuring an Israeli majority. This policy has succeeded despite the fact that the Palestinian population of Jerusalem has risen from about 25 percent in 1967 to about 31 percent today. This increase stems from Palestinians having larger families; about half of the Palestinian population of Jerusalem is under 20 years old.
Population growth without an increase in available housing has resulted in serious overcrowding. The average number of people per room in Palestinian housing in Jerusalem is 2.2 thats double the number of people per room in Israeli housing. Nearly one quarter of Palestinian houses have more than three people per room. This overcrowding takes a toll.
The children have not had childhoods, said Shoushan Franji, director of the Social Welfare Department of Spafford Childrens Clinic. There is no place to play inside the house; there is no place to play outside. Its claustrophobic.
Some Palestinians, if they own land, take matters into their own hands and build houses without permits, risking demolition by court order. One house demolition occurred the day I began to gather material for this article.
Hassan Kalifa built a house on land he owned in the village of Walajeh, located between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Part of Walajeh had been incorporated into Jerusalem, including Hassans land, but Hassan himself was not given Jerusalem residency. The annexed land was left unzoned, making it impossible for Hassan to obtain a building permit. Nevertheless, he built a house for his family of six. After an order was issued for the demolition of Hassans house, the Society of Saint Yves, a legal aid organization under the auspices of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, argued his case in court. Despite two attempts at bringing the case before the Israeli High Court, they lost. In one morning a bulldozer reduced his house to rubble.
That evening Hassan Kalifa began to rebuild his house, still without a permit. Members of Rabbis for Human Rights came to help, along with others opposed to the demolition of Palestinian housing. Ironically, though part of Walejeh has been incorporated into Jerusalem, it has never received municipal services such as water. The only municipal services villagers enjoy, commented Gabi Lasky of the Israeli organization Peace Now, are demolition services.
BTselem, an Israeli human rights monitoring organization, notes that building without permits is common throughout Jerusalem, but demolition of entire houses is reserved for Palestinians. During a recent period, 84 percent of the building violations identified by the municipality of Jerusalem were found in Israeli housing and only 16 percent in Palestinian housing. Israelis are often able to obtain permits after the fact. Never is a Jewish family made homeless, as was the Kalifa family, according to Jessica Montell, Development Director of BTselem.
Khader Shkirat, General Director of LAW, an organization that monitors both Israeli and Palestinian violations of human rights, ranks restriction and demolition of housing as the worst abuses of human rights in Jerusalem. In a close second is the confiscation of Palestinian land in order to build Jewish settlements. Both tactics are used to erode the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem and to achieve the political goal of making Jerusalem a more Jewish city.
A current political slogan proclaims Jerusalem as the eternal and undivided capital of Israel. Eternity will have to speak for itself, but Jerusalem is far from undivided. Walking from Hebrew-speaking West Jerusalem into Arabic-speaking East Jerusalem is not so much a journey between two cities as between two worlds. Israeli policies only accentuate the differences. One example lies in the administration of health care and social benefits.
The National Insurance Institute is a government agency that administers Israels nationalized health care as well as retirement, unemployment, disability and child care benefits. Its East Jerusalem office had no posted hours; it is open only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I visited it one Tuesday and found a long line of men and women waiting to enter. As at the Interior Ministry, the line forms long before dawn and moves very slowly. The front of the line passed through a metal gate jammed with men and women waving papers.
Some of the people in this line were waiting to tackle health insurance matters. On paper, East Jerusalem Palestinians are entitled to the same health care in the same Israeli hospitals as Israelis, and are supposed to be covered by the same insurance indeed, they undergo the same payroll deductions for it. But being certified for coverage is another matter. The institute can demand that Palestinians prove they are residents of Jerusalem before approving their coverage, even if they have a Jerusalem ID. Tax and rent receipts, telephone and utility bills, childrens school records all manner of proof may be demanded, and the investigation can be protracted.
Hadas Ziv, the Director of Projects for Physicians for Human Rights, notes that health insurance and payment for medical treatment are not provided until the investigation is complete; some Palestinians are reluctant to seek medical care because doing so will trigger an investigation that might lead to their losing their Jerusalem residency. Hadas charged that the Ministry of Health has politicized health care in East Jerusalem by imposing a bureaucracy discouraging Palestinians from claiming medical benefits. Quality of health care is not the issue; access to it is.
Those who suffer most are newborns and the chronically and terminally ill. A study conducted by the Israel Section of Defense for Children International reports that an estimated 10,000 Palestinian children in East Jerusalem are not covered by health insurance.
Education is another area of difference between East and West Jerusalem. The instructional language in Jewish schools is Hebrew and in Palestinian schools, Arabic. Each has its own distinctive curriculum. All receive funding from the same public sources, but Palestinian schools are older, more crowded and lack modern science and library facilities. Special programs for the physically and mentally handicapped are also lacking.
The East Jerusalem educational system is shameful, said Yossi Sarid, the Israeli Minister of Education. It has been suffering from deprivation and discrimination for years.
Palestinians, like any urban dwellers, are in need of municipal services. Although both Israelis and Palestinians pay the same property taxes on their homes and businesses, they do not receive the same degree of services in return.
Tax collections from East Jerusalem account for about 26 to 30 percent of Jerusalems municipal budget, but generally only about 5 percent of the budget is spent in East Jerusalem.
There are 26 libraries in West Jerusalem, 2 in East Jerusalem; 1,079 parks in West Jerusalem, 29 in East Jerusalem; 36 public swimming pools in West Jerusalem, none in East Jerusalem. There are similar discrepancies in roads, sidewalks and sanitation services.
The recent visit of Pope John Paul II was heralded by a sudden surge in trash collection and the repaving of roads in East Jerusalem. After his departure, uncollected trash once again began to pile up. One Muslim man commented, I wish the Pope would come every week.
Deprivation and discrimination lead many Palestinians to consider emigration to the West and Christian Palestinians between the ages of 25 and 45 find emigration particularly tempting. Virtually every Palestinian Christian in Jerusalem has relatives living in other countries who could pave the way for emigration. In fact, Christian emigration has become a major pastoral concern identified by the leaders of every church in the Holy Land.
Palestinian Christians do not want to leave their homeland, but the current situation, coupled with Israeli harassment, is driving many to do so.
The fundamental problem is not housing restrictions or the denial of this or that right to the Palestinians of Jerusalem, says Lynda Brayer, Executive Director of the Society of Saint Yves, but that Israel, in annexing East Jerusalem, considers its Palestinians aliens in the land of their birth. In the eyes of Israel, they are foreigners.
Save for the few who have chosen to take Israeli citizenship, the Palestinians of Jerusalem have no citizenship. In the modern world of nation-states, citizenship is the guarantee of human rights, and those without citizenship live a precarious existence.
George Martin is a frequent traveler throughout “our world.”