Quietly, East Jerusalem Palestinians acquiring Israeli citizenship

There has been a trend in recent years of Palestinian permanent residents of East Jerusalem applying for – and getting – Israeli citizenship. Will this trend provide freedom, or further fragment Palestinian national identity?

By Riman Barakat

Today marks the 45th anniversary of what Palestinians and the international community refer to as the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem, and what some Israelis refer to as the unification of Jerusalem. It is a good opportunity to examine one recent example of how unification or illegal annexation is changing the identity and political future of the Palestinian residents of the city.

As an East Jerusalem resident, I am struck by a recent trend:  many of my friends and acquaintances who hold Jerusalem identification cards – documents of permanent residency rather than Israeli citizenship – are quietly applying for and obtaining Israeli passports.

It’s not immediately clear why. Current residents of East Jerusalem – numbering over 350,000, or 38% of the city’s total population – already go about their daily lives, shop at Israeli malls, use Israeli services, frequent Israeli restaurants and bars, send their children to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and receive Israeli social and health benefits. What does “upgrading their status” from East Jerusalem residents to citizens of Israel add?  Why did East Jerusalem residents refuse the Israeli offer of citizenship in 1967, and why are they actively seeking to obtain it now, especially given that citizenship requires them to pledge the controversial oath of allegiance to the Israeli state?

I believe the trend is the result of a well-planned and consistently applied Israeli strategy to pressure the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem. In 1996, Israel developed the “Center of Life Policy,” under which residents must continuously prove that they reside and work in Jerusalem, as a condition for continued residency status. Palestinian Jerusalemites slowly began to recognize the imminent threat of losing their Jerusalem residency status. Documentation such as landline phone bills, electricity bills, and proof of payment of municipal property tax bills are frequently requested by the Israeli Ministry of Interior upon renewal of identity cards or request for travel documents. Failure to produce those documents may ultimately result in the revocation of the Jerusalem ID.

In addition, East Jerusalem Palestinians face arbitrary threats of home demolition orders in Silwan and other neighborhoods, the continued infiltration of settlers, harassment at Ben Gurion Airport, the difficulty of obtaining building permits, a deteriorating infrastructure in Palestinian neighborhoods, and unequal distribution and allocation of budget and resources in developing Palestinian areas. These factors have led people to feel that an Israeli passport may provide some measure of improvement in their lives. Most of all, they hope  it will safeguard them against displacement from property, from the land and from the city that they call home. As I wrote in the Palestine-Israel Journal in 2008:


The Palestinian Jerusalemites today live in an ever-changing environment that necessitates a constant revision of upcoming threats. For many Jerusalemites, a daily exercise of “redefining home,” “flight from danger,” and “fear of displacement,” “fear of home demolitions” “fear of losing their IDs” govern their thinking. Unlike the 1948 and 1967 Palestinian experiences, which occurred more or less in a moment of declared war and, simultaneously, created populations that fit the legal definitions of refugees, the current political situation and the slower process of displacement has created a permanent refugee mode of behavior. It is one that contains all the psychological components of refugee behavior and is much more internalized, yet does not figure in the legal definition of refugees.

It’s only logical that people hoping to improve the quality of life for their children view Israeli citizenship as one way to escape the insecurity. With citizenship status, they are allowed to live anywhere in Israel, rather than suffer the threat of forced displacement in East Jerusalem, and relocation. Instead of having to apply for visas every time they travel abroad, they can just hop on a plane, without having to explain to border officials why they don’t have passports, and that they are stateless.

This is a logical conclusion for individual Palestinians but what does it mean for the Palestinian and Israeli governments? What does it mean for Palestinian identity?

Palestinian political representation of East Jerusalem has weakened both physically and virtually since the death of the PLO representative in Jerusalem Faisal al-Husseini, and the closing of the Orient House. If we ever see the day when the issue of Jerusalem is actually negotiated, will the PA act surprised that the number of Palestinians holding Jerusalem residency status – potential citizens of the Palestinian state – will be negligible?

As the PA turns a blind eye to the phenomenon of East Jerusalemites becoming Israelis, I wonder: does the PA still adhere to the vision of East Jerusalem as the future capital of Palestine? If not, the PA should start discussing the possibility of an Open City immediately, both internally and publicly.

Further, why does Israel actively grant citizenship to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem? Is it hoping that they will become a negotiating card for the Israeli government in its attempt to keep East Jerusalem? Is this another Israeli action to undermine the viability of a two-state solution? Are they assuming that since most East Jerusalemites do not vote in municipal elections that they will similarly refrain from exercising their right to vote in national elections? Does Israel believe that the current oath of allegiance declaring loyalty to the state guarantees that Palestinian East Jerusalemites will show greater compliance and less dissidence towards Israel?

Finally, what does it mean for Palestinian identity? If there are fewer Palestinians to vote in a future Palestinian national election, does this weaken the connection between identity and active citizenship? Will dual citizenship be possible if the long awaited peace agreement is reached?

Though we continue to believe the dream of a unified Palestinian identity, the reality is that this identity has become fragmented among the different statuses that each one of us holds. Gaza residents are trapped in a fortified prison. They view the West Bank as freedom, but in reality it is just another prison. For a West Bank resident, Jerusalemites appear to have many privileges, and Jerusalemites with an Israeli passport seem to have reached the ultimate level of freedom. But it’s all relative. Those new Palestinian citizens of Israel will soon realize that their pledge of allegiance could seal their lips from criticizing the unfulfilling oath that they have just taken, namely that a state cannot reconcile the value of democracy it claims, with its exclusivist Jewishness.

Will the day ever come when we are not divided according to a barometer of suffering and restrictions on freedom? When peaceful and dignified life is enjoyed equally by Palestinians from refugee camps, Gazans, West Bank residents, East Jerusalem residents and Palestinian citizens of Israel, and they can feel equally secure that their basic individual rights and freedoms are not threatened daily and systematically? For that we require democracies that advance beyond the free and fair elections to recognizing individual freedoms, and the right to be different.

Riman Barakat is the Co-Director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI)